Babies and sleep 

 

Even total strangers may well ask you “is your baby sleeping through the night yet?”

It’s interesting how sleep becomes such a huge topic when a baby enters the world. "Is your baby sleeping through the night?" "Is your baby sleeping enough?" "Does your baby have catnaps?" "Are you getting enough sleep?" Or, our favourite – "is your baby a ‘good’ baby?" (whoever has heard of a bad baby for goodness sake?). 

Firstly it's important to note that 'sleeping through the night' can have different meanings for different families. Some parents will be up until 11pm or even midnight with their baby and would consider the next sleep cycle of, say, 4 or 5 hours to be sleeping through the night; others may have their last feed at 8pm and be up again for a feed at 1am – the same length of sleep time, but just at a different time of the night.

Understanding how a baby sleeps and their sleep cycles might make it easier for families to relax and enjoy parenthood rather than stressing about the sleep their baby is, or isn’t, having.

Your baby is unique and if your baby is sleeping less or waking more than your friend’s baby, it is often labelled a ‘sleep problem’ – however generally it is more a ‘parental problem’ because the baby isn’t sleeping how the parents want them to sleep.

There are many books and sleep advisors/consultants in the community who parents will sometimes turn to if their expectations of baby’s sleep isn’t meeting the reality.  However you’ll find the best advisors are those who reassure you that your baby is an  individual, and advise you to take the time to get to know your baby, to relax, to respond to their needs and to understand the realistic sleeping and developmental needs that babies have. 

Sleep patterns rather than routines work best.  A strict routine can be very damaging and restrict baby’s development both physically and emotionally.  A pattern is where the baby will associate the sequence of events with sleep time. For example, rather than whisking baby off to bed when a tired sign is detected, use an unwinding technique where baby will recognise that it is bedtime. It might be a song you sing, a book you read, a quiet comforting breastfeed, a massage or a rocking cuddle. Baby will then associate this routine with sleep and come to expect and learn to be ready to be put to bed.

Babies have around twice as much REM sleep than adults.  This is an important part of their sleep as this is when new neural connections are constantly being made in their rapidly growing brain. 

The well-researched website www.isisonline.org.uk advises this: ‘Popular beliefs about when babies should be 'sleeping through the night' are based on studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s on groups of formula-fed babies. However it is normal for babies to wake and feed at night throughout at least the first year. Encouraging babies to 'sleep through' before they are ready to do so makes it difficult to keep on breastfeeding, and may encourage babies to develop mature sleep patterns out of sequence with their other circadian patterns such as those controlling the regulation of temperature, hormone production, and the genes that control our biological rhythms.’

For excellent advice and to read more about how babies sleep go to www.isisonline.org.uk

Liz Pearce, Childbirth Education Manager, Wellington.

This information is from our Childbirth Educator's 'Question of the Month'  series, July 2014.