10 top tips for coping with your baby's sleep
Or, "No, Virginia, you do NOT need to hire a sleep trainer!"
It's impossible to avoid the cacophony of advice about your baby's sleep: how much your baby "should" be sleeping; how long; where; when and with whom. Parents are told that their babies should be "sleeping through the night" (which technically just means sleeping for a stretch of 5 hours) or even sleeping from 7am to 7pm from some arbitrary age, weight or moment. We are told that if our baby isn't sleeping independently, in their own bed, and for a particular length of time, then we are failing as parents. We are told that babies need to be "trained" in order to sleep well, or sleep independently, or fall asleep on their own, or "self-soothe" back to sleep on their own when they do wake, or they will be needing our help for the rest of their lives. We are also told that feeding our babies to sleep, rocking, carrying, and co-sleeping is DEFINITELY creating bad habits and probably ruining their sleep abilities (and our own) forever.
But wait a minute, haven't humans been sleeping for a long time before "sleep experts" came along? Do babies really need to be "taught" to sleep? And is it really in the best interest of everyone to "train" a baby to sleep for a long time on their own?
I would beg to differ, and would like to offer an alternative perspective on what is normal for infant sleep, and what realistic expectations for this high-needs stage of life might really be.
So here they are :
10 top tips for coping with your baby's sleep:
1. Night waking in infants and toddlers is normal and probably is an evolutionary adaptation to increase their chances of survival.
Research shows that night waking in infancy and toddlerhood is very common and is not a sign that you are doing something "wrong." In fact, it’s so common that scientists have theorized that frequent night waking may protect small babies, as those who feed during the night, sleep close to their mothers, and don’t sleep too deeply for long stretches are known to be at lower risk of SIDS. Certainly we didn't evolve to have our babies sleeping alone for long stretches in the nearby cave, or they would have frozen to death or been eaten. Human babies evolved to sleep lightly, wake often, nurse frequently, and interact constantly day and night with their parents.
2. Babies sleep differently than we do.
Babies and young children have different sleep cycles than we do. Even we as adults don't sleep through the night without waking, but rather go through a full sleep cycle and then wake up, roll over, get a drink, go to the toilet, etc. Our sleep cycles last about 90 minutes while our little one's last only about 45 minutes, which means they wake more often and often right in the middle of our sleep cycle. Kids don't get adult-style sleep cycles until late in the toddler years which is when they all start to reliably sleep through the night without much need for adult assistance (some will do so earlier).
3. Most people in the world sleep with their babies and toddlers, or at least expect to lie down with them while putting them to sleep.
This is how our ancient ancestors evolved to sleep (there were no separate beds, let alone bedrooms and if there were, small children would not likely have survived for long). It is a very recent cultural shift that we expect babies and small children to sleep by themselves in a separate room and even in a separate bed. Our societal expectations have evolved and changed, but our babies have not--they feel best and sleep best when they are close to us throughout the night--a time when they were most vulnerable. Research shows that breastfeeding mothers, in particular, actually get more sleep when they bed share than when their baby is further away from them, even though bed sharing infants will nurse more during the night. Safe bed sharing is possible and it works very well for many many parents and children.
4. This too shall pass!
This high-needs time is very intense and exhausting, but does not last forever. Eventually all kids do sleep through the night and they are happy to stay in their own beds. Nobody expects their mum to go off to university with them so that they can continue to co-sleep. Someday you will look back on these cuddly baby and toddler years and wonder where the time has gone. And you will exact your revenge on your frequent night waker and early riser by dragging him or her out of bed in order to get them to school on time in the morning!
5. This is not something that you are doing "wrong."
Most parents who feel their child has a sleep problem feel terribly guilty about it. They have been convinced that the reason they are not sleeping more is because they are "doing it all wrong," and have allowed their child to learn "bad habits." Just like adults, each child is unique--some are happy to sleep independently long before others are. We accept that we have different sleep needs and habits but somehow expect that babies and toddlers should all sleep for the same number of hours each night and day. We are always being asked if our baby is "good"--often meaning a good sleeper. There are no good children or bad children, just your children. You get who you get and if you are up in the night with your child and are feeling exhausted it is not because you are BAD parent, but because you are a GOOD parent. Why don't we feel proud for sacrificing our precious sleep for the love and well-being of our children? Why doesn't everyone around us congratulate and cheer us on?
