There is no doubt about it, sleep is an essential biological process for all humans.
With the huge amount of growth and development our babies and children experience, sleep is not an optional extra, but central to their wellbeing.
A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, by a team from Princeton University, has provided preliminary evidence that children who sleep for shorter periods, have shorter telomeres.
Children Who Get Inadequate Sleep May Be Ageing Faster, Study Says
Telomeres are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes. As cells divide, they shorten and over time become too short. This means they are unable to divide to repair and replenish, which is a sign of ageing.
Shorter telomeres have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and cognitive decline later in life.
For the mother of an extremely wakeful baby, who doesn’t fit the sleepy ideal our society prefers to portray, this kind of research could feel like another punch in the gut and cause more anxiety, concern and desperation.
The sleep trainers have jumped all over this as further ‘proof’ that training your baby to sleep is not an option but a necessity.
But, there is another way to look at this information that still meets your infant’s sleep needs without you needing to ‘train’ them at all.
Here are three steps to meeting your baby’s needs for sleep and ensuring they are well rested:
#1: Establish Realistic Expectations For Your Child’s Sleep
Yes, very young babies do need a lot of sleep. No, it does not always have to be achieved flat on their back, in their cot, for long uninterrupted time periods to be restful.
Baby trainers often fuss about the lack of ‘quality’ of a baby’s sleep if their sleep is only achieved in arms, at the breast, in a carrier, pram, car seat or swing. This type of sleep is termed ‘junk sleep’. You can find out more about the myth of junk sleep in Does Your Baby Junk Sleep? 4 Surprising Facts About Baby Sleep.
Baby and toddler sleep is not a linear process where progress is always forwards with sleep being easier to find and maintain.
It is a cyclical process that evolves and changes so many times in the first couple of years of a child’s life. The only thing that’s constant is the constant change.
To start with, a newborn’s sleep needs are pretty much the same by day as they are by night, with very little awake time between necessary sleep.
This awake time during the day stretches as the baby becomes older, until no day sleep is necessary. Most children drop day naps somewhere between 18-30 months of age, though may still need the occasional nap to catch up, as even adults do.
No two babies are the same, and this goes for their sleep needs as well. Some babies will take big, long naps to add to their sleep quota, while others will take many short naps to reach theirs.
Some babies will sleep for 12 hours at night, waking frequently to nurse back to sleep, as per the biological norm, and barely nap during the day. Other babies will have nine hours at night with a couple hours to add in by day.
Your baby’s sleep does not have to resemble the cookie -cutter ‘model’ that sleep training books describe to be well-rested.
#2: Work Out How Your Baby Prefers To Sleep
This is something that also changes many times as your child grows.
For a newborn, they may only sleep on your chest or wrapped up tight in their swaddle. They may find it soothing to be tucked up tight in the carrier while you gently sway or walk the rhythm of your daily activities. They may sleep best amongst the hustle and bustle of home or in their car seat as you do the school run.
As they wake up out of their sleepy newborn state, some babies are easier to settle to sleep with less sensory input from rocking or movement but many start needing more.
Some babies will happily fall asleep at the breast or while they feed and be easily placed in their sleep space, others will instantly startle and need to be held to lengthen their sleep.
Babies who do happily fall asleep nursing may go through times where this isn’t enough. They may need holding close and rocking to find and maintain sleep before beginning a new stage where they once again find their peace through nursing.
As they grow, many mothers find they can lay and settle their little one and then ninja roll away and leave their babe to sleep. These same babies may then go through another stage of waking after a short time and needing their mother’s presence to lengthen their sleep.
There may even be times when a baby isn’t so well rested. They may be struggling to find peace no matter what you try and they may be grizzly and cranky while they work through this stage.
These same babies, then return to calmer times once they have mastered whatever it was making it hard for them to rest, whether it was a major physical or mental milestone, teething or illness.
This is not a cause for alarm. We all go through times in our life when sleep is more elusive than at others. Keep your baby close, offer them opportunities to find sleep and support them through their struggle. They will be okay.
Whichever way your baby prefers to find their sleep right now, it is important to know that this isn’t forever.
