Infant Sleep Myths
I have a few issues with infant sleep training culture.
Not necessarily with sleep training, but with the way sleep training books and sleep consultants frame infant sleep. When sleep training books tell parents (especially new ones!) exactly how their infant should be sleeping, and when normal infant biology rears its lovely head rejecting all sleep training recommendations, it increases parental stress and makes caring for your infant feel burdensome and confusing.
So, let’s bust more myths and maybe bring a bit of calm into this season of life.
Sleep Training Culture
First, I believe sleep training culture promotes an inaccurate view of normal infant sleep development. For example, instead of seeing a baby’s frequent night waking as a part of a normal aspect of infant development, sleep training culture tells you it’s because a baby has been over helped and developed a bad habit. Sleep trainers promote ‘consistent’ interventions to help a baby get ‘back on track’.
I think a family should respond to infant sleep in a way that works best for them- each family has a different threshold for stress, sleep deprivation, and need for body space. I’m not against working with your kid to help everyone in the house sleep better, BUT, I think the information given to parents should be discussed through the lens of infant biology so parents know what is normal infant behavior and what is a legitimate sleep issue.
If you help an infant to sleep they won’t learn how to turn inward and self soothe. You create a bad habit by doing too much for your infant, which will lead to sleep problems now and in toddlerhood.
Infant and toddler sleep is rocky. Why? Because these little babes are only human. They get teeth, they learn new skills and are excited to practice them in their sleep; or they get lonely, thirsty or hungry. Researchers looking at sleep patterns have found that between 6 and 12 months infants who had previously been sleeping long stretches suddenly start to wake more frequently at night for no known reason (Scher, 1991; Scher, 2001). One study found that there was no stability in night wakings or even sleep duration between at age 3 and 42 months (Scher, Epstein, & Tirosh, 2004). We don’t know why this happens, only that it’s normal. Night wakings are experienced by many children until around 3 years of age when their prefrontal cortex is more developed making self-soothing more likely. These wakings do not mean your child has a sleep problem. Increased night wakings and crying are more common around 6 months and again around 2 years of age. A parent’s perception about what constitutes a sleep problem may be triggered by either a disconnect between expectations of uninterrupted sleep or a sleep pattern that falls within the range of normal (Loutzenhiser, Ahlquist, & Hoffman 2012). Changes in sleep patterns are challenging, but they are normal. When parents viewed disrupted sleep as problematic, rather than normal, it feel stressful and worrisome (Middlemiss, 2004).
7pm is the perfect time to put your baby to sleep. If your child goes to bed later than 7pm they get less rest and display signs of sleep deprivation.
Cross-cultural data on bedtimes for infants and toddlers shows that later bedtimes are actually frequent in Asian countries (Mindell, Sadeh, Wiegand, How, & Goh, 2010). The bedtime for children in predominantly Caucasian countries was found to be 8:42 pm. A vast majority of children in predominantly Asian countries sleep either in the parent’s bed or room. Children who sleep with their parents may naturally have a sleep schedule closer to their parents owing to the sleeping arrangements. A late bedtime is only a problem if it feels like it’s a problem for you and your family. Your child won’t be sleep deprived if they go to bed later, as long as they are getting enough sleep overall. Also, it’s fairly new to sleep for 8 hour stretches at night. Historically, it was a natural for our body to gravitate toward sleeping in 4 hour stretches with an awake period in between.
Controlled crying doesn’t affect a baby’s brain. Plus, you won’t have to sleep train again once a baby learns how to fall asleep and stay asleep without assistance.
Sleep training is stressful to everyone! Cortisol levels increase for parents and infants during sleep training. A baby cries to get its needs met. Responding to crying helps a baby know they have a safe environment. Assuming a crying baby is only crying because it developed a bad sleep habit assumes a great deal about an infant’s mind. A study by Weinraub found the majority of babies who continued to wake at night were not “bad sleepers.” Instead, they were babies who needed attention and guidance, in the form of comfort, physical contact and, in some cases, their mother’s milk, to help them regulate their responses.
Letting babies with have specific needs, such as difficult temperaments, cry can create sleep routines that are harder to manage and leave infants with an overactive stress response system that would make settling more difficult.
I think infant sleep should be approached with specific and nuanced information based on what each individual family needs, your infant’s temperament, and overall breastfeeding goals. There are pros and cons to sleep training just as there are pros and cons to assisting your baby to sleep. Only you know what will work best for you and your family.
In the end, just know this too shall pass. We don’t expect a 4 month old to be able to walk, it takes time to learn. Sleep is the same way. Your baby will learn how to sleep on their own, in time, if you’re okay waiting for them to figure it out.