Categories: Issue 36 - Summer 2017.
author: erinshaheen.

Help! My Baby Doesn’t Sleep!

We know more about the human brain, how undeveloped it is at birth and the causes of night waking than ever before. The human baby today is no different than prehistoric babies. Yet parents are more obsessed with controlling their infants sleep patterns with the same fervour as a jam-packed work schedule.

Our newborns are arriving at birth with only 25% of their brain capacity, thanks to evolution that made walking on two legs possible. In utero, we have laid the ground work of brain development, setting up the basic functions of the baby’s organs. However, 75% of the brain development happens outside the body and is dependent on nurturing, touch and environmental experiences. Building a strong attachment through gentle parenting, helping the baby process experiences allows the connection of 700 neuron connections every day for the first three years!

In 1928, Dr. John B Watson’s book, The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, warned parents about the dangers of showing too much affection to their children, strongly encouraged strict routines especially at night.

“Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.”

Unfortunately, there are remnants of this very strong philosophy to tightly schedule a child’s sleep time and restrict touch and eye contact at nighttime with a promise of long stretches of sleep for parents.

So how does a parent balance their sleep needs, their child’s need for connection and the external pressure to sleep train?

Sleeping through the night is one FOUR hour stretch. Some babies will be sleeping through the night by 6 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, or one year. At some point they will ALL be sleeping through the night.

Remember, a baby already knows how to sleep. They do not need training to sleep longer stretches. Their first four months after birth are called the 4th trimester and your babies are catching up. It is healthy to rock and cuddle your baby to sleep and does not create any bad habits. Your baby depends on their primary attachment figures to set the stage of trust, and feed baby them based on their particular physiological and immune system requirements. Sleeping longer stretches is developmentally based, like learning to walk, and can only be achieved when a child has a strong, safe attachment, and luck has your side. There are simply so many variables that cause a baby to wake that they do not have the verbal capacity to share with us including: teething pain, growth spurts, time changes, travel, introduction of daycare, longer summer days, developmental milestones, both physical and cognitive and sensory over stimulation.

We ALL use sleep props. These transitional objects and patterns set the rhythms and rituals that help us turn our brain off after a busy day and prepare us to sleep. That warm bath you have before bed, the snack, book, stretching, all prepare us physically and emotionally to sleep. Babies and toddlers need support and role modelling to build a large, healthy sleep menu for them to chose from. Do not feel guilty for parenting your little one to sleep.

There is not ONE study that shows babies need to be put to bed drowsy but awake. This is a common suggestion by sleep trainers/consultants, and yet there is not one study that shows that this is a requirement for babies to learn to self soothe. In fact, they can not self soothe until they develop the cognitive ability to reason, problem solve, and use their own abilities to transition from one activity to another. For some babies, this may happen at 6 months (these parents have won the sleep lottery) but for the majority of parents, this may take 2-3 years of gently parenting to sleep.

Children are not capable of manipulation. Babies and children do not manipulate adults at bedtime or by crying. Our babies and children are going through the biggest changes of their entire life before the age of three years. Responding to a crying child prevents their brain from going into full flight or fight response. They do not have the cognitive ability, reasoning, empathy or impulse control to manipulate. By treating your child with the same values that you believe in during the day as the night time, you are teaching them to trust their own needs for safety and security.

The ability to sleep long stretches is not a linear achievement. Your child may be able to sleep a 4, 5, 6 or 8 hour stretch this week, but may not sleep more than a two hour stretch for the next three weeks. This does not reflect that you are parenting poorly or need to ‘fix’ anything. It may simply be that your child is ill, facing some new emotional challenges, has a new rhythm to their day with daycare, is dropping a nap, or you are travelling. Be patient, they will start sleeping longer when their development settles.

Build a support system. We spend an enormous time discussing our birth plans, yet families rarely write up a postpartum survival guide. In a fast paced world, where parents juggle work, life, school, responsibilities, it is important to examine expectations and consider our support systems and postpartum plans so ensure we have enough physical supports during this busy time of life.

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Erin Shaheen
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