It’s okay to meet your baby right where they are at right now. They won’t always need you as intensely as they do in this moment. It’s okay to surrender to what they are asking from you.
The Baby Week-By-Week series offers fantastic insights into what is going on for your baby as you ride the enormous developmental wave that is the first year of life.
#3: Utilise The Settling Method That Works Fastest
So much sleep is lost by both mother and baby when families feel they must persist with settling methods prescribed by sleep trainers.
Examples of this include:
Feed-play-sleep routines: These make no sense whatsoever and may have unintended outcomes for the baby and mother as flagged in a literature review conducted by Dr Pamela Douglas and Dr Koa Whittingham.
Nursing to sleep is the biological norm. Night-time breastmilk contains components which help induce sleep not only for the baby but also for the mother. Our clever bodies know the importance of sleep. There’s no need to fight it, it’s not a bad habit.
Having your baby sleep in a separate room: This can not only lead to loss of sleep for both mother and child but also goes against safe sleeping sleeping guidelines to reduce Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) which includes SIDS. These guidelines recommend a baby shares a room with their caregiver for the first 6-12 months of life.
By having your baby close to you, you can meet your baby’s need for night-time parenting quickly and with much less physical strain than if you need to rouse fully to tend to them in another room.
Due to the sleep inducing compounds of breastmilk, many mothers struggle to stay awake while tending to their baby in another room and many inadvertently fall asleep with their baby in unsafe circumstances.
Preparing your sleep surface to comply with safe bedsharing guidelines can help you to avoid falling asleep in dangerous places when you are finding you are too fatigued to stay awake.
If you cannot safely bedshare, options such as having a side-carred crib or cot or bassinet in the bedroom can allow you to keep your baby sleeping on a separate surface while still having them in the same room. You can find out more about safe bedsharing in our article Sleeping With Baby- Safe Co-Sleeping Tips.
Attempting to resettle baby in other ways: Many sleep training advocates like to set arbitrary rules about how many times a baby should ‘feed’ at night. Outside of these times, families should avoid resettling at the breast and should instead persist with other settling methods such as ‘Le Pause’. This method advocates waiting five minutes to see if your baby resettles alone, patting, shushing, patting the mattress, sending in the other caregiver.
This can greatly increase the time the whole family spends awake.
This line of thinking doesn’t acknowledge the many reasons a baby wakes to nurse at night that have nothing to do with ‘feeding’. Nursing fulfils far more than nutritional needs. The emotional and physical comfort of nursing are just as valid and important as dietary needs.
If a baby is able to be quickly calmed back to sleep using a range of settling techniques and it’s not causing either them or their caregivers to lose more sleep, then the techniques sound like healthy options in your settling repertoire.
However, if your baby is waking right up and becoming very distressed and losing sleep, or you are feeling as though it’s a struggle, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to stop attempting to resettle in any way than the one that sees you all back to sleep as quickly as possible.
This is as important for your own sleep quality as it is to your baby’s. Many mothers find it difficult to drift back to sleep after a lengthy settling session. This can increase your anxiety as you begin to worry about not being able to sleep and whether you will find sleep before your baby needs you again.
This anxiety can lead to an ugly cycle which sees the mother becoming increasingly and unnecessarily more exhausted than if she calmly and drowsily meet her baby’s needs and returns to sleep as quickly as possible. This is supported by the research Professor James McKenna has done into the ‘breastsleeping’ relationship.
So, while the science is there to suggest that sleep is crucial to our baby’s and children’s wellbeing, the evidence is also there that these sleep needs can be attained without any behavioural interventions promoted by profiteering sleep training proponents.
Biologically normal infant and toddler sleep is not the tidy, convenient package that society likes to promote. It can be unpredictable and seems foreign to all we have been told and all we may have previously believed.
But it is not something we should fear.
Parents shouldn’t be made to feel they need to ‘fix’ their baby’s sleep through scaremongering about what it ‘should’ look like.
A baby can and will achieve all the rest and sleep they need through the responsive and flexible caregiving of a parent following their sleep lead and providing them with ample opportunities to sleep.
If your child is waking extremely frequently, staying awake for long periods or behaving in a way that indicates they are distressed, check out Baby Waking Extremely Frequently? Here Are 4 Things To Consider.