'Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?'
For some reason this is the question new mothers get asked more than any other by friends and family, as though an accurate picture of mother and baby's health and happiness can be judged on their sleeping patterns alone.
It isn't just friends and family though, it's doctors, Childcare providers, authors, and other mothers. Our entire society seams to be oddly preoccupied and grossly misinformed about infant sleep.
Companies produce baby products like night lights, sound machines, special blankets, and mobiles that they tell us will soothe and calm our babies into sleeping soundly through the night.
Every tom dick and Harry has a son/daughter/nephew/godchild/
The worst part is the words we use to describe these sleepy infants. the labeling of babies who sleep through the night as 'good babies' suggests to the desperate over tired parents of babies who do not sleep through the night that there is something 'bad' or wrong with their children.
If you are one of these desperate and over tired parents, or someone without children who has bought into these ideas about infant sleep I have something to tell you.
THAT IS NOT HOW BABIES SLEEP!
What's more, that is not how babies are MEANT to sleep.
It is time for our society to stop expecting so much from infants who can not and should not meet these ridiculous expectations of their behavior.
It is a baby's instinct to wake up in the night for two very good reasons.
1) To eat. Whether you breastfeed or not, your child's need to eat in the night should NEVER be ignored. Frequent eating is needed at regular intervals over a 24 hour span to replenish the calories that babies need to grow. Even formula fed babies NEED to eat during the night, despite what the formula companies tell you about formula keeping a baby fuller longer.
2) To build and maintain milk supply. Contrary to popular belief breasts do not store milk, they MAKE milk. What's more they make milk on a supply and demand basis. The more frequently and the longer a baby nurses at the breast the more milk the breasts create. Even if a baby is formula fed, his/her instinct is to eat frequently day and night to ensure supply.
There are some that believe that the need for night nursing passes after the 6th month. It is my belief that these people are wrong. Every baby is different, and while a 6 month old baby may medically be able to go through a night without eating, it certainly doesn't mean that they should or have to. In fact, as babies become more active and interested in the world around them and less interested in sitting still to eat their need for extra nighttime calories increases to make up for what they may have been too busy to take in during the day.
With our sleeping expectations so high for our infants it is no big surprise that the disappointment and desperation of many a tired parent has lead them to believe that a baby who does not sleep through the night needs to be fixed or 'trained'.
When these parents reach out for help, there is no shortage of 'helpful' (and sometimes expensive) advice out there for them. Sadly, much of this advice is dispensed with little to no consideration of the facts listed above.
Much of this advice encourages the idea that infants will never be good sleepers if they are not 'taught' to sleep and taught to sleep without the assistance of a parent or sleeping aid. According to our society, babies 'have to learn to put themselves to sleep' in order to be 'good sleepers' in later life.
And so, tired and desperate parents are told that all of their problems will be solved if they simply leave their babies to cry themselves to sleep.
Not surprising in our society that values independence above most everything else, the idea of crying it out has been stretched much further than sleep. Not only are parents told that they're sleep problems will be solved, but the advice to cry it out often comes with other false promises of less whining and better behaved children.
Many proponents of the cry it out method go as far as to tell parents that failing to leave a baby to cry will 'spoil' the child and sentence those parents to a long hard life of servitude to a demanding brat.
Well cry-it-out supporters, I am quite obviously not buying it.
I will never leave my child to cry it out, and here are my reasons why:
First of all I believe that it is cruel. My baby's instincts tell him that to be alone is to die. He needs me to fulfill all of his needs so that he can survive; it is my job to be available to him.
What's more it is MY instinct to respond to his cries. There is a reason why the cry it out method is so hard for mothers, our response to our baby's cries is so strong it is often physical. For our babies it is much worse. Where we have the ability to reason that they are in a safe place and are not in danger, our babies do not yet have that ability.
Secondly I believe that responding quickly and consistently to my baby's cries is a vital part of his development. Part of learning to communicate is learning that his actions affect the world around him. When he is hungry he says so and I feed him, when he is frustrated he says so and I can help him, when he is hurt or scared he says so and he is comforted.
When I respond quickly and consistently to my baby's cries he also develops confidence and independence. As he grows my baby will play and explore, learn and experiment with the knowledge that I am here if he needs me. He will also develop security with his own sovereignty in knowing that his actions can affect the world around him. It is my belief that children who are left to cry do not develop this kind of confidence so easily.
We are the models by which our children base their own behavior. From day one they are watching us. As my baby gets older and starts interacting with people outside of his immediate family group, he will take how he has been treated as an example of how to treat others. By responding quickly and consistently to his cries I am teaching him compassion and kindness.
By responding quickly and consistently to my baby's cries I am making him a smarter healthier human being. I don't really have any hard evidence to back that up, but it makes sense so me that the less time and energy my baby spends crying for my attention, the more energy he will have for growing, and more time he will spend learning.
Most importantly, by responding quickly and consistently to my baby's cries I am accepting that he is after all, just a baby. His needs do not have to be in conflict with my own, they are simply different.
He will not be a baby forever, and when these quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) nighttime moments are gone I will miss them (a little anyways). He will eventually learn to sleep through the night, and even learn to fall asleep on his own, and I will teach him those things gently with love and support.
I would not leave my baby to cry himself to sleep any more that I would refuse him training wheels and a helping hand to learn to ride a bike, or leave him alone in a room with a book to learn to read.
Night waking is simply part of being the parent of a small baby. There is nothing wrong with that.
I am not saying that tired parents need to remain tired (well, over tired, you're going to be tired the rest of your life whether you sleep 8 hours or 2). Part of taking care of your baby is taking care of yourself.
My advice to tired parents:
Sleep when your baby sleeps whenever possible, day or night.
Household chores, emails, showers and phone calls can all be done when baby is awake with a little practice and determination... Or done when your partner or someone else is with the baby... or can even be done by your partner or someone else.
The fact is that even a baby who does not sleep through the night will sleep anywhere from 12 to 16 or more hours in a 24 hour period. If you're sleeping when your baby is sleeping you will be getting that much too... Just not all together, and not always when you think you should be getting them... But you will be getting them!
'Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?'