Busting Baby Sleep Myths

Whether or not your baby sleeps through the night, remember your success as a parent is defined by so much more.

Without a doubt, sleep deprivation is one of the biggest challenges I have faced to date while raising A. The lowest points were after her twelve week birthday. We went to bed together one evening as normal and instead of the couple of hours I had become used to, she woke up after forty-five minutes. And then forty-five minutes after that. And…well you get the picture. For a long time, she woke very frequently. She was *gasp* a couple of months shy of four before she really consistently slept for most of the night.

I cannot count the hours I spent googling baby sleep. Sleep became an all-consuming topic for me. I read everything. Worried about everything. I was determined to find out WHY my baby would not sleep. I lacked a lot of knowledge about what is normal sleep, not just in babies, but in toddlers and preschoolers. I wasted a lot of time. While we did find some triggers for her frequent waking, some of it was just personality. Miss A is now a bright, inquisitive, smart and curious pre-schooler and sleep, well sleep is boring isn’t it? Her father also gets by happily on less sleep than average. Indeed, some studies have suggested the way our children sleep, may actually be largely genetic.

I really want to say one thing I think a lot of parents need to hear, so listen up. If your baby doesn’t sleep through the night, it is unlikely to be your fault.

Here are some of the most common myths about how and where babies sleep:

Your baby should be sleeping through the night by *insert arbitrary figure here*

A lot of popular information suggests babies should be capable of sleeping through the night from an early age. In reality, instead of talking about “sleeping through the night” we should talk about babies sleeping in ‘consolidated blocks’. In many scientific studies, ‘sleeping through the night’ is defined as sleeping a 5 hour period between midnight and 5am. Not quite the picture parents have in mind! Research has shown huge variance in when babies start to sleep in consolidated blocks and whether they settle themselves, or ‘signal’ (read yell their little heads off) for assistance. We don’t know why there is such a big difference, though many feel the answers lie in the personality of the baby.

BASIS suggests it is completely normal when infants wake frequently for the first year and beyond. Indeed, they say 13% of year old babies, still do not sleep in a consolidated block of 5 hours or more regularly. Gives us a slightly new perspective on those baby sleep books!

Toddlers definitely shouldn’t be waking up at night though right?

Though there seems to be a huge divide about when babies should sleep through the night, it feels like most people are in agreement that toddlers definitely should. However, again, the research doesn’t particularly back this idea up. Studies have shown that toddlers often continue to wake up during the night and need input from their parents, well into the second year of life.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, someone who has spent an awful lot more time talking in an evidence-based fashion about how children sleep than me, suggests sleeping through is more like a roller coaster, than a linear trajectory. Basically, children are all different, and some may sleep “well” from babyhood, others may well be into their pre-school years before they consistently start to “sleep through”. Both are normal.

Formula or solid food helps babies to sleep better at night

Yeah, I had high hopes for starting solids too. My baby was totally going to sleep through once she was on solid foods! Except she didn’t. Also, formula fed babies still wake up frequently at night, the difference is, you also have to go downstairs and make bottles when they do. When people insist babies fed formula sleep better it is frankly insulting to their hard-working parents, who are up with bottles in the middle of the night. Seriously, it’s not like safe formula prep at 2am is the easy option! I wish we would stop saying that it is. These pervasive myths are by far best addressed by this lovely video from the team at Swansea University (I apologise if the catchy tune gets stuck in your head!):

If you stop feeding your baby at night, you will get more sleep

Sometimes night weaning might be helpful, and sometimes- it might not. This is because advocates of night weaning often forget that night waking is not just about food for babies. Development spurts often play their part. It is particularly common to hear parents asking about night weaning when they are smack in the middle of a leap. This may be absolutely the worst time to attempt night weaning. Your child is waking because they need reassurance, pulling away might actually make things worse or result in a lot of distress. Successful night weaning often depends on whether the child (and the mother) is truly ready.

I gently night weaned my preschooler when she was three. I’ll be honest, at first it made absolutely no difference to her sleep, and in fact, she still wakes up and asks for a cuddle and a drink. So if you are considering night weaning, it might be a good idea to think carefully about how you will feel if sleep does not improve. If your child still wakes up, will night weaning still help you feel more rested? For me, it made quite a lot of difference as I struggled to sleep through night feeds, but could sleep through a cuddle. If you are a mum who finds you can sleep through the night feeds anyway, it may make less difference.

