Baby sleep – Unrealistic expectations

Societies relationship with baby sleep has reached a strange place in modern times. We now have an unrealistic expectation that babies should fall into an adult sleep cycle as soon as they are born.

Parents are under pressure more than ever from society and peers to have their little ones ‘sleeping through the night’ as quickly as possible. “We are under pressure to “have it all” to be a ‘yummy mummy’, with a perfect figure, a perfect house, perfect clothes and a perfect job. It is however, just not possible to live up to this ideal whilst also responding to the normal and natural needs of our infants. Something has to give and sadly, very often, it is the needs of our children.” – via Sarah Ockwell-Smith, The Problem of Baby Sleep – Huffington Post.

These expectations have led to the birth of the  ‘infant sleep industry’ now worth $325,000,000. Gone are the days of the simple lullaby. We have electronic mobiles. Special sleep music. We have sleep consultants, sleep coaches and sleep counselors, who all promise to train a baby’s sleep pattern to closely match the preferences of the parents. We even have formula companies selling magical ‘good night milk’.

Questions like “are they a good baby at night?”, or “Have they slept through the night yet?”, or even “How long do they sleep for?”, all add pressure and anxiety around baby sleep for parents. This coupled with the lack of sleep can often lead down a dangerous road of questionable baby advice.

Questionable advice around infant sleep includes:

  • Parents being encouraged to leave baby to cry night after night, often to the point where they make themselves sick.
  • Pressure to wean baby earlier than medically advised in the hope the solid food will keep baby asleep for longer.
  • Over-feeding baby with formula before bed.
  • Moving baby into their own room too early.

In the first months of life, babies have no internal body-clock, and have tiny stomachs that empty quickly. So the frequent feeding of babies both day and night is completely normal and a biologically predictable phenomenon.

Babies are growing their brains at a drastic rate during the year following birth. This is an energetically expensive activity that requires frequent refuelling – something they rely on their parents to provide.

Although it doesn’t feel like it, on average newborns actually sleep for 15-16 hours a day. But as they have no internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, their sleep patterns are not related to the daylight or nighttime cycles.

Babies may wake because they are hungry, in pain, need their nappy changed, are too hot/cold, have trouble breathing, etc. Scientists believe that having shorter cycles or lighter sleep is actually a survival skill in babies.

One final note, research ‘sleep regression’. When babies master new skills such as crawling they encounter regression with their sleep.

I’d highly recommend The Gentle Sleep Book written by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. It explores gentle, no-tear sleep solutions for parents of newborns to five-year-olds.

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