A couple of nights ago I hunkered down with my trusty laptop and a bunch of people that I could neither see nor hear (they actually numbered around a thousand!) and chatted about sleep, or, to be precise, the lack of it. This was my 5th Mother&Baby Facebook Live and, as always, it was friendly and fun as well as, I hope, informative and reassuring.
It says something about our cultural expectations that it was the 2nd M&B Facebook Live on sleep and that this is the 3rd blog on the subject (see blogs #4 and #5 for more). We value our shut-eye and guard it closely. We check our clocks on waking to see how long we’ve slumbered and fret before our first coffee hit of the day about how we’ll cope when our precious night has been broken.
When it comes to our babies, the phrase “when will he start sleeping through?” enters our vocabulary at about the same time as our stitches heal and the visiting frenzy tails off. Books line the shelves promising to show us how we can train our babies to sleep more, to get into a routine, to self-soothe before they have even had their births registered! So we expend vast amounts of emotional energy searching for the secret to getting our babies to sleep from dusk til dawn without disturbing our beauty sleep.
Now, of course, humans have evolved over millions of years and, despite our little individual quirks and unique personalities, we’re actually all a pretty standard model – we all eat breathe, poo and sneeze in much the same way, have a head at the top end and toes at the other and hit developmental milestones along a surprisingly similar curve. How we, as humans experience and develop sleep patterns is also staggeringly similar, and understanding the fundamentals can shed some light on how we can support our babies and children to gain good sleep hygiene and social behaviour around bedtimes.
Your baby comes to you hardwired for survival and with the evolutionary “expectation” that mum will be a pretty instinct-driven cave woman. The hormones which give us our circadian rhythm and different sleep states are deregulated under about 4 months of age and the similarly deregulated autonomic nervous system (see blog #5) ensures that your little one spends many hours each day, and certainly most of the night, snuggled safely in your arms or suckling. Despite your 21st century sensibilities and the insistence of books and relatives that you should stop picking her up, your baby’s cries dig deep into your primitive soul and twist it until you respond, again and again and again.
Your newborn’s sleep is made up of lots of power naps – she suckles whilst dozing on and off, then falls deeply asleep in your arms for half an hour or so before waking up, refreshed and ready to spend more time being rocked, patted and suckled. She can sleep anywhere, as long as it is in arms!
Those parents who learn to trust evolution, relax, and spend their time honing their soothing strategies rather than attempting the impossible (and potentially risky) task of “teaching” their tiny baby to learn to be alone, find that life is far less stressful and far more conducive to a happy home life. They know that, in time, their baby will follow a human developmental curve and sort their sleep out.
From the very end of the third month the hormones and body systems which govern human sleep start to coordinate and settle and the erratic power-naps of the newborn are gradually replaced by sleep cycles. It is this emergence of cycles which puzzles parents – they expect that their teeny tiny should be starting to “sleep through” (after all, that’s what the books and your mother tell you) but nights now seem even worse: your baby wakes every hour and cannot resettle without a lot of help from her parents.
So let’s get this straight – none of us sleeps through! There, I’ve said it …
We all wake at quite frequent intervals through the night and then doze back off again. Some of us remember these wakenings (I certainly do), and some don’t. But we all have them. Each cycle is made up of different types of sleep, including deep sleep and dream sleep (R.E.M. sleep) and we need to go through the deep sleep part of the cycle in order to feel refreshed. Even those of us who feel we are plagued by insomnia actually do achieve enough sleep to survive – it is as basic as breathing.
What marks babies out as different from adults is that they need support to get back to sleep after each wakening. They can’t self-soothe. Developing the ability to self-soothe takes time and experience and, until around the six-month mark, babies are not even developmentally able to learn how to self-soothe. This is good news! You can simply stop worrying about what you should be doing to sleep-train your baby and just do whatever you know works best for him. He can’t learn good habits for sure, but this also means that he can’t learn bad habits.
Between three and six months, as the sleep cycles gradually emerge, babies also start to show distinct sleepy cues. Typically these are nose-rubbing, eye-rubbing, ear-pulling and tired noises. Parents always spot them but often don’t realise what they are.
From around six months, babies start to develop the ability to get into routines and self-soothe. But they still need help and support from their parent.
So, what CAN you do?
Well, for the first three to four months, simply soothe your baby whenever he needs it in whatever way works best. More often than not this involves rocking, patting, white noise and, of course, suckling. Certainly arms will always work in a way that a crib cannot. What you do so beautifully during these intense months is give your baby the experience of what it feels like to be distressed … and then soothed. This will set the groundwork for him to develop his own self-soothing strategies in due course. You see, the only way a baby can confidently soothe themselves is if they know how it feels to be soothed. So soothe away without the guilt and anxiety that usually pervades and poisons the parenting space.
Months four to six are about patience and watching as the changes take place. Many parents find that safe co-sleeping returns (if it ever went away!) as the only way for everyone to get any rest whilst the littlest member of the household, beset by changing systems, wakes almost every hour. Try to learn your baby’s unique sleepy cues and, as soon as you see them, start soothing your baby to sleep and continue to soothe, in whatever way works at that moment, until she has had a full cycle (this will lengthen gradually over the months from as little as half an hour, up to a couple). Some babies start to prefer a quieter, more still space to nap and sleep so try to be sensitive to these emerging needs and fulfil them as best you can.
From around six months, you should start to see distinct nap and bed times emerge. Generally the first sleepy cues of the day show about one and a half to two hours after the start of the day and then again after the same interval from the end of the first nap. Babies can often go two to three hours in the afternoon before showing sleepy cues and they often have a very late nap at around 6-7pm which parents mistake for bedtime. Bedtime itself is often around 9pm and this will move earlier as the year goes on.
At this point you get to choose: carry on providing the soothing strategies for your baby or set about giving him the opportunity to discover his own. Whatever you decide is not written in stone (you get to change your mind as often as you wish – it’s a parent’s prerogative!), and it doesn’t define you as a parent or person.
If you want to remove a soothing strategy (maybe you no longer want to offer the boob at every overnight wakening) then, until your baby can self-soothe, you need to replace it with another. That might be picking your baby up and patting him, or offering a dummy, or hauling him into your bed to snuggle down to safely co-sleep (for useful links, see below).
If you choose to give your baby the opportunity to develop self-soothing strategies, then you will need to gradually remove your support over a period of weeks or months and give your baby just enough space and time alone to find what he can do to get himself to sleep, but not so much space and time that she is overwhelmed (never a good way to learn).
In time, your highly-evolved human will learn that, in your house, people repeat the sleep needs of other people and sort themselves out at night rather than waking the whole household! This takes time and patience but she will get there. After all, she is only human …
Chapter 10 in my book “Your Baby Skin To Skin” covers both these approaches in detail if you want to explore a little more deeply.
Safe co-sleeping advice: CLICK THIS LINK to read the parent information leaflet on caring for babies at night from UNICEF babyfriendly.org and then …CLICK THIS LINK to read information to healthcare professionals from about the evidence behind the leaflet.