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Ask a Childbirth Educator (April 2022)

Even strangers say, “is your baby sleeping through the night yet!”

It’s interesting how sleep becomes such a huge topic when a new-born baby enters the world.  Is your baby sleeping through the night, is your baby sleeping enough, does your baby have cat-naps, are you getting enough sleep, or my favourite – is your baby a ‘good’ baby? (Whoever has heard of a bad baby – no such thing!).  Sleeping through the night for one family, can have a completely different meaning to another – some are up until 11pm or even midnight with their baby and consider this sleeping through the night; others may have their last feed at 8pm and up again for a feed at 1am – the same length of sleep time, but just at different parts of the night.

Understanding how a baby sleeps and their sleep cycles might make it easier for families to relax and enjoy parenthood rather than stressing about the sleep their baby is or isn’t having.

Your baby is unique and if your baby is sleeping less or waking more than your friend’s baby, it is often labelled a ‘sleep problem’ – however generally it is more a ‘parental problem’ because the baby isn’t sleeping how the parents want or anticipate them to sleep.

There are many books and sleep advisors/consultants in the community whom parents sometimes turn to if their expectations of baby’s sleep aren’t meeting reality.  However, you’ll find the best advisors are those who reassure you that your baby is individual, to take time to get to know your baby, to relax, to respond to all their needs and to understand the sleeping and development requirements that babies have. 

Sleep patterns rather than routines work best.  A strict routine can be very damaging and restrict baby’s development both physically and emotionally.  A pattern is one where the baby will associate that pattern with sleep time. For example, rather than whisking baby off to bed when a tired sign is detected, using an unwinding technique where baby will recognise that it is bedtime and mentally prepare.  It might be a song you sing, reading a book, a quiet comfort breastfeed, head massage, etc.

Babies have around twice as much REM sleep than adults.  This is an important part of their sleep as this is when new neural connections are constantly being made in their rapidly growing brain. 

The well-researched website https://www.basisonline.org.uk says these ‘Popular beliefs about when babies should be ‘sleeping through the night’ are based on studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s on groups of formula-fed babies. However, it is normal for babies – especially breastfed babies – to wake and feed at night throughout at least the first year. Encouraging babies to ‘sleep through’ before they are ready to do so makes it difficult to keep on breastfeeding and may encourage babies to develop mature sleep patterns out of sequence with their other circadian patterns such as those controlling the regulation of temperature, hormone production, and the genes that control our biological rhythms.’

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