Now I want to make this very clear before I write on. Babies are not designed to sleep through the night. Babies wake for various reasons including hunger and the want/need for comfort. Parents are often given poor information on the subject and this can lead to uninformed decisions about managing a babies sleep, often based on un-evidenced advice such as giving a breastfed baby formula before bed and attempting sleep training techniques from a very young age. What would be much more helpful would be more widely shared information on the normality of baby sleep patterns. A recent study by Swansea University suggests that 78% of babies age 6-12 months don’t sleep through, surely then, waking in the night should be classed as ‘normal sleep habits’ rather than problematic! Again, it seems to be a Western-societal issue and is possibly linked to the culture of unpaid leave, having to return to work and having limited support, as the care of the baby is managed only by its parents rather than in a community as a whole.
However, sleep is very important to a baby’s development. Research from the University of Sheffield found that the notion of ‘sleeping like a baby’ is extremely important in declarative memory consolidation – such as retaining facts, events and knowledge. Most babies need a lot of sleep to develop and grow. Additionally, a good sleep for a mother is likely to greatly reduce the likelihood of the mother getting PND, not to mention the general sense of being able to manage with basic daily tasks (read more in this blog).
I strongly believe that some babies do have problematic sleep though, this could be classed as frequent waking, not being put down to sleep and really any sleep pattern that is having negative impact on the parents. When a baby is over 6 months (when they have a grasp of object permanence), then it is perfectly acceptable for parents to address their child’s sleep if they so wish.
Here are a few techniques that can improve sleep for babies/parents:-
Co-sleeping – when practised safely and sensibly co-sleeping can benefit both the mother and the baby. Particularly if an infant is keen to feed throughout the night as the Mother can lie next to the baby and get some much needed shut eye.
Pick Up/Put Down – A method used by The Baby Whisperer (description of technique here). Seen as a middle-ground strategy where baby isn’t dependent on the parent as a ‘prop’ to sleep, nor are they ‘abandoned’. It’s a technique that requires a lot of patience.
Controlled Crying – this technique is increasingly seen as controversial and has much conflicting advice around it. The NHS give this guidance and some of the articles against Controlled Crying are addressed neatly in this article. It generally sees good results but also requires some patience at the beginning.
I think it’s important to note that no longitudinal studies exist around any of these techniques. Therefore theories that children may develop negative sleep association due to one technique or another are just that, theories! There is no clear evidence to suggest that co-sleeping and feeding your baby through the night has a long-term impact on your child’s ability to self settle. There is also no good evidence to suggest that the Controlled Crying method alone would be traumatic to your child or lead to negative associations with bedtime.
What this boils down to is what feels right for you as a parent and how your baby responds to your choices. I have known people try everything and anything before trying Controlled Crying and then feel guilty to confess it worked for them. They should not be made to feel guilty for allowing their child and themselves some much-needed sleep. I am also aware that parents often feel like they are shamed into thinking they shouldn’t feed their child during the night, a completely ridiculous concept if parent and child are happy to do this. Unfortunately it’s just another area that people feel that it’s acceptable to comment and judge parents in all camps.
Do what is right for you. Don’t feel ashamed to try sleep techniques. It’s all just a game of trial and error anyway.