Most gentle parenting and breastfeeding advocates do not suggest night weaning babies under twelve months old. These babies may still need night feeds. Which leads us on to…

A baby no longer needs to breastfeed at night once they have reached a certain age or weight

It is common for people to suggest babies do not “need” night feeds once they are six weeks/six months/double their birth weight etc…

Firstly, can we define ‘need’? Breastfeeding is, as well as a way to satisfy hunger, a relationship. A breastfeed is a cuddle, immunity, reassurance, warmth. How many times a night might you wake and have a sip of water, adjust your blankets, reach out for a warm body to snuggle into?

Secondly, this doesn’t take into account that all babies are different, and all boobies are different! Have a read about milk storage capacity here. Some mothers may need to feed more frequently to give the baby the same amount of milk per feed as her friend. This is not a mother with a supply problem, but natural variation. In order to support a healthy milk supply, breastfeeding works best when babies are fed to cue. In the first year milk is the most crucial part of baby’s nutrition and what is important is not how much baby gets per feed, but how much they get in twenty-four hours. A set rule for everyone just goes against basic biology.

In many cases, breastfeeding is a far easier way to get baby to sleep more quickly, and get better quality sleep. Use that magic while you can!

Responding to your baby when they cry at night, or co-sleeping makes children dependent and clingy

This is so far from the truth it makes me laugh. There is a wealth of research which suggests responsive parenting promotes healthy, secure and confident children. See Unicef’s “building a happy baby” leaflet or look into “attachment theory”. Not responding to children has been shown to do exactly the opposite of making children independent. Sleep training is a divisive subject and a blog post of its own. I will simply say, it isn’t the magic bullet people suggest, and that more information on it can be found here.

Responding to your baby does good things for both of you!

Bed-sharing is really dangerous, and shouldn’t happen under any circumstances

So this one is a bug-bear of mine. We are not having nuanced conversations with parents about where breastfed babies should sleep.

Why is it important to talk about this? Because parents are not talking to their health visitors about this for fear of judgement. They are not getting the information they need about safe bedsharing. On any given night 22% of babies will be bedsharing with their parents. Blanket recommendations not to bedshare have been clearly shown not to work.

We focus more on the risk of bed-sharing to babies than we do on the increased risk of SIDS from other practices which parents might turn to instead . We demonise bedsharing despite the fact many are still debating whether there is even an increased risk when other risk factors are absent. Why do we not talk more about the impact of alcohol, smoking and drugs on SIDS rates? Risks which are so much greater? Why do we not get our knickers in a knot about the relationship between poverty and SIDS rates and hold society accountable for that? Focusing our support and resources on all of these things would have so much more impact, yet we obsess over bedsharing.

Unicef Co-sleeping Guidance for Health Professionals

We advocate 6 months exclusively breastfeeding yet we take away the tools to help people to achieve it. Studies suggest “breast-sleeping” (i.e. bedsharing as a breastfeeding mother) supports breastfeeding, showing increased responsiveness and breastfeeding behaviours overnight (see below for links to a wealth of research information). Mothers who bedshare tend to breastfeed for longer than mothers who do not.

I could go on about this forever, but I won’t. If you are considering bedsharing with your baby, read evidence-based information to decide what is right for your baby. Safety guidelines are important if you go ahead. You can see these here, and here, and here.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be? I would love to do away with this culture where parents who announce their child is sleeping well get congratulated. I slept well for years before children. I am pretty sure nobody said “well done” every time I woke up after a full 8 hours. Nobody insinuated this made me a better person, or that it was because of the big dinner I had that night. I want to stop having to reassure and comfort tired parents in breastfeeding groups who think their baby is broken. Not because it annoys me to do so, but because this crippling pressure is unfair to them. We create it with expectations which are so off-kilter from reality it is ridiculous. I would love people to start show empathy to parents rather than judgement. Maybe help them out around the house, or make them a coffee. In the absence of a magic wand, I hope the myths busted in this blog help. Watch this space, and subscribe or like me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for news of upcoming blogs about how to cope with frequent night waking, and gentle night weaning.

You can find more good information about sleep here:https://www.basisonline.org.uk/

Recommending reading about infant and child sleep:

Bedsharing research:

For more papers from Prof Helen Ball

Evidence based bedsharing info from BASIS site

Prof. James Mckenna’s work here

Image Credit: https://www.basisonline.org.uk/co-sleeping-image-archive/

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