The true bad habits around baby sleep

The true bad habits around baby sleep

As a new mother, particularly if you are blessed with a wakeful little firecracker who is the anti sleepy ideal of a ‘good’ baby, you very quickly start hearing all about ‘bad habits’, ‘sleep crutches’ and ‘negative sleep associations’. The general gist of all of these ‘bad habits’ is that your baby is using you, you are spoiling them, you aren’t teaching them to sleep, you aren’t encouraging independence, you are creating a rod for your own back.  

As a new mum, this has an extremely damaging effect on your confidence and belief that you can trust your instincts and your baby to tell you what you should and should not be doing to assist your baby to get the sleep they need. I know. I heard it all and more with my first and it took me down an extremely ugly path of sleep training, sleep school, sleep training ‘failure’ and PND.

But it’s not always as hideous as it was for me, and unfortunately this is why this notion of ‘bad habits’ continues. Because sleep training ‘works’ and ‘saves’ so many, it has become the go to technique and method for our society. If you aren’t willing to sleep train, you are on the outer. If you aren’t willing to sleep train, then you better just suck it up because that wakeful child of yours is only that wakeful because you refuse to break their ‘bad habits’.

Well I’d like to take the time today to call bullshit to this and highlight the TRUE bad habits we’ve gotten into when it comes to managing this very weary season in a mother’s life and the handling of our babies sleep.

BAD HABIT #1 Assuming our baby should sleep in a manner that resembles our preferred way of sleeping as adults by night and in a way that allows us to be ‘productive’ by day as quickly as possible and certainly by 6 months of age. Babies are meant to sleep for short stints before rousing and nursing back to sleep by night. Sometimes, they will go through patches where they do sleep for longer stints before going through other patches of waking up even more frequently than they had previously. This cycle is normal for a normally developing human infant. Their sleep looks nothing like an adult’s sleep because an adult brain and body is not undergoing the incredibly rapid growth and change our babies experience in their first couple of years of life.

Catnapping by day is normal even though it can seriously give you the shits. Wanting to be held or hang out on the boob for naps is also normal and is why babywearing has saved many a mother’s sanity. Short naps may impede a caregiver’s ability to get around to many of the things they need to do but they are not a sleep problem. Being inconvenient is different to being a problem. Catnapping babies may require an extra kip or two compared to a baby who enjoys long, luxurious naps of their own accord but this again, is inconvenient, not a sleep problem. I’ve now survived two babies who relished a good stint of catnapping at many points during their first year and it really helped me to recognise the important work I WAS getting done by spending so much time getting my baby’s the sleep they needed in the way that worked best for them. Integrity Calling has also written a fabulous article on all the very productive things you can do while CoNapping which may help you if you are in the thick of this right now.

BAD HABIT #2 Failing to recognise and respect a baby’s biological need for comfort, closeness and frequent nursing throughout their first year and beyond. By insisting on a baby needing to learn to sleep away from their mother, out of her arms and most certainly not at her breast, we are effectively ripping our babies off on a huge amount of skin to skin contact and sensory stimulation. Our babies thrive both physically and emotionally through loving touch and closeness. You can literally never cuddle your baby too much or offer them too much comfort but you can absolutely offer them to little.

BAD HABIT #3 Diagnosing and pathologising a baby’s normal sleep behaviour as a sleep problem due to lack of understanding for normal infant sleep behaviour. A baby waking and nursing frequently at night throughout the first year and beyond is normal. The actual frequency varies a huge amount as it does with all unique adult humans. What one baby needs and how they behaves has exactly bupkis to do with what their peers are doing. IF a baby is waking in an extreme fashion, then it is of high importance that any potential underlying issues that may be exacerbating their normal waking behaviour needs to be investigated. If after investigation, there is nothing at play, it perfectly acceptable to accept that this very wakeful baby has a more intense need for nighttime parenting than the majority of their peers and accept that they will become more relaxed and independent with sleep in time (as all babies and toddlers do if they are allowed to develop at their own pace).
Upon finding acceptance, the family’s energy can then be focused on navigating their sleep needs outside of sleep training. Here’s an article to float some ideas. 

BAD HABIT #4 Trying to force independence upon a baby with regards to sleep when they are developmentally incapable of such independence. Babies are physiologically unable to self settle from a place of distress. Sarah Ockwell Smith does as great job explaining this in her article here. Independence with sleep like independence in all other areas of life, blossoms from dependence without any force from a parent. By supporting and honouring a baby who is dependent on their caregiver for every single one of their needs, a baby is growing deep, trusting emotional roots on which they can grow and branch from as they become more capable. Babyhood and childhood are not a race and just as we cannot rush or force a baby to roll, crawl or walk, we should not rush or force them to find sleep more independently until they are actually capable of such a feat.

