No other word can generate such an emotive response in so many parents of young children. The “baby sleep industry” is worth millions—a myriad of products from pharmaceutical to musical, mechanical, and material adorn the shelves, luring in tired new parents with the promise of peaceful nights. Thousands of professionals earn a living from exploiting the vulnerabilities and exhaustion of sleep-deprived parents around the world, training babies and toddlers to sleep through the night. To add to this, the media regularly reports on surveys showing how the sleepless nights of babies and toddlers lead to breakdowns in relationships.
Sleep is a big issue in our society, and an enticing moneymaker. Is our species so flawed that we must forever be on the verge of a nervous breakdown for the first three years of our offspring’s life? Or does our obsession with infant sleep show a more troubling need to better understand the norms of our evolutionary biology? If parents were truly educated about the sleep behaviors of normal babies and children, and the illusion of the perfect “contented little baby” sleeping 12 hours at night by as many weeks was shattered and replaced with realistic, evidence-based information, then everything would change. It would change how we are with our babies and children, it would change the value of motherhood, and it would change the support we give to young families. I do not think I am being over dramatic to say that in turn it may then just change the world.
Our society is not supportive of young families. We parent miles away from our own families, no longer embraced by a support network. We are under pressure to “have it all,” to be a “yummy mummy” with a perfect figure, a perfect house, perfect clothes, and a perfect job. It is however, just not possible to live up to this ideal while also responding to the normal and natural needs of our infants. Something has to give, and very often it is the needs of our children. We sleep-train our children in order that they fit into our modern lives more easily. We fool ourselves into believing that it is our offspring that have sleep problems, rather than opening our eyes to the real problem—the disharmony between the primal needs of our young and the expectations of the modern world. Whose problem is it, really? Babies and toddlers don’t sleep like adults. They wake— a lot—and this is perfectly normal.
When a baby is in utero, he borrows the circadian rhythms (body clock) of his mother as melatonin is passed to him via the placenta. Once born, however, he’s on his own, and it takes his body a while to be able to do what his mother’s did. In fact, it takes him until at least 4 months 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 infants lack the hormonal regulators of sleep of an adult, but a baby’s sleep cycle is hugely different, lasting about half as long as an adult sleep state. This makes perfect biological sense: It keeps our tender young offspring more alert should a predator threaten their lives. But what predator will come and gobble them up in their nursery? 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 often as we do during the night. In fact, they move into a light sleep state around once every 25 minutes. That means there is a likelihood of their waking fully every 25 minutes, if something alerts them.
In addition to this, babies and toddlers have a greatly underdeveloped neocortex compared to an adult’s brain. This frontal section of the brain is responsible for rational and analytical thought as well as the regulation of emotional responses. Because of this, babies do not yet possess the skill of emotional self-regulation, or as the sleep trainers like to call it, the skill of “self-soothing.” The “self-soothing” referred to in mainstream books is anything but that. It is a myth— a myth perpetuated to make parents feel better about ignoring their baby’s needs. The way to boost emotional self-regulation in an infant is to be responsive to him when he needs it, so that in time, when his brain’s connectivity matures, it will hardwire the pathways necessary for true “self-soothing.”
Modern science supports the notion that our sleep expectations are anything but realistic, with recent research suggesting that at least a third of 15-month-olds still wake regularly; most children don’t sleep through the night until they are 2 or older. If sleepless nights are still so common in toddlerdom, why do we consider it a problem if our babies and toddlers do not sleep all night? Why do so many inquire about our children’s sleeping habits and suggest methods that do not meet their needs in an attempt to “fix” their sleeping problems? Indeed, even the U.K.’s National Health Service website recommends controlled crying. But it immediately contradicts itself with this passage: “By the time your child is 6 months old, it’s reasonable to expect them to sleep through most nights. However, up to half of all children under 5 go through periods of night waking.” Surely if so many children under 5 go through periods of night waking, then night waking in children must be normal, and not really a “common sleep problem” at all?
Sadly, we have such incorrect expectations of normal infant behavior in society. We try to fix babies: We sleep-train them, we wean them early, we give them “hungry baby” formula to make them sleep for longer, and we follow routines of baby experts to train them to sleep through. However, it isn’t our babies who have sleep problems. They are sleeping normally; quite simply they “sleep like a baby.”
Rather than fixing our babies and toddlers, isn’t it time we looked to fix ourselves?
If we have realistic expectations, we realize that what we really need is not to train our babies and toddlers, but to build a network of support once again for parents— a “village,” as some say. The issue really is a problem belonging to adults and society. What really needs fixing? We need to respect what a huge honor parenting is, and we need to support mothers as much as possible so that they can concentrate on the most important thing they will ever do—raising their babies. How do we return respect to motherhood and provide that necessary support? We must get our leaders and policy makers to understand that what a family really needs is support to be just that— a family. We need to begin with a change in expectations; we are lucky that science is on our side, someday soon it will be impossible to ignore the research any longer.
As mothers, we also have the opportunity to gently re-educate from a grass-roots level. I call it “the Maternal Revolution.” When the mothers of the world reclaim their power I believe they can do anything. Will you join the revolution?
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #55.
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