If you've hung around here long enough or know me in real life, you know I'm a huge advocate for biologically normal infant sleep and very anti-sleep training in the traditional sense. I find that most people who classify themselves as natural parenting practicing parents fall into the same mindset. It's back to basics and back to instincts - and instincts tell you to pick up a crying child, not leave them crying for hours alone in a dark room!
Harsh much? Maybe but I like to keep it real. Another pillar of Attachment Parenting is "Ensure safe sleep physically & emotionally". While the AAP, your child's pediatrician, and well-meaning friends and family members seem to focus only on "safe sleep physically", it's beyond important to take into account the emotional aspect of it as well. Let's take a look at some facts on infant sleep as well as some tips for getting the most sleep for everyone.
1. Sleeping through the night
Did you know that "sleeping through the night" is actually defined as 5 consecutive hours, not 8 as we're led to believe? Did you also know that the average age of naturally sleeping through the night (which we just learned is 5 consecutive hours) is 2.5 years old?
Reading these two facts, does that change your perspective a little bit on an infant "sleeping through the night" by a certain age? While there are some extreme parents who begin sleep training from birth, typically around 4-6 months parents will start sleep training their babies to sleep through the night - meaning 8 hours, not 5. I'm not going to go into sleep training methods here (that's another post for another day), but most of them involve crying or breaking the attachment far earlier than needed.
In regards to sleeping through the night, let's take a look at the science. Adults spend about 20 to 25 percent of the night in REM sleep, and each sleep cycle takes about 90 to 120 minutes. You don't realize that you wake between cycles because it is so slight, but you do. On the other hand, babies' sleep cycles are more evenly divided between REM and NREM sleep and are shorter, lasting only about 50 minutes for the first nine months of life.
In REM or “active” sleep, an infant’s brain is developing, consolidating, and solidifying various cognitive and physical skills. Similarly, adults in REM sleep have active brains as well; this is when your mind is processing the day’s events, forming memories, and releasing serotonin. Infants are also more easily awakened when they first fall asleep during the active REM stage. During NREM’s “quiet” sleep stage, infants are less likely to be woken up (similar to how adults are less likely to awaken during deep sleep). As a baby grows, the sleep cycles will start to look more and more like an adult’s version. Less and less time is spent in REM sleep while simultaneously the sleep cycle itself lengthens. Eventually, by school age, your child will be sleeping in cycles of 90 to 100 minutes.
They are also designed to not sleep too deeply as a natural SIDS protection. Dr. Mckenna adds that it is known that babies that die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) likely had some kind of arousal deficiency (did not arouse sufficiently well enough).
Finally, baby's temperament needs to be taken into account as well. Just like you and I don't relax the same way or sleep the same way, each and every baby is different. To lump them all together and say they all need to fit the mold and follow a specific sleep pattern goes against their unique personality.
2. Self Soothing & Cry-It-Out
Self soothing isn’t really a thing. Dr. Thomas Anders coined the term in the 1970s, but it was taken out of context. He says that “Self-soothing is a label we coined to contrast it with signaling (crying) upon awakening. I would bet that most non-signaling awakenings occur without active self-soothing.”
The premise of sleep training, specifically the cry-it-out methods, is to teach the baby to self-soothe so that they don't need to rely on Mom or Dad in the middle of the night to put them back to sleep. In his book "The Whole Brain Child", Dr. Dan Siegel states that the infant brain is not capable of learning to self soothe as they are born with a developed amygdala (that which feels fear and distress) and NOT the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus which regulate emotions and soothes the self. Infants require an attuned caregiver to help them.
This may be rude, but basically, by sleep training and letting baby cry until he self-soothes back to sleep, he's learning that Mommy or Daddy won't come to him when he cries for help. He will eventually stop crying and it will "work", but it's not because he's mastered self soothing. It's because he's lost all trust that you'll come to him when he needs you to.
3. Get Outside
So what can you do to help everyone sleep a little better?
Most importantly, get outside. Many newborns are born with their internal clocks seeming to be backwards - they sleep all day and are awake all night. That's because their circadian rhythm needs some help adjusting to life outside of the womb. What you can do is get everyone outside for at least 20 minutes before 10:00am and stay outside as long as possible. While inside, keep curtains and blinds open and lights on during the day. Two hours before bed, turn off all screens and dim lights in the house, close the blinds and curtains. Have a consistent bedtime routine consisting of bath, story, bottle/breast or whatever it looks like for your family. Keep the AC between 68 and 72 - lowering it to your sleeping temperature about 30-60 minutes before bedtime. (Hint: these tips are great to implement for you too, momma!)