BAD HABIT #5 Accepting that crying is good or necessary for our babies to learn to ‘self settle’. See article above about the myth of self soothing and also some information from Tracy Cassells PHD of Evolutionary Parenting who explains what is actually happening while a baby cries and what is also happening when the crying is extinguished. A crying baby needs comfort- EVERY SINGLE TIME. Not sometimes, not when a timer or some baby whisperer or sleep expert says. When they cry, they are using their voice. They deserve to be heard. Not just once they’ve reached emotional hysteria but while they calmly and trustingly request your presence.

BAD HABIT #6 Through sheer ignorance and sensationalist reporting and scaremongering, our society ignores that cosleeping and bedsharing can be done safely by MOST (not all) families and are the preferred manner in which normal night waking of a breastfed baby is managed in the majority of cultures around the world. Read more on the amazing research of Prof James McKenna and the concept of Breastsleeping and check out the safe bedsharing information provided by La Leche League’s Safe Sleep 7 and the Infant Sleep Information Source. The physical getting up and going to another room, the forcing yourself to stay awake to nurse, the ridiculous, arbitrary feeding schedules and resettling … all are bad habits western society has added to this warped view of what is ‘normal’ and it is exhausting mothers more than they ever needed to be exhausted. It’s physically torture and largely where the notion of ‘sleep problem’ stems. Once a mother has hit full blown sleep deprivation delirium… of course she thinks everything is wrong and of course she thinks her baby wakes too much, of course she can’t keep it up.

BAD HABIT #7 Placing heavy importance on a mother’s need for uninterrupted sleep and advocating for methods that will help her achieve this even if they do not respect her baby’s night time need for parenting. I’m seeing this all the time. Mothers themselves, family members, professionals treating a mother’s mental health issues … so many times sleep training is seen as 100% necessary as this mother will only be okay, only make a recovery, only be able to function if she can get her sleep back to normal. Thing is, ‘normal’ with a baby or toddler in the house is meant to look very different to the normal of prechild. A solution that only works to solve the problem of a mother’s acute sleep deprivation but does not respect her baby’s biological sleep needs, is frankly not a solution at all. We should not be asking these mothers to make a decision such as this. SHE matters but so does her baby. She needs assistance to work out what needs to happen in her world to ensure she can get the quality (not quantity) of sleep she needs in a way that still allows her to mother her baby the way they need to be mothered.

BAD HABIT #8 Placing the weight of responsibility heavily on the mother to bear the burden of sleep deprivation particularly if she is trying to navigate paid employment while managing this season in her life. Too often, mothers sleep train as they are back at work and simply cannot function on the broken sleep they managed while on maternity leave. This one has a few branches to look at- first- are we providing adequate maternity leave and flexible work arrangements for women who are living this weary season their lives? In most cases, no. What about arrangements for the father of the child? What is his role in parenting by night and day during this season? I have far more questions than answers here but as a society I fear we have long since stopped thinking on this accepted imbalance as the majority of weight when it comes to child care is borne by the mother.

BAD HABIT #9 Lacking empathy and advocacy for our babies. As the voiceless, helpless, dependent, trusting souls in this story, they bear the brunt of the decisions and this skewed view of what their family should expect of them. Babies are often accused of being ‘manipulative’, ‘sooky’, ‘too demanding’, ‘whiny’, ‘needy’ and worse. Their very babyish nature seems to be misconstrued as having some kind of malice or ill intention built in which is such a heartbreaking reality in today’s world. At the ripe old age of 6 months, how dare a baby cry out for comfort, how dare they protest when placed in their cot, how dare they cling to your neck when you try to put them on the ground or hand them to another person, how dare they cry until they see you’ve come back and then immediately switch to a big warm smile to show you how relieved they are that you came back … how very manipulative and needy. It breaks my heart even trying to wrap my head around why this is so accepted. 

BAD HABIT #10 Frowning on those who choose to parent in a way that society doesn’t recognise as ‘normal’. As a breastfeeding, bedsharing, babywearing family, we have been ridiculed and frowned upon many times. It is assumed that because I mother this way, I must be some ‘stinking hippy’ or ‘backwards’. I have been called a lactivist bitch, dangerous, a judgemental cow with a superiority complex and a sanctimummy. All for expressing my differing and somewhat scathing view on the entrenched parenting practices of our modern society. 

Closed minds and closed hearts- now that will always be a bad habit worth speaking up on.

And so, to close this somewhat depressing summary of the true BAD habits that deserve to be beaten when it comes to our treatment of our babies and their sleep, I urge anyone in the thick of it who is hearing all these voices telling them they are creating ‘bad habits’ with their precious baby, to stop for a moment and reflect on the place that these well meaning people have forged their view- a society and culture who would rather a baby cry than have a cuddle is so seriously warped, I’d go with your instinct on this one mama.

Cuddle all the babies.

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