6. However your baby is sleeping this month will be different next month.
Even "good" sleepers will have "bad" nights. Just when you think you have the situation licked and your baby is sleeping through the night (the medical definition of which is 5 hours in a stretch, by the way.), then something will throw them off again. Travel and jet lag, illness, teething, growth spurts or developmental leaps, out of town visitors, holidays, starting nursery, and more can all disturb anyone's sleep patterns, including young children. You will not be able to "solve" your child's sleep "problems." The best you can do is learn how to cope with their nighttime parenting needs in a way that gets you the most sleep possible!
7. Your child is not spoiled, manipulative, or trying to control you.
Babies and toddlers are not manipulating or trying to control you by demanding your attention at night. They don't have the cognitive ability to understand anything from another person's perspective. They also cannot understand abstract things like time, night vs. day, important meetings in the morning or the concept that mummy must feel so tired and desperate. All they know is that they have a need and you are the person who always meets their needs and why would night time be any different from day time?
8. Nobody knows the effects on your baby of cry-it-out sleep training methods.
There has been no good research on the short-term or long-term effects of sleep training or cry-it-out approaches. While babies can be trained to stop crying, the research that has been done shows that their stress hormone levels are just as high as they were while crying, though their parents' stress hormones drop to normal as soon as baby stops crying. We know that stress is toxic to the developing brain and may be harmful to the baby's long-term relationship to sleep and their beds, not to mention to their parents. It is impossible to do randomized controlled trials on this question, so we may never know what the real consequences are.
9. If you want, you can start to introduce tools for more independent sleep in the future.
You can help babies and toddlers learn to make certain sleep associations which can help to regulate their sleep patterns and can eventually help them move towards more independent sleep in the long run. Bed time routines can be helpful, as is setting the sleep environment. Babies and toddlers are sensory people so using scent, sound, touch, etc can help them to understand that it is time for sleep. It doesn't work over night, but in the long run it can help to make bedtime easier and can help them settle back into sleep more easily after night waking. Soothing music or white noise, relaxing scents, darkness, a cozy place to sleep, a lovey or comfort object (especially if it smells like mum), can all help some children settle down to sleep and can be a tool that they will eventually use to settle themselves independently. Be aware that research shows that blue light can cause wakefulness, while red light may encourage sleep. Many devices, night lights, and certainly our smart phones put out blue light which may be working against our sleep goals, both for our little ones and for ourselves.
10. Although your baby may not actually have a sleep "problem," it's possible that you do!
As a parent of a young child you have to take care of you. Your baby is depending on you both day and night, so you need to find ways to catch up on sleep! Over-caffeinating yourself can backfire by keeping you awake even when your baby is sleeping, and if you are breastfeeding it can keep your baby awake as well. New parents can function on remarkably small amounts of sleep, but the effects are cumulative and will catch up eventually. The advice to "sleep when the baby sleeps" is not just a friendly tip but a survival skill. Nap whenever possible, with your child if that will increase their likelihood of napping. Go to bed early, take turns catching up on sleep on the weekends when daddy is there to take a shift. In order to be the parent you want to be you need to get some sleep. As they say on the airplane, when the oxygen masks come down you must put one on yourself before you can help your child. Remember, this too shall pass so you won't have to go to bed at 9 for the rest of your life (though I still like to now and then--even though my kids sleep through the night now!)
Parenting is hard work and it is important work that we are highly invested in doing well. We can't change that babies and young children need parenting in the night--all we can do is figure out how to cope as best we can and know that someday they will grow out of this phase. At which point we will be too busy worrying about the next phase they will go through to enjoy it!
Does this change how you think about your baby's sleep behavior? Do you have any other tips or ideas to help other parents cope better? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
We offer a BabyCalm Sleep workshop that takes this same perspective on coping with infant sleep but goes much deeper into the science of infant sleep, the pros and cons of sleep training methods, and gives a number of gentle, sensory tips and ideas for optimizing everyone's sleep now and encouraging more independent sleep later on.
Amy is a former midwife, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, a licensed BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm consultant, a Certified Infant Massage Instructor, co-founder of Love Parenting UAE, and a mother of 2 girls, one of whom was a "terrible" sleeper for the first couple years of life and one who was easy, through nothing that Amy did or didn't do. Both girls sleep great now!