I remember being a new mum lying in the dark with my baby, as he breastfed to sleep and dozed off peacefully in my arms.
I remember the feeling of being needed in a way I’d never known before. While he adored his Dad, there was no chance of anyone else helping him find sleep in those early days.
I remember him rousing every two hours and nuzzling into me to find comfort, safety and nourishment again.
I remember Googling, “is it ok to nurse my baby to sleep?” and “when do babies sleep through the night?”.
I remember doubting myself as the answers I found ran counter to the reality I was experiencing.
And I remember repeating a mantra my doula had shared with me, “If it’s not a problem for me, it’s not a problem.”
Because, while what I was reading suggested that breastfeeding to sleep was a ‘bad’ sleep association and that my baby should be sleeping through the night by now, our rhythm wasn’t a problem for me. Luckily I had read, Sleeping with Your Baby, by Dr. James McKenna – as well as other books about biologically normal infant sleep – so I knew that what I was experiencing may not be considered culturally normal, but it was most certainly biologically normal.
So, what does biologically normal infant sleep look like? Let’s dive in.
Babies Need Help to Fall Asleep
Most babies need to feel physical comfort from their parents so that they can feel relaxed and safe emotionally, in order to surrender to falling (and staying) asleep. Mother nature is wise – it is no accident that babies fall asleep at the breast. When you feed your baby (or practice skin-to-skin contact) oxytocin is released. This is the ‘love hormone’ and it feels good and makes babies (and parents) sleepy.
Babies also love to be rocked, cuddled or bounced to sleep by their favourite humans. If your family members or doctor tell you this isn’t necessary or is a ‘sleep prop’, remember that type of ‘advice’ is based on nothing more than cultural conditioning and personal opinion. Nobody knows better what your baby needs to fall asleep than…your baby.
Babies Need to Sleep in Close Proximity to Their Parents
Dr. James McKenna, of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, reports that breastfeeding and mother-infant cosleeping have co-evolved, are inextricably linked and that breastfeeding acts as a “hidden regulator” to keep mothers and infants within close proximity to one another at night time.
Dr. McKenna coined the wonderful term, breastsleepers to describe the mother-infant nighttime relationship. When a baby sleeps approximately ten feet away from his mother, compared to sleeping next to her in bed, Dr. Helen Ball reports that the number of nighttime breastfeeds can drop by as much as 50-70%.
Babies Need Frequent Feeding Through the Night
Babies are born with tiny stomachs and breastmilk is digested in less than 2 hours. Additionally, human milk – compared to cow’s milk – is low in fat and protein. These two facts mean that infants need to feed frequently – usually every two hours.
This is by design. We are a carrying species which means we are designed to keep our babies on us. In nature, if our babies are distressed, they come to us for safety and we pick them up. This facilitates frequent feeding.
In contrast, cows are a nesting species. When in distress, baby calves are designed to ‘nest’ in the long grass and hide from predators. Therefore cow’s milk is high in protein and fat, and takes longer to digest. So, baby calves feed less frequently and sleep longer, and remain quiet and safe.
There is no circuit breaker we can pull on nature’s system – this is how humans are designed. What is needed is support for mothers doing the meaningful work of nurturing young babies, combined with realistic expectations of what normal infant sleep really looks like.
Total Length of Sleep is Wildly Variable between Babies
On average, most babies will sleep for 14 hours a day…but this is an average. The range for normal infant sleep is anywhere between 9.7 and 15.9 hours. Focus more on how your baby is doing than trying to hit a target number of hours sleep. Find a rhythm that works for them and ditch the sleep charts!
Rest Easy Mama, Your Baby is Amazing (and Normal)
In spite of how our society expects babies to sleep (in a crib, on their own, all night long), the truth is that is biologically normal for your baby to need to be close to you throughout the night, to need your presence and comfort to fall asleep, to rouse frequently throughout the night.
Becoming attuned to your baby’s needs and being a reliably responsive caregiver is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child – you are literally wiring your baby’s brain for mental health. You’re giving your baby a working model for how relationships work. You’re investing in a secure attachment and helping your child believe that this world is a safe place and that their needs matter. You are paving the path for empathy, resilience, and confidence.
Adapting to life as a parent and caring for a newborn with profound needs is monumentally challenging – take it easy on yourself. Have pyjama days. Ask for and accept help from friends and family. Take your time to ease into your new normal. And know this…this too shall pass.
This is a huge topic, so if you’d like to read more please visit Raised Good Sleep page for countless articles on baby sleep, as well as The Good Science Sleep Guides, which are full of the most up to date evidence-based research on baby sleep.