I sensed her tip toeing around the conversation. We only just met and I’d made a rookie mistake; innocently stumbling into a polarizing parenting ‘problem’. We were at a local playgroup. Her cheerful eight month old daughter was all smiles and drool, proudly pulling herself up on every available surface, mesmerizing my three year old son with her playful curiosity.
“She started teething at three months”, the new mother told me. “Oh my goodness,” I replied, “Her sleep must be all over the place. How are you coping?” And that was it – the controversy of sleep. Navigating society’s expectations around infant sleep is unfairly confronting for new mothers at a time when we’re trying our best to keep our heads above water. Most of us have very little support as we forge our own unique path, while making peace with our new rhythm of life.
She went on to tell me she’s incredibly happy but predictably exhausted. At the recommendation of their doctor, family and friends, her and her husband tried cry it out at two months of age; it worked for a couple of weeks. Reluctantly she said they know they need to do it again. When I revealed we never used sleep training it was as if a dark cloud was lifted from the conversation; her face immediately lit up, her shoulders relaxed and she enthusiastically asked me a million and one questions about my son’s sleep.
Everyone in her life was putting pressure on her to sleep train; to be non-responsive and leave her baby to cry. The first time she ignored her baby’s cries they lasted over two hours. The pain it had caused her as a mother was obvious. She feared ignoring her little girl again could lead to long term scars in their thriving and beautifully connected relationship.
The practice demanded her to harden her heart to her daughter; the very person sent to soften it.
She’s not alone. For me, the thought of intentionally leaving my son to cry is too much for my soul to bear. Others may say, I’m soft. That I’m a pushover. That my son has me wrapped around his little finger. Or that I’m creating a rod for my own back. But, it doesn’t matter what others say. I don’t care what anyone else thinks because I know it’s simply not true. All that matters is how my son, my husband and I feel.
Non-responsive sleep training and the misguided notion that babies can and should sleep through the night go hand in hand; it’s almost universally accepted one results in the other, as if babies won’t be able to sleep without being trained. But, just because babies stop crying when they’re not responded to doesn’t mean they’re sleeping; it means they’re silent. Babies are incredibly intelligent and when they realize nobody is responding to their communication they develop a behaviour called ‘learned helplessness’ or as Dr Sears describes it ‘shutdown syndrome’.
Those terms send shivers down my spine; I never want induce feelings of helplessness in my son, now or when he was a young baby. So, until babies are physically and emotionally capable, sleeping through the night isn’t a priority or an expectation for me. Here’s why.
Because babies aren’t designed to sleep through the night. Waking often, feeding, seeking comfort and going back to sleep is Mother Nature’s way of keeping babies safe. She didn’t do this as a cruel joke to harass or torture parents. She did it to safeguard babies as they learn how to breathe helping protect them against fatal dangers like SIDS. In countries where species appropriate methods like cosleeping and breastfeeding are the predominant form of night time parenting, SIDS is almost unheard of.
Because babies want to be close to their caregivers. Babies are said to be born 9-18 months prematurely. They are the most helpless and vulnerable social mammal there is. So, what their survival mechanism? Easy. It’s us – their parents. Babies are intentionally designed to be cute, to draw us in and make us want to hold and be close to them all night long. And when we don’t, they cry for us. A baby who cries to arouse their parent’s attention is a baby who is trying to ensure their own survival; forming an unshakeable connection with their protectors is the best way they know how.
Because humans are naturally “biphasic” sleepers experiencing a “first sleep” (from sunset until midnight-ish) and a “second sleep” (from 1 or 2 am until dawn). With the invention of electricity our natural pattern changed, enabling us to stay up later meaning adults began consolidating sleep into one 8-hour stretch. Eventually, your baby will catch up to our 21st century sleep patterns, but until then, try turning off your lights early and crawl into bed with your baby.
