Why hearing “Is he a good baby?” (aka: “does he sleep through yet?”) annoys me SO much!
Sleep. The holy grail of new parenting.
One of the biggest measures of your success as a “good mum” according to modern day society and one of my biggest bug bears. For those of you who ever meet me, I will warn you in advance, unless you want me bending your ear for well over an hour – never, ever bring this up with me!
I remember the heady days of being a student, the only morning hours I saw occurred somewhere between 1am and 4am, staggering home from a nightclub or student disco full of £1 a pint watered down beer. Actually, no that’s a lie, I remember catching the closing credits of This Morning quite a lot, how I graduated I’ll never know! It was more than normal for me to crawl out of bed at 1pm. I pretty much slept away most of my teenage years and early twenties.
…….and then it hit me. My firstborn, arrived on a rainy day in July, back in 2002 and my sleep has never been the same since, I suspect it never will be again, now we’re rapidly approaching the teenage years I know I won’t be able to sleep whilst he (and his 3 siblings) are out drinking away their youth (much like their mother did) - I know my sleep will be fitful until I hear their key in the door and know that they are safe, by the time they leave all home I will most likely be in my sixties – and much like my grandparents I suspect I will be up with the dawn chorus, dressed, tidied and newspaper bought by 7am. Oh yes, sleep is an elusive friend now, do I miss him? – I can’t lie and say I don’t - but I have something so much more wonderful in its place and you know what? If I didn’t want my life to change I wouldn’t have had children in the first place!
What really gets on my goat with the above question though is that firstly a sleeping baby does not equal a “good baby” -what is a “good baby” anyway? The mind boggles, how can you label a baby as “good” surely that then implies some will be labelled as “bad” (but that’s
a whole other blog post!). No, what really winds me up is that we seemingly have no understanding of NORMAL infant sleep. If we did there would be no role for the myriad of “baby sleep trainers” out there. So what is NORMAL infant sleep?
Those of you who know me will know how much I love my stats and science. So lets take a whistle-stop tour of the sleep patterns of a young baby. When a baby is in utero he borrows the circadian rhythms (natural sleep/wake cycle) of his mother as melatonin is passed to him via the placenta, after birth however, he’s on his own and it takes his wee body a while to be able to do what his mother’s did. In fact it takes him until at least 4mths to get anywhere close and even longer – until he begins school to really get the same effect. That’s not all though, not only do they lack the hormonal regulators of sleep of an adult – a baby’s sleep cycle is hugely different, in fact it’s very simplistic, composed of two basic states (quiet – deep -sleep and active – alert – sleep) and is about half the length of an adult sleep state. Now this makes perfect biological sense, it keeps our tender young offspring more alert should a predator threaten their life – but what predator will come and gobble them up in their nursery I hear you ask? Nature might be clever, but not quite clever enough to evolve us that quickly, so – for now – we still possess the same innate responses that kept our hunter gatherer predecessors safe. Imagine then that a baby goes through a sleep cycle twice as quickly as an adult, that means they wake AT LEAST twice as much as us during the night, in fact they move into a light sleep state around once every 25 minutes. That means that have the likelihood of waking fully every 25minutes if something alerts them.
Why do babies wake (fully) so frequently though? Surely they can’t be hungry every 25minutes (even if their tummy is little bigger than a marble!) – silly isn’t it? Why do you wake at night? For me, last night it was because:
- 1) my husband snored
- 2) my 6yr old banged me over the head – hard (incidentally he was in our bed as he was really upset the night before)
- 3) I heard a funny noise downstairs
- 4) I saw a spooky shadow on the wall
- 5) I had watched a particularly disturbing film the night before (The Orphan – shiver! this probably explains 3 & 4!) and
- 6) I needed a wee.
Why then do we presume babies “should be able to sleep through by 12 weeks” (or even younger according to some experts!) – for a start that is WRONG, a baby will not “sleep through” – they WILL wake, LOTS they just may not alert us, as parents, to the fact (the reasons why necessitate a whole new blog post!). They will wake, not just for hunger – but for fear, loneliness, uncomfortable temperatures, uncomfortable bedding, uncomfortable clothing, soiled nappies, noises – or lack of noise, need for physical closeness to another human …I could go on………..just as I woke for numerous reasons last night and was pleased my 6ft burly husband was next to me when I woke afraid! Babies wake for LOTS of reasons too. Now, are they really “good” if they don’t call out to us? Are we really “good parents” because our babies lay, alone & awake and don’t want us? Granted some babies do this naturally – my second born “slept through” (whatever you take that comment to mean!) at about 8wks and never wanted me in the night (much to my dismay – snuggly night feeds are now one of my fondest memories of babyhood – such a still, thoughtful time, sitting there babe in arms thinking of all my mother sisters around the world doing the same thing – ahhhhh) – but he is in the minority.
It is NORMAL for a baby to wake – LOTS – in the night!!!! To give you an idea of how normal let’s finish with some stats:
- According to Scher’s study of “Night waking in the first year” (1991) at 3 months 46% of babies woke regularly at night, 39% of 6mths old woke regularly and then the classic sleep regression at 9mths with a huge 58% waking regularly tailing off to 55% still waking regularly at night at 12months.
- In the Avon Longitudinal Sleep Study – which looked at the sleep of 640 infants found only 16% “slept through” at six months of age and of those 6month olds 16% still had absolutely no regular sleep pattern.
- According to Armstrong, Quinn and Dadd (1994) “nearly a third of all parents have significant problems with their child’s sleep behaviour”.
- Lastly according to Henderson, 2010, only 50% of 4month old babies sleep for a period of 5hours.
So, wake up world (literally!) – It’s time to get real. It’s time to have realistic expectations of a baby’s sleeping habits – it’s time to stop labelling the ABNORMAL ones “good” and judging parenting skills by a baby’s sleep!
Let’s prepare parents to have more realistic expectations and concentrate our efforts on helping them to to be as relaxed and supported as possible during this normal period for all babies!
Sarah – Mum of four and founder of BabyCalm.
You can read more of Sarah’s articles HERE.