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Sleep needs versus sleep wants

Our society and our infants are at odds with each other when it comes to sleep.  Society has a very fixed and adult centred view on sleep ‘needs’ and this is commonly projected onto our infants and has created a mismatch between what we as parents view as sleep ‘needs’ versus sleep ‘wants’.

We as adults are very quick to defend our sleep ‘needs’ and often put up an almighty battle to regain a sleep pattern that we would say we ‘need’ to be normal – long, uninterrupted sleep in a bed away from our baby.

We ‘need’ this in order to function, to avoid or overcome PPD or PPA, to be able to be a good mother, to be able to return to our paid work, to have energy for our toddlers and other children, to be able to enjoy life.

Not coincidentally, society has become all accepting of the belief and understanding that our preferred way of sleeping at night and our preferred way to be productive during the day are what is not only best for our infants and toddlers but also what we should expect.


The rise of extinction methods such as Cry It Out and modified techniques that fit under the Controlled Crying banner was rampant during the era most mothers today were being mothered. Since then, there has been a push to achieve the same results but by being ‘more present’ and ‘softened’ approaches have grown more popular, even if in actual reality they are only softer by name or seem softer for the adults but are still arduous and traumatic for the child. Responsive settling or comfort settling are two such examples. Sleep training can and does vary greatly and the impact it has both in the immediate, short and long term on the child is heavily dependent on that individual child but the risks, well they are becoming more and more documented.

Despite this, many mothers feel that sleep training is something she MUST do. This is even more true if she has a baby who is far from the sleepy ideal of a ‘good’ baby. She believes her baby needs to learn to sleep and in order to do that, they need to self settle and learn to sleep away from her in chunks that will see them develop and grow the way they should.

 

It is a common misconception that a child needs a certain quota of sleep and in big, long chunks to grow and develop. Babies and toddlers DO need sleep and overall, they need quite a lot, BUT it has been shown many times over that there is no golden rule for how much sleep any one baby needs at any one time in their life. It is also normal for a human infant to sleep in short chunks, rouse and nurse before drifting back to sleep many times at night. During the day, a baby may sometimes have short naps versus sleeps and other times a nap may be extended with help through the cycle. This is NORMAL.

As for self settling, this is perhaps the saddest misconception of all. It is physiological fact that babies and young toddlers are incapable of being taught to self soothe. If you’d like to read more on this, I highly recommend this article and if you are shouting, ‘but my baby CAN self soothe!’ then check this one out.

It is also untrue that a baby needs to cry and that allowing them to cry is in any way ‘good’ for a baby either physically or mentally.

A baby or toddler NEEDS a caregiver to help them to sleep through contact, nursing and soothing when they are tired (not when some random book dictates). Some babies take a hell of a lot of energy to soothe off to sleep and may fight and struggle, but they are not alone in this if you are fully supporting them in your arms. You should never be made to feel your baby would be better off crying out of your loving arms. Pick up your baby every time. They don’t just want you, they need you and your calm.

A baby or toddler also NEEDS you within close proximity to sleep calmly and soundly. To begin with, only your chest may do (a carrier can help with this), then it may be right next to you in bed or in their side carred cot, or little mattress next to yours.

Your baby and toddler NEEDS your help when they wake at night. It is normal for a human infant to wake and nurse frequently at night for the first 12 months AND BEYOND.


Their body NEEDS to wake, refuel, feel comfort and connection, make sense of new learnings and feel any discomfort or worry is soothed.

Some baby’s NEED for night time comfort is far more intense than others just as some baby’s are more intense by day. Their needs are just as legitimate as their less intense peers.

There will be times where you will wonder what the hell has gone wrong, as a baby who had been sleeping relatively well will begin waking more and NEEDING more help at night.

All of this is normal infant sleep behaviour.

No, it looks nothing like the adult sleep we prefer.

No, it’s not how most people describe infant sleep but in a society who sleep train most babies, there is little hope that mothers will be able to garner a genuine picture of what is normal and what to expect when most babies in her world have been trained to override their biological sleep pattern.

Sadly, a baby seeking comfort to sleep is interpreted as something they want not a need.

A baby past a certain age who is seeking to nurse, is said to want to nurse when really they need to nurse.

A baby who sleeps best on or very near their caregiver is interpreted as wanting this contact but they truly need it.

A baby asking for help in the night only wants assistance because they are accustomed to it, but nope, they legitimately need it.

While these biologically normal behaviours are so quickly dismissed as wants, it is easy to see why sleep training seems like such a viable and necessary option to families.

Loving mothers everywhere want to meet their baby’s needs but while society believes that what a baby needs is – solitary sleep, to learn to self settle, to stop nursing at night as quickly as possible and to become as independent at night as possible then we’ll continue on this skewed path.

These beliefs go hand in hand with the belief that adults are only well rested if their sleep is long and uninterrupted.

This is not true.

This is a WANT not a need.

Yes, we need sleep.

No, we don’t need perfect, uninterrupted sleep to be okay.

We can and should adjust our lives and habits to be able to meet the night time parenting needs of our babies and toddlers.

Quality sleep is what parents should strive for. Forget the quantity.

Instead of all the energy we pour into ‘fixing’ and overanalysing the sleep behaviour of our babies, let’s pour our effort in to working out what we can do maximise the quality of our broken sleep.

What are we doing that could be exacerbating our weariness?

What choices are we making that fight against this time in our lives?

Maybe it’s staying up long after babies are in bed and losing sleep. Maybe it’s forcing yourself to keep getting up and staying awake to tend to your baby. Maybe it’s looking at screens in the night and waking right up. Maybe you have trouble winding back down. Maybe you are awake longer because you are trying hard to resettle when you could all be back to sleep if you simply nursed or cuddled. Maybe you are laying awake predicting the next wake up.

There is so much to consider and no one answer.

What is key here is recognising the true needs versus the wants in your unique situation.

Babies are exhausting. Being sleep deprived is no joke but as a society we have it so skewed that we have this big wall up that serves to protect the societal view of what sleep should look like and overemphasises how important it is to attain this even while we are raising our very dependent, very trusting little humans who need us intensely both day and night.

If you sit back and think, I sincerely hope we can shift this conversation and belief a little.

How much sleep you want is vastly different to what you need to be okay.

How you want to get that sleep will also be different to how you need to get it with a baby or toddler in the house.

It’s of mutual benefit to the mother and child to think on this a little.

The only way to change an entrenched view is to keep offering up the alternative.

Please, take some time to review your own beliefs about your own sleep needs and that of your baby or toddlers.




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