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As a new parent, how many times did a relative or friend ask ‘And how well are you sleeping?’ Not well.
But isn’t that normal for a tiny baby who needs to feed frequently, be changed frequently and don’t develop the ability to transition between sleep cycles? The typical infant sleep cycle is 30-50minutes. From the age of 6 months old, some babies will settle between sleep cycles… but not all.
Babies are meant to wake. And they are meant to wake frequently.
Seeing posts on Pinterest directed at ‘How to get your infant to sleep through the night’ grinds my gears.
Seeing ‘I’m so fed up with my 3-month-old waking every 2 hours during the night’ on Facebook parenting forums really irks me.
And most of all, seeing ‘trained’ sleep consultants and ‘baby whisperers’ capitalise on parents’ emotions, selling the message that a sleeping baby is the most important thing INFURIATES ME.
Why do babies wake so frequently?
Because it is the biological norm. Hunger, security, and warmth are basic infant needs that require attention more frequently.
Infants have teeny-tiny little stomachs which require filling more often. This is why you need to wake up to feed your infant every couple of hours, just like during the day. An infants’ stomach is not yet large enough to cope with fasting in the way that older children and adults so. A rapid amount of growth happens in the first couple years of a child’s life and they require sustenance to maintain the level of growth.
Security and warmth
Babies also wake up frequently for a sense of security. Stay with me here. A baby spent 9 long months in their mother’s womb with all their survival needs being met: comfort and security, food, warmth. Imagine coming into the big scary, cold world after knowing the warmth and security of their mother? Babies wake up and alert their parents to their needs. The need for warmth and security is just as great as the need to for food.
What do the qualified experts say?
Essentially what should be common knowledge: babies, with a very primitive sense of cognitive awareness, wake frequently to have their needs met.
Dr. James McKenna in his article ‘Why Do Babies Wake So Much and So Often?’ hypothesises that babies that sleep closer to their mothers, although wake just as frequently, tend not to wake their mother’s as often because the infant’s need for security and warmth are met through their sense of smell.
Many people lectured me on leaving my daughter on her own to ‘learn to sleep without mum’. I find it appalling to leave a baby that has very basic cognitive skills to cry on their own until they give up hope of their parents attending to their needs?
I’m a 20-something-year-old woman, with a developed cognitive reasoning, and if I was crying, it is acceptable for someone to comfort me with a hug? So why is it unacceptable to leave a baby, with such a primitive sense of reasoning to cry on their own?
What are the behavioural effects of leaving an infant to cry it out?
Babies wake and cry in order to communicate they have needs to be met. From a scientific point of view provided by Professor Helen Ball, “Crying is the infant’s only means of attracting their mother’s (carer’s) attention once separated, in order to ensure their own survival.”
Sure, leaving your child to cry itself to sleep might eventually work. But you’re not actually teaching your child to sleep, you’re teaching that child that its parents won’t meet its emotional needs so it’s futile to cry.
It’s actually dangerous to leave an infant to cry themselves to sleep. The risk of SIDS is higher in infants who are left to learn to self-soothe.
As mentioned, babies cry to communicate a need. Babies left to cry it out will no longer cry only because they have learned that no one is coming, therefore do not communicate when something is wrong, as instinctively they need to remain quiet to protect themselves from external threats, thinking back to ‘hunter-gather’ days.
What are the physiological effects of leaving an infant to cry it out?
Dr Margot Sunderland, a child psychotherapist has articulated just some of the dangers associated with attempting to force an infant to sleep through the night: “…The level of stress caused to the infants’ brain by prolonged uncomforted distressed crying is so toxic, it results in:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated cerebral pressure
- Erratic fluctuations of heart rate, breathing, temperature
- Suppressed immune and digestive systems
- Suppressed growth hormone
- Extreme pressure on the heart, resulting in tachycardia
Please refer back to https://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby-sleep/cry-it-out/ for more excerpts of Dr. Sunderland’s findings.
These are just several of many infant experts that highlight how dangerous it is for a baby to be expected to sleep through the night.
But what do I know about sleep deprivation?
I get it… I really do. The need for sleep is overwhelming.
My eldest was fantastic for the first 3 and a half months. And then she went from waking twice a night, to four, five, six, seven times per night.
Until I started co-sleeping at 11 months of age, I think the most sleep I had in a continuous burst, between May 2015 and December 2015, was 5 broken hours.
I was a zombie. My mental health suffered from sleep deprivation. I was always getting up to settle my daughter… holding her until she fell back asleep, attempting to place her back in her cot… I’d be 30 seconds out of the room and she’d start crying again. I was exasperated beyond belief.
I am just lucky I had many supportive mum friends that I had made, as well as family members that educated me on the dangers of leaving my daughter to cry it out.
So, I can safely write this article and state how articles that promise to get babies to sleep through the night GRIND MY GEARS. They prey on a sleep-deprived parent’s vulnerability and desperation for sleep.
How can you possibly score some extra zzzzz’s?
The only trick I found that worked for me was…. Responsiveness. Respond to your child’s needs for food, warmth, and security.
For me, that was safely cosleeping. Please refer to this resource that articulates basic cosleeping safety guidelines.
Dr. James Mckenna also provides an excellent guide to co-sleeping in his book: ‘Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping.’
If co-sleeping is not an option for your family, then you might want to have a look at Elizabeth Pantley’s ‘The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night‘ which is a gentle guide to getting better infant sleep.
I’ve read the ‘No Cry Sleep Solution’ and when I am ready for Ella to sleep in her own bed (which very rarely happens, but for now I enjoy the cuddles since I spend so much time away from her while I am at work), I will be definitely spending the time implementing the step-by-step customisable plans to gently encourage Ella to sleep in her own bed.
**UPDATE 25/04/2018** – At three years old, Ella stopped waking in the middle of the night and coming into bed with me. I haven’t slept with her in my bed for at least 3 months now
What I like about both of these professionals is that they are actually qualified, either via research or by experience, to give advice on infant sleep. Dr. James McKenna has a post-graduate qualification in biological anthropology, which he applies to infant sleep and behaviour, which is anthropological in nature. Elizabeth Pantley is a parenting educator has applied her own parenting style into theories that help other parents to gently encourage better toddler or infant sleep. Her style does not have any adverse effects on infant sleep, unlike some ‘experienced’ sleep trainers.
When I started co-sleeping, my daughter was old enough to occupy a space in the spare bed next to me. I was close enough for her comfort yet far enough that I could sleep easier. I could remain in a sleepy state while feeding during the night instead of waking up fully to feed her and then resettle her.
If you need help, call on someone to have your baby for a night while you get some solid sleep. If you need to, consult a ‘gentle’ child health professional that can provide some assistance in aiding sleep while remaining responsive to your child’s needs.
There is no ‘right way’ or one-size solution to encouraging positive infant sleep habits.
Each child is different and has different needs. Ella’s issues with sleep stem from being restricted in a Pavlik harness and then a rhino brace for DDH, which is part of the reason why I want to wait a bit longer before starting the ‘No Cry Sleep Solution’.
Each child will learn in their own way, and gentle encouragement will be the only way, other than a wait-it-out approach, to encourage optimal infant sleep.