Guest post by Lyndsey Hookway
Having a baby means a certain level of sleep deprivation. Babies wake in the night and need to be fed, which is entirely normal and not newsworthy information.
However, the reason there is even a discussion and debate about exactly how to manage the fatigue of early parenting, is that the support structures are simply not in place to provide parents with the scaffolding they need in order to be able to cope with this normal behaviour.
Parenting is a difficult, exhausting and under-valued role, but it hasn’t always been like this, nor is it like this in every culture.
When parenting is practiced in the context of community and familial support, the load can be spread somewhat, and respite provided to parents who are fatigued. Wider family members, friends, community and faith groups all help to bring food, take care of the house and other children, and provide practical help and support as well as encouragement.
This is in stark contrast to how most people in the West are trying to raise their children.
On the one hand, infant sleep is mostly normal, and with plenty of support, parents may be able to care for their children in a responsive way, without pathologizing or overthinking, and without needing to modify infant sleep to make it more sustainable for the modern lifestyle. Almost all infants will consolidate sleep eventually, and doing nothing is absolutely an option.
On the other hand, the reality is that while infant sleep is mostly normal, parents are often largely unsupported, may have immense pressures to return to work, may not always have collaborative and egalitarian co-parent support, and may have underlying sleep, physical and mental health problems of their own compounding the urgency to make infant sleep more manageable.
With all these factors in the background, many parents feel that their only option is to seek support with sleep. But solid sleep education that is grounded in evidence is not always easy to come by. Sleep education is not included in paediatric training, and many parents turn to books, social media and the latest sleep method in an effort to claw back some balance into their exhausting lives.
This is where it can get confusing. Everyone has an opinion on sleep.
‘Sleep train, ‘Don’t sleep train’.
‘Watch the wake windows’, ‘Follow your baby’s lead’.
‘Put them to bed by 7pm’ ‘Wait until they’re sleepy’.
‘Whatever you do, don’t feed them to sleep’, ‘Feeding to sleep is natural, and quick’.
‘Make sure they nap for at least 2 hours’, ‘Cat-naps are great’.
‘Sleep breeds sleep’, ‘Too much daytime sleep will mess up your night’.
‘Put them down drowsy but awake’, ‘Enjoy holding your baby for naps’.
Hearing conflicting and confusing information and sifting through it to work out which pieces of advice match with your values and parenting style is also exhausting.
Trying some of these ideas and struggling to make them work is exhausting.
Feeling the immense weight of responsibility that you are somehow responsible for whether an intelligent, sentient other being sleeps at a certain time for a certain amount is exhausting.
It isn’t just the way in which a baby sleeps that is making parents tired. The way that we are trying to handle it can also be both physical, mentally and emotionally draining. And the trouble is, there is nothing that works for everyone.
There are as many opinions as there are professionals speaking about sleep, and to make matters even more confusing, some practitioners supporting parents with sleep have only done a one-day course, and have limited experience with both academic sleep research, as well as practical experience supporting families.
The answer according to many practitioners seems to be a memorable method, plan, algorithm or catchy 3-step solution. But there will always be families who fall between the cracks with these off-the-peg strategies, because infant sleep needs, coupled with family contexts and circumstances are absolutely unique.
One-size-fits-all strategies exist on both sides of the sleep training debate as well.
Often, people are pigeon holed into pro-cry-it-out, or anti-cry-it-out. The pro team may also be pigeon holed into strategies such as timed feeds, strict schedules or night weaning. The anti team may be typecast as permissive, bedsharing attachment parenting advocates.
The reality for many is that parenting styles do not neatly fit into two or even three categories. Families are complicated, and they may dip in and out of various aspects of parenting. Unless you fit absolutely into an extreme, and your baby happens to be wired that way as well, it’s likely that these cookie-cutter approaches won’t work, and will cause stress.
Cry-it-out doesn’t work for everyone, but nor does bed-sharing.
What if we forgot the methods and the strategies, and got back to the science? What if there was a way to support sleep without focusing on sleep? What if we could help parents learn a way to manage their child’s sleep in a way that was individually responsive, and also respectful to the needs of parents? What if there was a way that parents could let go of the immense pressure and responsibility to have their baby sleeping a certain way, or for a certain number of hours?
After writing my first book, I was asked by hundreds of people to write a book for parents. I hesitated. Why? Because I didn’t want to add to parental confusion. I was conscious that even the gentle sleep books out there seem to have a mnemonic, plan or step by step approach, and I figured that was what people wanted. But having spoken to literally thousands of people about sleep, what I know is that they are not looking for the next quick fix or wonder method.
There is a new generation of clued-up parents who appreciate a science-backed approach, and recognise that their baby is not a robot who will respond in the same way as other babies.
Improving sleep by not focusing directly on sleep is far less stressful for parents, because in the depths of sleep deprivation, tackling anything to do with infant sleep at night is likely to lead to even less sleep, which frankly, many parents do not have the capacity for. It’s also more rewarding, because focusing on aspects of family life such as relationships, sensory needs, self-care, nutrition, lifestyle, and fun improves more than just sleep.
There are ways to manage sleep that aren’t stressful as well, such as reviewing sleep hygiene, looking objectively at sleep needs, and managing naps so that they don’t become obsessive and demoralising. Finally, when parents are given objective, compassionate and evidence based information about what infants do, how they behave and how to support them, they feel more confident in their parenting – making not only sleep, but family life more rewarding.
Sleep does not need to feel like a mission, battlefield, mountain or marathon. In its simplest sense, sleep is one aspect of our lives, so focusing solely on that, can feel narrow minded. Opening up the view to see sleep more holistically is a more complete and empowering approach for families.
About the Author: Lyndsey Hookway is an experienced paediatric nurse, children’s public health nurse, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Holistic Sleep Coach and birth trauma recovery practitioner. The co-founder and clinical director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching program, Lyndsey regularly teaches internationally, as well as providing mentorship for newer sleep coaches and aspiring IBCLCs. She is passionate about responsive feeding, gentle parenting and promoting parental confidence and well-being. As it turns out, Lyndsey did write a book for parents: Let’s talk about your new family’s sleep. She was on a mission to write what was right, to correct the wrongs out there. She wrote the truth all down for everyone to see – even though she may not have have a catchy step by step method. You can find here book on Amazon, and on Lyndsey’s website.