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Ask Rachel – Sleep

There is, we are told, nothing new under the sun and, in my work, it seems to be true. Women worry when their baby sleeps too much and they worry when they sleep too little; they fret when their little one suckles all day and then fret all over again when they barely give the boob a second glance. Women worry and always have done. Women call this “being neurotic” or “ridiculous” or “silly”. I call it being conscientious.

Every now and then, as an aid to all those conscientious mums and dads out there, I will fill my blog page with some answers to the most common questions that come my way on a daily basis, always accompanied by “you’ll think I’m being silly but …”

Today’s questions are about sleep.

Q. When will my baby “go through the night?”

A. This must be the number one question. The fact that everyone asks this should tell you that every young baby is keeping her parents up half the night!

Babies lack the hormones that help us sleep in the way we do and these do not start to kick in until the third to fourth month and then continue to be erratic for some years. Now, let’s be clear, no-one sleeps through the night. All adults sleep in cycles of around about 1.5-2.5 hours and each sleep cycle is split into bits of light sleep, R.E.M. (dream) sleep and deep sleep. We wake at the end of a sleep cycle and then return back to sleep for the next cycle. Some of wake fully in between cycles and remember these wakenings and some of us don’t wake so fully and then don’t remember in the morning. These lucky people think that they have slept right through. As one of the former, married to one of the latter, I know that my bloke wakes repeatedly through the night, bothers about and grumbles for a while, punches his pillow into submission and then drifts back to sleep. He believes that he sleeps soundly, unbroken for eight hours.

When you wonder when your baby will sleep through the night, what you really want to know is: “when will she do whatever she needs to do through the night without telling me about it?” It seems that very few babies are able to self-soothe and, until about 5-6 months old, a baby is unable to learn a routine or habit (when you think you have taught your young baby a routine, you’re just having a few lucky throws of the dice, or have a naturally settled baby).

After 5-6 months, you can, if you wish, start to use a sleep-training strategy and, whichever one you choose, you have a good chance of your baby developing self-soothing strategies. However, every time your baby cuts a tooth or has a cold or visits granny etc, expect the routine to slide and you will have to re-train. If you choose to go with the flow then it really doesn’t matter because all babies, whether sleep-trained or not, become more reliable at leaving her parents alone at night at the same age – about five years old.

Q. Why is there so much conflicting information about co-sleeping?

A. Quite simply because there is so much conflicting evidence. It is very hard indeed to find evidence that only looks at safe co-sleeping (see below) and, because numbers of SIDS and co-sleeping deaths are so low, analysing data can be tricky. Furthermore, because so few women exclusively suckle their babies, the info has to be geared to the general population who happen mostly to mixed or exclusively formula feed. On top of this, frustrating as it is, most health care professionals do not choose to specialise in infant feeding and so their attention is elsewhere and they may not keep so informed as those whose anoraks are clearly labelled “infant feeding geek”!! If you like to read studies, here is a link to the evidence on the topic of where babies sleep from the “Born in Bradford” study.

So what do you need to know? Firstly, babies aged 0-4 months do more suckling between 5pm and 5am than between 5am and 5pm. Not more feeding, just more suckling. There are good evolutionary reasons for this – of course, anything that affects all babies must have an evolutionary basis for protecting survival. The drive to suckle keeps a baby skin to skin where the heart rate, breathing, reflexes, temperature, gut and infection control are all brought to normal (remember that small babies are unable to regulate these things). Furthermore, suckling protects the rather odd sleep that, in turn, protects against SIDS. Being driven to stay close to mum in the darkness hours is an evolutionary survival strategy to protect a baby from cold, hunger and predators during the hours of pitch-dark at the equator where the sun dives below the horizon at 6pm and rises with the larks at 6am.

Mums, on the other hand, have evolved to nod off to sleep when they suckle at night and the sleep of a suckling mum is hormonally altered to maximise her deep sleep whilst ensuring she is hyper-protective of her baby. Fighting evolution is a fool’s errand. Millions of years of evolved protective strategies are not easily overcome. This is why mums who nurse their babies find that they end up co-sleeping by accident.

If you are exclusively feeding your baby on your own mum’s milk (suckling or expressing) then, because you are evolutionarily driven to nod off when you hit night-time suckles, always lie down to suckle (or for night-time cuddles) and, because you may well nod off in spite of your best efforts, ALWAYS prepare for safe co-sleeping even if you plan to put your baby back into his crib – better to be safe than sorry. Safe co-sleeping: make sure you are sharing a firm mattress (not a waterbed or very soft, squidgy mattress) bring baby in skin to skin with you; have baby under your own light covers (a summer duvet or comfy sheets and light blankets) and pin the covers under your elbow to prevent your baby’s head getting wrapped; don’t try to limit your baby’s movements by pushing the bed against a wall or putting a pillow behind his back or tucking in the covers around him; no-one in the bed should have been smoking or be drunk or drugged; never leave baby in bed if you are not there (your partner will not be hormonally altered so will not naturally protect baby). Finally, NEVER risk falling asleep with your baby on the sofa. This is dangerous.

If you are formula or mixed feeding, or do not want to co-sleep, then still prepare for safe co-sleeping if bringing baby into bed for soothing, but set an alarm on your phone to vibrate after 30-40 minutes so that, if you nod off despite your efforts, you will quickly wake-up and be able to put your baby back in his crib. Now, of course, he has a cave brain and so he will simply wake after a little while as his evolutionary survival strategies kick in and send him howling back into your arms. Such is life with a little baby!

Finally, remember that the risks people are talking about when co-sleeping is discussed are not to do with SIDS : SIDS is sudden and unexplained. It is a worry about accidents in the bed such as over-lying. Women who exclusively feed their own mum’s milk are, as we have seen, so hormonally altered that they behave in a very different way at night compared to other adults. The evidence that these hormonally-changed mums will cause harm to their babies when co-sleeping in the way described is not available. Can you ever reduce your baby’s risk to zero? No. But remember that giving your baby your own milk reduces the risk of SIDS by up to 50% and that safely co-sleeping for the purposes of suckling appears to lead to better weight gain in babies, better sleep for both parents, more months of baby getting mum’s milk and so a reduction in all the risks associated with giving formula.

As adults, we have to look at the available evidence (as conflicting as it can sometimes be), consider our own lives and stresses, assess our own actual risk and our perception of risk and then make an informed choice, accepting that no choice is risk-free.