Infant Sleep Myth
by Eileen Henry
I would like to dispel a myth.
“I hope my baby is a good sleeper,” is a comment commonly heard by pregnant women. “My first child just wasn’t a good sleeper,” says many a parent weary from sharing nights of fitful sleep with a child. Pediatricians support the myth when they say, “Looks like that child is just not a good sleeper.”
My take? It is nearly impossible to give birth to a so-called bad sleeper.
I say nearly because there are medical and brain conditions that make sleep difficult. Some of these conditions even surface in early childhood. But such cases are rare. I have never come across such a condition during the years I have been working as a sleep consultant. Most people I meet are typical. They have typical babies and typical toddlers and have a typical ability to get the sleep they need.
Think about it. Mammals in the wild take incredible risks for the sake of sleep. Indeed, they risk their lives for rest, exposing themselves to predators every time they doze off. Some species have developed incredible adaptations to get sleep. Sleep is that important to the body and the brain.
Sleep is no less vital to our own cubs. Nor are our babies and toddlers any less suited to sleep. My experience has shown me time and again that children who are given the opportunity to sleep are able to sleep. Even children who have gotten into bad habits and unhelpful patterns around sleep can, given the opportunity, overcome the hurdles and sleep like … babies.
What do I mean by opportunity? The typical brain of an infant has little ability to self-regulate and self-soothe. The brain waves coming from this infant brain are mostly Delta waves, or sleep waves, which is why babies are capable of sleeping for most of the day and night. In a 24-hour period most infants sleep for 14 to16 ½ hours. But the sleep cycles are short, in part because of the frequent need for food. Parents responding to this authentic need for food are supporting the most important need of all – the need to form a loving bond and a secure attachment.
Sometime around three to four months babies become more interactive. With the beautiful dawn of the social smile comes the awareness that you, the parents, are the designated people in charge of handling all complaints. This is also a time where the infant begins to require certain conditions in order to sleep. He or she will start to develop strong “sleep associations.” These conditions are whatever we have been providing to facilitate sleep such as; nursing, rocking, strolling, bouncing, walking, driving, etc.
The manner in which we respond to waking children in order to get them back to sleep becomes an expected response. As we continue to provide the response that meets the expectation we train them to need that response. In other words, the need is our creation, not the child’s predisposition.
Unwanted needs can be nipped in the bud. Around the age of three to four months is an excellent time to take a hard look at the routine you use to ‘help” your child fall asleep. Have you employed infant soothing techniques for too long? Are your methods ruining your sleep? Do you dread continuing on this path for another week, another month, another year? Yes?
You are not alone. But insofar as you, the parent, have created the problem, the you, the parent, can take charge of a sleep solution that will benefit every member of the family.