If there’s one thing that is universally true about parenting a newborn, it’s that mama and papa will be enduring some serious sleep deprivation. Although babies sleep a lot (we’re talking 16 to 17 hours a day early on), they also wake frequently and with several pressing needs.
Along with the parents’ expected lack of Zs comes a sort of unexpected sleep naiveté. Is baby getting enough rest? Where should she sleep? What time should she go to bed? What is “sleep training”? What about SIDS?
Tired to the bone and confused by the massive amounts of infant sleep information out there—much of it presenting contradictory points of view—parents often feel as though they’re getting it wrong. But it’s important to remember that each family has different sleep patterns and needs. Establishing good habits is important, but whatever gets the entire family the best rest safely is the overall goal.
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Sleep parenting vs. sleep training
We live in a world of convenience. Every answer to every question is seemingly at our fingertips. We can order groceries online and see them at our doorstep before dinner. This instant gratification of modern times has even trickled down to the way we view infant sleep. “Is she sleeping through the night yet?” has been a common question for many years, but recent generations of parents have come to seek solutions to the so-called “problem” of night-waking.
“Sleep training” is a term that loosely covers many areas of parenting thought—Cry it Out (or CIO), Feberizing, BabyWise—which all basically mean the same thing: letting baby cry for a period of time with a goal of teaching her to self-regulate, self-soothe and sleep for longer stretches through the night.
Some parents swear by some form of sleep training, but for others it comes with some level of guilt, misgiving or confusion. “My biggest regret in terms of sleep was the day I let my husband talk me into letting our son cry it out,” says Suzanne Thompson, a mother of two from Sacramento, California. “My sweet baby had cried so hard he vomited and then fell asleep in it. I’ve never actually admitted that before. It is still a huge source of shame and guilt for me, and needless to say, I never let it happen again.”
Parents often speak of crying themselves while incorporating CIO methods and recall “staying strong” on the other side of the closed nursery door. Why is this? Very simply put, we are biologically wired to go to our baby—no matter how exhausted or frustrated we might be. To ignore those cries goes against instinct and in turn raises the cortisol—or stress hormone—levels in both the parent and the child.
That’s not to say that it can’t work, and it’s certainly not to say that older babies can’t handle some independent fussing with nighttime boundaries set by the parents. Experimenting with a reduction in soothing time and a wait-and-see initiative upon first cry is something known as “sleep parenting.”
Sleep parenting keeps the parent-child connection and the needs of the baby in mind. The term highlights the fact that parents are parents 24 hours a day. Children, and babies in particular, might have nighttime needs that are inconvenient to the parent, and the parent—or a trusted caregiver—should respond to those needs.
Such an important piece in understanding infant sleep is the realization that every baby is different. Some sleep characteristics are universal, but most are unique to the individual.
Consider the adults you know. Chances are you’ve encountered “night owls” and “morning people,” light sleepers and deep sleepers. Some of your friends may need 10 hours of sleep to feel sane, while others can cruise through the day energetically on a solid six and a half. Babies, too, have their own sleep characteristics.
“Temperament is the biggest factor in how babies sleep,” says Lisa Erbes, childbirth educator, lactation counselor and infant sleep consultant from Burnsville, Minnesota. “You cannot change your baby’s temperament, but you can change how you respond to your child’s particular sleep needs.”
An example of adjusting to your baby’s temperament would be the evening routine: Most babies love baths and many respond to that activity by relaxing. However, some babies are easily stimulated. For those infants, baths might be playful and exciting—which means it’s not a good idea, then, to bathe just before bed. This kind of discovery, of course, comes from trial and error. Get to know your newbie and respect her temperament. This will help you create an appropriate routine and get more rest.
“A newborn’s brain does not make sleep hormones. Their sleep patterns are driven by one thing … getting fed,” Erbes explains. “How long they sleep depends on how long it takes to eat, digest and become hungry again.” So expect your baby to wake frequently.
Erbes goes on to point out, “The definition of sleeping through the night, for an infant, is five consecutive hours after midnight.” That’s right: five hours.
With your expectations in check, you can start to establish a simple routine that lets your little one know that it’s time to rest. Examples of routine building blocks might include:
- Singing softly
- Reading a story
- Quieting the house
- Dimming the lights
Amy Magneson, MD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, recommends parents begin this process sooner rather than later: “Do it early! Start establishing a routine with your babies right when they get home—a routine of where they sleep, what their nap times are and what their bedtime is. They may not stick to it right away—and that’s OK—but if the framework is there, it will make things so much easier.”
When together is better
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorses room-sharing, but not bed-sharing. However, some pediatric studies show a decrease in the risk of SIDS when bed-sharing is done properly, intentionally and between an exclusively breastfeeding mother and her child. In fact, James McKenna, PhD, the renowned Notre Dame University anthropologist and longtime advocate of proximal sleeping between mother and child, and his colleague Lee Gettler, PhD, advocate for the use of a new word: “breast-sleeping.”
“Our baby sleeps in bed with us and snacks on [mom’s milk] whenever she is hungry. This is standard in many countries but not always accepted in the U.S.,” says Jesse Oquist, a father of three in McKinney, Texas. “Some mothers have said that they can’t get enough sleep when the baby has an open buffet, but my wife wouldn’t be able to get to sleep any other way.”
La Leche League International has been recommending the practice for years. They emphasize their own resource, “The Safe Sleep Seven.” All criteria on the list should be met before considering bed-sharing, without exception.
Trust your instincts
It’s been years since her struggle with CIO, and Thompson has spent a lot of time reflecting on the incident. “I read a lot of books because I research everything, but when it came right down to it, I did what felt right and kept my children content,” she says. “Feeding them when they were hungry, letting them sleep when they were tired and just following their cues as much as possible worked very well for me. It was exhausting and wonderful all at the same time.”
There’s plenty to consider when it comes to infants and sleep, but if there’s one takeaway we can all benefit from, it’s this: Start with a deep breath, follow your instincts, and do the best you can.