Whenever I talk about sleep with expectant or new parents there is often a discussion around bad habits and wanting babies to fall asleep by themselves or stay asleep longer at night/not need help to get back to sleep when they wake.
My conversations have followed a similar format until recently when I added some new reflections.
I usually talk about normal newborn behaviour. Babies have teeny tummies that empty and need refilling frequently. That means they need to wake through the night and although a new born sleeps lots it isn’t it consolidated stretches for quiet a while.
Babies also need to be close to their caregiver. All they know is being in mum’s tummy, being rocked, stroked, talked to, listening to her heartbeat and having every need met instantly. Waking up alone in a moses basket or cot that is still, cold and big is scary. Your baby needs you.
Lots of new parents notice their baby sleeps so much better curled up on their chest or after a feed. But lots are also anxious that contact naps and feeding to sleep can become habit and that baby becomes dependent on them for sleep. What we need to recognise is that these things are not bad habits, these things are the biological norm for our babies. They need to be close to you, they aren’t manipulating you they just need to be with you. Sucking is calming and hard work for babies. It’s normal for them to fall asleep with a full tummy after a feed (who hasn’t fallen asleep after a big meal?). If you are breastfeeding there are hormones in your milk that help baby to sleep, it’s what is meant to happen. Trying to stop a feed and put an awake (or even a drowsy but awake) baby down in a cot is hard, they instinctively want to feed to sleep.
Once we start to think about our expectations it might help parents to rethink what they want to do around sleep. But I also reassure parents that it’s fine to follow your instincts. It’s all good knowing what to expect but what about when the advice from friends, family, social media and anywhere else is going against your natural instincts. Despite the growing knowledge of normal behaviour we still want our babies to fit in with us rather than us adapting to them and there is still a temptation to ‘fix’ this behaviour because most of us don’t cope well with broken sleep night after night.
So if your baby is crying and you know feeding them will settle them – feed them.
If you know a cuddle will help – cuddle them.
If you don’t know what is wrong but you can hear your baby crying – go to them.
The majority of parents feel that leaving a baby to cry goes against their instincts. And we have those instincts for a reason – they protect us all.
When we start questioning whether it’s a bad habit to wake or to need to be close to a parent to sleep or to need a feed in the night it’s not uncommon to see it turned around. Do you sleep better next to your partner? Do you sometimes want a cuddle in the night? Does your partner (or someone else) comfort you when you are upset? Do you wake up for a drink?
And if you respond to those needs is it a bad habit? How would we view it if an adult was denied those things?
Recently I’ve been reflecting on this with regards my own children. The older two both slept through the night (as in from when they went to bed until morning) from around 13 months. Once they did that they rarely woke unless they were unwell or had a bad dream. My youngest was (and is!) a very different story. He has consistently woken in the night and as he turned two he was still waking every couple of hours and I fed him as it was the easiest way to get him (and me) back to sleep. Soon after his second birthday I stopped breastfeeding and then he would come into our bed and stay until morning. Eventually we reached a point where he would come in for a cuddle for a few minutes and go back to his own bed. And at age 5 we are still there. Not every night, we go through phases of waking and sleeping all night.
When he wakes he calls out ‘Mummy can I come in your bed?’. And I say ‘Yes’. Because you can’t really say no, can you? He needs a cuddle and then once he’s drifting off I take him back to his own bed.
If we wouldn’t deny our partner the comfort they needed, or a child who can verbalise their needs a cuddle, why do we think our babies don’t need us at night? Or need to learn not to need us at night.
When I’ve shared this with parents it’s been a bit of a lightbulb moment. If my 5 year old asks for a cuddle I respond so of course it isn’t bad to respond to their baby if that is what feels right.
I know it’s hard. The two hourly wake ups for 2 years was tough. The number of days I sat at my desk thinking how incredibly tired I was juggling a part time job, teaching classes, 3 children and everything that comes with them. But our little ones need us at night just as much as they need us in the day and we need them to learn that we are there for them. When they need us we are there. That is how they become confident, independent little people. It’s the confidence that they have someone who is there for them. When they start to go off and explore they know they have a safe place to come back to.
All of this doesn’t mean you have to suffer a lack of sleep. If you need to, by all means make changes, just do them as and when you feel comfortable and be aware that your baby will still need you in some way so you may be swapping something for something else. When I stopped breastfeeding the swap was for him to sleep more in our bed. Then came a time where we could change that too.
Trust your instincts, cuddle your baby and parent in the way that makes you feel comfortable.