New parenting sleep disruption is both well known and unexpected. While new parents are aware that babies need frequent night care, the reality is often a cruel surprise. “What’s wrong with my baby?” new parents are asking, or “what’s wrong with me that I can’t get this baby to sleep?”
If you are facing this, you are not a bad parent, nor is your baby abnormal. You are simply asking the wrong questions. Instead of “why isn’t my baby sleeping?”, Parents should ask themselves “why do I think they should sleep now?” and “what am I basing my expectations on?”
There are three currently prevailing views on infant sleep norms. These are known as the cultural norm, the biomedical norm, and the biological or evolutionary norm.
Cultural norm refers to the beliefs held by different cultural groups that support notions of what is right. The dominant cultural beliefs about children in the UK are that “good children” are not demanding and sleep through the night; a good baby is a sign of a good parent.
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This cultural norm also holds that babies must be left to cry and will be spoiled if they are picked up too often. He says babies should learn to “calm down on their own” (to fall asleep on their own) and that cradling or cuddling a baby to sleep prevents it.
The Roots of Sleep Beliefs
These cultural beliefs about childcare are recent. They emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were heavily promoted by such prominent figures as American psychologist John B Watson and pediatrician L Emmet Holt. They reflect the practices and lifestyles of the white middle class 100 years ago, at a time when independence, self-reliance and stoicism were highly valued in Western society. Child education experts said their methods would help parents raise children who exhibited these qualities.
On the other hand, biomedical (or clinical) expectations for what is normal tend to come from mean values determined by classical studies, which can be presented in parenting books, websites, and childcare clinic rankings such as guidelines for normal baby sleep. For example, they might suggest that at three months, babies need 14 to 16 hours of sleep a day and should take three to four naps a day.
However, these recommendations often reflect only averages of data collected from small samples at specific times and places. Meta-analyzes – studies that look at numerous pieces of research – have found huge variations underpinning how much babies sleep. Rather than relying on graphs of average sleep patterns, we can say that a child has got enough sleep if he is alert and happy when awake.
Answers from evolution
The biological or evolutionary norm is less known but probably more realistic. Consider how the evolved biology of mothers and babies can help us understand the sleep of babies in the first months of life. Remembering that human babies are mammalian babies can help us understand this.
Mammalian babies are, by definition, fed with mother’s milk and intensively cared for after birth. Humans, like other primates, produce low-fat, high-sugar milk. This means that human babies have to feed often to feed their rapidly growing brains, which are only a quarter of their adult size at birth.
This explains why human babies are uniquely helpless and dependent, wake up frequently at night and prefer contact with a caregiver during the first three months of life. This biological view of infant sleep is quite different from the cultural and clinical expectations of infant sleep in most Western societies.
Understanding normal infant sleep biology can also help parents cope with other aspects of baby sleep. Knowing that babies are developing a circadian rhythm, adapting their wake and sleep patterns to light and dark, will help parents understand that it is a good thing to expose babies to daylight early in the day and that long naps in the day. a dark room during the day disrupts this developing circadian rhythm and is best avoided.
Biologically normal approaches to sleep in the first year of life can also help parents harmonize family sleep patterns. This can be done by pushing the baby’s bedtime late into the evening, so parents can benefit from having their sleep aligned with their baby’s longest sleep period (usually the first sleep of the night). Short daytime naps in daylight for babies can also reduce nocturnal awakenings and encourage them to sleep more during the night hours.
Know what is normal
Friends and family can help parents have realistic expectations about their baby’s sleep. Instead of asking new parents questions that frame normal baby behavior as problematic (“do you sleep well?”), Friends and family might instead ask something like “how are you coping with night care?”, “Did you get enough help? ” or “can you get out?”
Normalizing questions like this emphasize that nocturnal awakening is expected and difficult. They reinforce the importance of asking for and getting help from partners, family and friends, and that leaving the house with the baby can be beneficial (both for the baby’s sleep and for the mental health of the parents).
Ultimately, allowing parents to experience what works for their child and family rather than following cultural or biomedical norms slavishly reduces anxiety and improves everyone’s well-being. To understand what normal baby sleep entails, let your baby show you.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Helen Ball currently receives research funding from the NIHR ARC (Applied Research Collaborative) for North East and North Cumbria. She has previously received research funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Scottish Department of Health, Lullaby Trust, Leverhulme Trust, Nuffield Foundation, Babes in Arms Charity and Scottish Cot Death Trust. She is affiliated with the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative, Lullaby Trust and the International Society for the Study and Prevention of Infant Deaths (ISPID).