WRITTEN BY DIVYA RATHORE (GUEST WRITER)
No antenatal class or parenting book can ever prepare you for the sleep deprivation you experience when you become a first-time mum. It was brutal with my eldest daughter. She was such a challenging sleeper; she woke every hour at night, she would only sleep in my arms for every single nap, it would take forever to rock her to sleep and she would be up 20 minutes later!
I was so sleep deprived and I felt guilty that I wasn’t fully enjoying being a mum. My mummy friends would always talk about their perfect little sleepers who slept through the night, and I constantly felt like I was doing something wrong.
Everyone I asked for help, kept telling me to sleep train my little girl by leaving her alone to ‘cry it out’. This didn’t feel right to me, but I tried it once, for all of two minutes, and my daughter ended up hysterical and vomited all over herself. I never tried it again, but I was desperate to improve her sleep because I felt like I was close to breaking-point.
I started reading and researching about infant sleep biology, and I found so much misinformation and contradictory advice around baby sleep. I eventually decided to train as a Paediatric sleep consultant in an attempt to empower parents with accurate, evidence-based information, so they are able to make the best possible decisions for their family.
I have worked with families around the world, and there are some common baby sleep myths I always hear. Here are my top 5 most annoying sleep tales which I’m on a mission to bust:
COMMON BABY SLEEP MYTHS
MYTH 1 – YOU NEED TO TEACH YOUR CHILD ‘HOW’ TO FALL ASLEEP
Sleep is not a learned skill. It is not your job to teach your little one how to sleep, it is simply a normal, essential, biological function, that your baby has been doing since they were safe and snug in your womb. While you don’t need to teach your baby how to sleep, you can help provide the optimal conditions for slumber so that your little one is getting the best quantity and quality of sleep that is age and developmentally appropriate.
MYTH 2 – BREASTFEEDING TO SLEEP IS A BAD HABIT
No, no, no! How could something that mothers have been doing for generations be a ‘bad habit. Breastfeeding is in fact designed to help your baby to fall asleep – here’s how:
- During suckling at the breast, the hormone Cholecystokinin is released in both mum and baby, which makes your little one feel full, relaxed and sleepy.
- At night time a mother’s milk contains substantial levels of the hormone melatonin, aka the ‘sleep’ hormone because it makes us feel sleepy. So nursing could provide babies with melatonin via breast milk, which could in turn help to improve our little one’s night time sleep.
- Breast milk also has other super ingredients which could aid sleep in younger babies, like the amino acid Tryptophan, which is used by the body to make melatonin.
So, if nursing to sleep makes biological sense, why are we telling mothers not to do something that is perfectly natural?
A common perception is that by nursing your baby to sleep, she won’t know how to connect sleep cycles, and will always need to be nursed back to sleep. In some cases that may happen, but I have worked with many families who continue to nurse to sleep and have tots sleeping blissfully at night. How you put your baby to sleep is entirely your choice, so if nursing works for you, then enjoy it WITHOUT any mum guilt. My youngest daughter is now 2-years old and I’m still nursing her to sleep for naps because it works for us.
MYTH 3 – YOU NEED TO LEAVE YOUR BABY ALONE TO ‘CRY IT OUT’ TO IMPROVE SLEEP
I understand how difficult sleep deprivation is, so I never judge anyone’s parenting choices. I just want to reassure you that you don’t have to leave your baby alone to cry for any amount of time, in order to improve sleep.
I know the parenting books, ‘experts’, google and your mama friends may tell you differently, but I promise, ‘cry it out’ is not a quick-fix that will sort all your tot’s sleep issues. If your goal is to teach your baby to fall asleep with less help from you, there are so many other evidence-based, gentle, responsive and holistic strategies to help improve your baby’s sleep.
I have worked with countless families who have seen age and developmentally appropriate progress without resorting to any form type of cry it out. Don’t feel pressurised into doing anything that goes against your parenting instincts. You know your baby better than anyone else.
MYTH 4 – CAT NAPS DON’T COUNT AS PROPER SLEEP
I’m constantly hearing how ‘cat’ naps don’t count as proper sleep for babies and that they are somehow inferior to ‘longer’ naps. Well, mamas and papas, let me assure you, that’s a widespread myth!
A baby’s sleep cycle is around 50-60 minutes long and when we talk about a ‘cat nap’ we’re typically referring to a nap that lasts less than one sleep cycle. Short naps are often a worry for parents but they are not necessarily a problem for your little one; your tot may genuinely only need to snooze for 30-40 minutes, or even much less.
It is age and developmentally normal for babies under 6-months to have multiple short naps throughout the day and these naps are typically not predictable or organised.
By 6-months naps usually become more organised, with your tot having fewer and longer naps. But some babies don’t start sleeping longer chunks during the day, until they become much more physically active, like when they start crawling and walking. And there are plenty of older tots who simply don’t need to nap longer than one sleep cycle, but they sleep blissfully at night and are thriving perfectly.
Remember, there is only so much sleep your tot needs in 24 hours. It’s important to look at how much sleep your little one is getting over the entire day and not just for a single nap. Your baby may have cat naps but sleeps for a long stint at night, or vice versa, where your tot has a lot of day sleep and only sleep 10 or less hours at night.
Every baby is different and will have different sleeping patterns and they certainly don’t all need to have a chunky 2-hour nap every day. So, although short naps have a pretty bad reputation they do count as ‘proper sleep’ for your tot and encouraging your child to sleep more than they need to during the day, can impact night sleep!
MYTH 5 – YOUR BABY SHOULD BE SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT BY 6 MONTHS
‘Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?’ How many times have you been asked this question? There is so much pressure on parents to encourage their babies to start sleeping through the night as early as possible. If babies haven’t reached this milestone by 6-months, often parents worry they are doing something wrong or that their baby has a sleep problem.
But it is absolutely normal for your tot to wake in the night for at least the first year of their life. Research shows:
- The majority of infants 6-12 months still regularly wake at least once a night, although nocturnal waking does typically reduce with age.
- By about 18 months, around a quarter of babies, on average, still wake at least one during the night.
I wouldn’t get too fixated on the research as this is only based on data on some babies and your child may not necessarily ‘fit’ these average patterns found in the research. Just remember, every baby is different and will reach the ‘sleeping through the night’ milestone when they are biologically ready to do so.
There are plenty of other sleep myths I’ve come across, so next time you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, just trust your maternal instincts, you’re almost always likely to be right.