If you ask any new mum or any mum for that matter, they will all tell you that they have been questioned about their baby’s sleep at least once. It seems to be a preoccupation within our culture that babies should ‘sleep through’.
The truth is that babies are not biologically programmed to sleep long periods, they are designed to wake up regularly and consume small milk feeds at regular intervals. They lack the ability to come into light sleep and happily move into another sleep cycle without the warmth and safety of their caregiver. A baby’s sleep cycle last approx 45 – 60 mins in the first year and they spend considerably longer in lighter and REM sleep than an adult. Which is why new babies seem to be put down, only to wake moments later.
We are lead to believe that babies should be sleeping through by a certain age. This is just not true, whilst some baby’s happily fall into a longer sleep pattern very early on, some baby’s take beyond a year or more to do this. Some as much as up to 4 years.
The phrase ‘sleep through’ conjours up images of 12 hours, but in reality ‘sleeping through’ is 5 or more hours. So the chances are your child is sleeping through, you have just been misquoted the real meaning.
Baby’s are simple creatures, they need food, warmth, touch and love to thrive and grow. They have no words to tell you their needs, so they cry to do this. When a baby wakes and cries, its announcing it has a need that has to be addressed. Food, warmth or just to know you are there. By not attending to these needs the child will continue to cry and without human touch the Cortisol levels (stress hormones) will begin to rise.
Effects of repeated exposure to stress
Cortisol plays an important role in humans and is essential for maintaining homoeostasis. Too much of this hormone and there becomes an imbalance in the child’s body, and moreover damage can start to occur to the developing brain. High cortisol levels have also been known to be attributed to suppression of the immune system, making illnesses more common.
It’s long been debated whether the sleep methods of Crying it out (CIO) or Controlled crying (CC) impact negatively on infants, with many studies claiming both yes and no. What we now know is that whilst CIO or CC have the desired outcome of baby’s no longer crying and sleeping longer. The infant does not stop being distressed and producing the cortisol hormone as they are still suffering from the abandonment feeling but instead have learned that crying no longer is effective in getting their needs met and as such their pain becomes internalised. More importantly they loose synchrony with the mother, this lose of physiological bond, may have an ongoing effect on the attachment status between the two. The outcomes of children being exposed to CC or CIO are higher levels of insecure attachment which has far reaching consequences as described in the article – How carrying can create a secure bond.
How Co-sleeping can help you get a good night sleep
Co-sleeping or ‘bed-sharing’ as its also known as, is one way to help a mother get more sleep. Co-sleeping isn’t something to be undertaken lightly and if this is something you wish to do you need to follow the safety guidelines for bed-sharing with in infant.
The sleep surface should be firm
Baby should be placed on their back
Bedding should be tight fitting
The mattress should be tight fitting to the headboard
There should be no loose pillows, toys or blankets near babies fac
Babies with or with out an adult should never sleep on a sofa, couch, futon, recliner or other surface where they can slip or become wedged in a crevice or back.
Bed sharing or sidecar or same room?
Bed sharing or family bed is where the child/baby and adults all sleep together in a safe arrangement as above, this allows the parents to met the child’s needs when they arise and is especially beneficial to nursing mothers as they can lay and feed and rest/sleep whilst doing so. Its also shown to increase the number of hours of sleep significantly. In those who bottle feed this allows those parents to attend to the needs swiftly whilst ensuring the child and mother can return to sleeping quicker.
Sidecars allow the parent to bed on the same height and next to each other, it allows the parents to be near the child and attend to their needs quickly knowing that they are in their own ‘safe space’ away from any potential harm of the adult bed. It is a middle ground to sharing and still being separate.
Currently guidelines suggest an infant needs to be in the same room as parents for at least 6 months. This is so the parents can not only attend to the infants needs when they arise, but also has a link to the reduction in SIDS. It is thought that parents breathing continuity stimulates baby’s breathing and reduces any natural pauses that can occur in a new infants breathing.
Knowing what a child is capable of at each stage of their development goes a long way to helping those who are sleep deprived see the bigger picture. By knowing that baby’s are not born with circadian rhythms ( patterns of baby’s sleep ) but rather these develop over time helps to rationalise that you won’t be tired forever. At first an infant will not know the difference between night and day. Research shows that the earliest appearance is 8 weeks old and are not well established until at least 4 months after birth. So trying to force this in an infant is fruitless as they lack the ability to sleep as adults do.
Understanding sleep cycles
Sleep cycles in humans take 4 distinct phases:
REM – Rapid eye movement
An adult takes an average of 90-120 minutes to go through these stages before waking or as usually happens they come into light sleep and drift back down again.
Babies spend double the time in REM than an adult and this diminishes roughly by 5-10% every 3 months until around 3 years when they are similar to an adult.
This is why most parents find that babies wake on being put down, as they are not in a deep sleep, but one of the other stages which means they wake almost straight away after being moved. Babies also lack the ability to transition back into stage 1 of sleep after going through REM which is why most cry to be held or feed again.
Modern life can have an impact on an infants sleep so its worth looking at external factors too, such as:
Is the room to light?
Do you have devices on such as a TV or laptop?
Is the lighting in your house on the blue spectrum or red?
Are you eating a diet high in foods that cause the inhibition of sleep hormones?
Is it too quite?
Lack of naps?
The sun coming up in the morning is one of the things that will cause an infant or adult to wake up. Where adults can simply roll over and go back to sleep the morning light will signal for an infant to wake up. So a black out blind can help to extend an early riser.
TV and devices such as phones and laptops can negatively impact on sleep as they stimulate the brain. So reduce screen time before bed or omit it completely.
Most modern lighting comes from the blue spectrum and this can inhibit the production off melanin the sleep hormone. Swapping light bulbs for red light can help a reluctant child sleep whilst still allowing them the light they need when scared of the dark.
Those breastfeeding or weaning their children should be aware that stimulants such as caffeine should be avoided to ensure that the infant isn’t being kept awake unnecessarily.
Noise is particularly important to an infant in the first 6 months. They have come from an environment where they are surrounded by a noise that is as loud as a vacuum cleaner. White noise can really help to soothe an infant and help them to transition through sleep cycles easier. Which is often why we find babies love cars and washing machines. Apps that simulate womb sounds of hairdryers work extremely well in these situations.
Lack of sleep can also impact on sleep, the more over-tired an infant is the harder it can be to get them to and stay asleep, so be sure to allow them to sleep during the day. Try to avoid not letting them sleep past a certain time in the day as this can cause bedtime issues.
Many babies, that lack the distinction between day and night, struggle to go to sleep early. This can frustrate a parent if they want some ‘time alone’ in the evenings. Adjust your expectations accordingly and listen to the sleep cues in your child, it may be for a brief period that they need to go to bed at 10pm, this will not last forever and you will get your evenings back eventually. Letting your child lead you can save a lot of unnecessary stress a child will always, given the chance, signal for sleep. If you can make sleep a pleasant experience where they do not fear abandonment, in the longer term you will reap the benefits. Finding a middle ground is important and it maybe that another member of the family can do bedtime, so that everyone gets time to bond and rest.
For more information on baby’s sleep and a child led bedtimes we recommend the book The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell Smith.
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