Because babies are instinctively driven to conserve their milk supply. At birth a baby’s stomach is tiny, holding a mere 5-7ml of milk. As her mother’s supply increases, a baby’s stomach grows. Its a synergistic relationship. Combining it with the fact that human breastmilk is low in fat and therefore digested quickly, it’s normal that babies are hungry often. Encouraging babies nurse when they’re hungry safeguards a mothers’ milk supply and reduces the risk of engorgement and mastitis. Conversely, ignoring a baby’s hunger, day or night, messes with the normal development of milk supply and threatens breast health. Breasts may not empty properly, milk ducts may become blocked and mastitis becomes more likely. Not to mention, a hungry baby is a grumpy baby.
Because night time breastmilk is unique. Night time breastfeeding provides a whole host of unique benefits. Born with no established circadian rhythms, babies also don’t produce their own melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone). Melatonin has a hypnotic effect as well as relaxing the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract. Breastmilk follows a circadian rhythm for the secretion of melatonin with night time breast milk containing substantial amounts of this vital hormone. This helps babies develop their own circadian cycles, improves sleep and has been shown to reduce the incidence of colic.
Because waking often promotes brain function and development. Dr Darcia Narvaez, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, reports that night time breast milk contains high levels of a sleep-inducing amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a vital hormone for brain function and development. In early life, tryptophan ingestion leads to more serotonin receptor development. Serotonin improves brain function, promotes good moods and helps with sleep-wake cycles.
Because even adults don’t sleep through the night. The idea that we’re unconscious for eight hours every night when our heads hit the pillow is false. Every night we experience various depths and stages of sleep. We move through REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep cycles. Non-REM consists of four separate stages varying from drowsiness, light, deep and very deep sleep. As we move from one sleep cycle to the next, we lightly rouse; if we’re uncomfortable we may go to the bathroom, get a glass of water or simply roll over, hug our partner and adjust the covers. Adult sleep cycles last an average of 90 minutes, whereas infant sleep cycles are much shorter, an average of 45-60 minutes. This means babies experience a vulnerable period for night waking up to ten times per night (twice as many as their parents).
Because it can be scary in the dark. Our little man has just started to ask about monsters hiding in the dark and he’s scared of thunderstorms. Thankfully, we don’t experience thunder and lightening very often in Vancouver but when we travel to New Zealand, with its wild and windy weather, thunderstorms wake him up at night. The first time we all hid under the covers at 3am while the cyclonic winds pounded the side of our house. I remember craving sleep, but my overwhelming emotion was one of humility and gratitude; I felt honoured to be one of two people in the world he needed most in that moment, to be able to reassure him in the wee small hours as we snuggled up together and welcomed the return of sleep once more. I remember that night, its a good memory. I hope its banked in his memory too.
COME DAY OR NIGHT, DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOUR BABY
It would be amazing if all babies could sleep for long stretches from a young age. Some exceptional babies do and for those parents its a wonderful gift. But, if we believe all babies can and should be able to sleep through the night we’re setting ourselves up for inevitable and frequent disappointment. If we’re not careful this can quickly morph into frustration and resentment unfairly directed at our children. The good news is having realistic expectations around normal infant sleep makes it so much easier to accept the realities of new parenthood.
To find gratitude in the moments when they need us to dig a little deeper and sing, rock and hug them back into their quiet slumber.
I’ve written on this topic a number of times and I can predict the criticism it will elicit. Some may see this as judging parents. So, it’s important to make the distinction that this is about questioning societal practices and expectations, not individual parents. This is about advocating for the needs of babies while understanding parents need more support. We all make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time, which is why we need better information. Accurate and unbiased information, which I would argue cannot come from sleep trainers who profit from encouraging non-responsive parenting practices.
Above all else, as parents we need to feel free to be honest with one another. To admit that most of us cosleep at some point during the night, though almost half of us dare not admit to it. I hope my candid and humorous explanation of my son’s sleep helped the mother I met at playgroup feel better when she’s awake at 4am tomorrow morning. I hope she’ll feel she has sisters in the night because sometimes all we need is to know we’re not alone. That we’re not being shortchanged by our wakeful babies. That our efforts are fulfilling a genuine need and that we’re not the only ones who feel exhausted.
And mostly we need reassurance that by following our instincts, day and night, we’re not doing anything wrong.