4. Safe Sleep
Everyone knows the AAP suggests ABC of safe sleep: alone, on their back, in an empty crib. So I won't be covering that.
Let's get real for a second. Between 60 and 70% of parents who claim they would never sleep in a bed with their baby end up doing so at some point. By demonizing bedsharing and fear mongering rather than educating parents on how to do it safely, it does more harm than good. For example, you wake at 2am to breastfeed baby. You take her out of her bassinet, which is next to your bed, and move to a glider across the room because you know you're just too tired to sit in bed - you'll fall back asleep! So you sit in the glider and nurse her. Cue the heavy eyes and you fall back asleep. Your grip loosens and suddenly you're not holding baby quite as well as you should be. She could be fine, but she could also fall out of your arms or wedge her face in between you and the arm of the chair suffocating her. By learning how to have a safe bed for bedsharing should it ever "accidently" (or purposefully!) occur, you ensure safety and more sleep for all. I mean, who wants to move across the room at 2am then back at 2:30 hoping Baby doesn't wake when you put her back in the bassinet?
La Leche League International has come up with the Safe Sleep Seven to ensure those who choose to or accidentally bedshare are doing it safely. It's only for breastfeeding moms while baby is younger than 4 months because of heightened instincts, but bottle feeding moms and dads can absolutely follow these guidelines with older babies as well.
To the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat:
No smoke, sober mom
Baby at your breast
Healthy baby on his back
Keep him lightly dressed.
Not too soft a bed
Watch the cords and gaps
Keep the covers off his head
For your nights and naps.
Breastfeeding mothers tend to naturally position themselves in a C position around baby so baby should be on the outside, not in between mom and dad, but far enough away from the edge of the bed. You can see from the photo above what the C position looks like.
The last facts I want to point out is that crib sleeping is relatively new in the last 100 years. Prior to that, family beds were the norm. Also, in Japan, bedsharing is the norm and lasts until the child asks to leave and SIDS does not exist. So the argument that bedsharing equals SIDS is debunked right there.
5. Nighttime Parenting
Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone, just like walking. We can respond to our babies while they need us, both day and night. Unfortunately, as parents we aren't prepared for this like firefighters or EMTs are prepared for nighttime disruption. And not to mention, nighttime parenting and tending to baby's needs between 7pm and 7am is taboo in our society. But it's biologically normal!
There are so many benefits to nighttime parenting. Here are just a few:
A common complaint of new mothers is that they end up being the sole person responsible for nighttime parenting, and this can leave them feeling touched out and burnt out. By learning a few techinques, Dad can assist and take the load off of Mom sometimes. My favorite is what Dr. Sears calls "fathering down". The deep vibrations of Dad's voice is soothing to Baby. Have Dad talk or hum softly with Baby on his chest and Baby will be out in no time!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with nursing to sleep but you can also start introducing other techniques early on. Rocking, dancing, babywearing, strolling, swinging - whatever works for you and your family. Just remember, sleep is not linear, nor is preferences. What works today might not work next week so remain flexible and keep your options open. Learn to roll with the punches and tend to Baby's needs, whether it's 2pm or 3am.
I realize this blog post may come off as a little harsh to some, and I really don't mean for it to. I know that we all do what we think is best with the information we have - and the information surrounding us is heavily sleep training and independence saturated. However, I believe babies need someone to be a voice for them. For too long, we as a society have been disrupting attachment and the mental health of parents and children. So, momma, you do you and don't worry about if it's the societal norm or not!
Some excellent resources to check out are The Baby Sleep Book by Dr. Sears, Safe Infant Sleep by Dr. James McKenna, Sweet Sleep by La Leche League, and The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel.
Allesanda received her Bachelors in Behavioral Science from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in December 2013. She now lives in North Texas with her husband and three children. As a maternal support practitioner and educator of family sleep and eco-friendly living, she blogs about family sleep, wellness, nutrition, pregnancy, birth, postpartum, holistic health, and parenting.