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What Every Parent Should Know About Baby Sleep

Written by: Erica Neser a mother of three, and author of  two books on babies. She is an internationally qualified  Lactation Consultant and Infant Massage Instructor.

  

FACT # 1

  

Waking up at night is NORMAL, NECESSARY and to be expected

It would have been great if babies were born with a notice on their forehead which said: "I will start sleeping through when I am three years old." This way, if yours started sleeping through at one year, you would be terribly pleased. The fact is, small babies are NOT supposed to "sleep through." They are not naughty – they are human.

Around 80% of three month-old babies wake up at night and need help to fall asleep again. At six months, 75% of babies regularly wake up at night and need help to get back to sleep. At one year half of all babies still wake up at night and don't fall asleep again by themselves.

  

A baby's sleep-wake cycles are different from an adult's, initially spread out equally between day and night, and then gradually settling into a rhythm of daytime naps and night sleep.

  

We should see night waking as a healthy and normal part of child development, not necessarily a 'problem' that needs to be fixed.

 

FACT # 2

  

It's OK to help your baby to fall asleep

  

Mothers are often warned against nursing their babies to sleep, calling it a 'negative sleep association,' but what could be more positive, beautiful and natural than allowing a tiny baby to fall asleep at the breast?

  

The transition to sleep is more difficult for babies than for adults, because they go into light, active sleep first. Contrary to what many people believe, human babies are not designed to go to sleep without any help. It is, in fact, a basic, primitive need for a baby to have another person close while falling asleep.

  

So you can see it is NOT wrong to rock or feed your baby to sleep. It is perfectly natural, and it will not be like this forever.

  

Falling asleep without nursing is a milestone that all babies reach when they are developmentally ready. As your baby's brain matures, she will eventually be able to fall asleep without help.

  

FACT # 3

  

Safe sleep for babies

  

To minimise the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), follow these guidelines:

  • The safest position for babies to sleep is on their back.
  • Use a firm mattress (no pillow).
  • Place her with her feet against the foot of the cot, to prevent her from wriggling down under the blankets
  • Avoid overheating: keep her room temperature at 18 degrees Celcius. Keep her head uncovered at night. It is normal for hands and feet to feel cool.
  • Keep her environment smoke free during pregnancy and after baby's birth.
  • No electric blankets or hot water bottles in baby's bed, and keep her cot away from heaters and direct sunlight.
  • The incidence of SIDS is lowest when baby sleeps in her parents' room, for the first 6 months.
  • Use natural fibre clothing and bedding.
  • If baby is unwell, seek advice promptly.

  

FACT # 4

  

It's OK for your baby to sleep close to you

  

Human babies have been sleeping close to their parents for thousands of years. It is the safest, most natural, convenient and logical place for a baby to sleep. It is estimated that 72% of British parents share a room with their babies for at least some time during the first 12 weeks.

  

It is only in the past 200 years and mostly in Western societies, that people have started believing that babies should sleep separated from their parents. Most of the sleep problems experienced today are due to insisting that babies sleep alone.

  

There is plenty of evidence that it is beneficial for babies to sleep with their parents. Mother and baby's sleep cycles become synchronised, babies cry less, breastfeeding is reinforced, and mothers regulate the temperature without even waking up. It has also been shown that co-sleeping breastfeeding mothers get more sleep in total than mums sleeping separately from their babies (breast- or bottle-fed).

  

FACT # 5

  

Be gentle if you decide to do sleep training

  

The practice of leaving babies to cry for long periods is quite popular in Western society – but it is usually traumatic for both parents and baby. It may look like this methods works, as far as the parents are concerned, but it may be harmful to the baby in the long run, and is discouraged by many child psychologists.

  

Babies need to know that we will come when they cry. This is necessary for physical survival and emotional wellbeing, and therefore biologically 'programmed,' just as parents are biologically driven to respond to their baby's cries.

  

Leaving babies alone to cry for long periods can cause them to lose their sense of trust in their parents, and to feel extremely helpless, frightened and anxious. Stress hormones are secreted in huge amounts, which has many physiological implications.

  

There are usually gentler ways of solving sleep problems.

  

FACT # 6

  

Giving solids will NOT make her sleep through

  

There is a lot of pressure on mums, especially from older relatives, to start their baby on solids (such as cereal) to help them sleep. This is an old wives' tale that has been disproved by medical studies. The health risks of giving solids too early, on the other hand, have been studied and proven. And it may even make things worse!

  

As their digestive and other systems mature, babies are able to go for longer stretches at night without feeding. This is a gradual, biological process that cannot be hurried along.

  

Four- to five-month old babies often wake frequently at night because they are more alert and want to interact and learn. Giving them solids will not change this neurological and social developmental stage. They are also not very interested in feeding during the day and need to feed more at night. This is normal!

  

It is recommended that you start feeding your baby solid foods (i.e. anything except milk) at around six months of age.

  

FACT # 7

  

Avoid scheduling feeds - breastfeed your baby 'on cue'

  

Any advice to strictly schedule a baby's feeding is outdated, incorrect and potentially harmful – it is not based on the true needs of human infants. New research shows us that each mum and baby unit determines its own rhythm, which cannot be prescribed or regulated by the clock. Ignore those who tell you otherwise – they are ill-informed.

  

Frequent nursing is normal and to be expected in the first few months and beyond - most newborn babies need to be fed 8 - 12 times per day. They need to be fed when showing early feeding cues (don't wait till they are crying of hunger) and allowed to set their own rhythm.

  

Breastmilk is so perfect in composition and therefore easily digested, and forcing a baby to wait for long periods between feeds has been shown to be detrimental to both baby and mother. Trying to force a baby into a schedule causes intense frustration for parents and baby. Take it easy and it will gradually fall into place quite naturally!

  

FACT # 8

  

Most children eventually learn to sleep well!

  

Most parents have heard comments like, "If you don't do XYZ, she will NEVER..." or "...she will ALWAYS..." This is, quite obviously, NOT TRUE.

  

It seems that children will grow out of most 'sleep problems' by three to four years of age by themselves, even if we did everything 'wrong' and did nothing to discourage night waking.

  

Waking up at night in these first few years is considered normal and even healthy. These children are not being naughty or manipulative, they are behaving in ways that are appropriate for human children.

  

Babies and toddlers generally do not sleep well. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we will stop seeing a wakeful baby as a sign of failure as a parent.

Trust your instincts, do what feels right, be sensible, and keep your sense of perspective – it is a season in your life which will pass.