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Accepting the Reality of Infant and Toddler Sleep

Imagine if we, as a society accepted normal infant and toddler sleep. 

I mean really accepted it, in all its glory. 

Every part of society, from every generation, every family, every profession, every community, every culture, every religion.

What if we knew and accepted it as expected and respected elements of a child’s development? 
What if everybody knew well before having their own children that their child would need night time parenting for the first few years of life? 
If everybody knew that waking frequently to nurse was the biologically normal way for an infant/ toddler human to sleep? 
If everybody knew that we are in fact ‘carry mammals’ and that our young require near constant contact with a caregiver for the first few months to continue their growth and development outside of the womb? 
If everybody knew that a baby’s and toddler’s sleep can fluctuate a lot  over the first couple of years as they grow and develop at a phenomenal rate? 
If everybody recognised that a baby’s and toddler’s need for comfort, closeness and nurturing at night is just as valid and important as their need for these things during the day? 
What if nobody doubted the value of night time parenting and wouldn’t even for a moment consider that they could trade it off so they could be a ‘better’ parent by day? 

We, as a society, would come at infant and toddler sleep from a whole other place than we do right now.

There’d be no sleep training and therefore no sleep training industry.

There would be less focus on the baby and their behaviour and more focus on the dyad as a dynamic pair and nurturing the nurturer.

There would be focus on all levels from family right through to the political sphere on the kinds of support families need to navigate this time in their lives.

Antenatal classes and Mums and Bubs groups would be all about helping mothers to build their support network and discovering options that will allow them to meet their baby’s needs while also meeting their own.

For mothers who are struggling with intense high needs babies, the support would recognise the extra level of challenge these mother face as they run the Ultra Marathon of her life and help put the supports in place that mother needs and deserves.

Mothers with mental health concerns would be nurtured and treated in ways that respect her child’s legitimate needs day and night.

Families making decisions about paid employment would do so with the full knowledge that their baby will still require night time parenting.

Wouldn’t the world look so different to the way it does right now.?


The stress, strain, struggle and sacrifices made all because so few people know and recognise what has always been and always will be the way our tiniest most vulnerable humans find sleep normally.

I was told that new and expecting mothers don’t want to know that babies continue waking for a couple of years. I was told I was scaring them unnecessarily and that it was the equivalent of telling horror birth stories to a pregnant mama as she prepared to birth.

I strongly disagree.

Knowing and accepting what IS likely to happen as your baby grows and develops is not a horror story. No one knows how your baby will find sleep in this world but one thing is for sure, they will need you and that is not something you need to fear. Instead of fear, it gives room to mentally, physically and practically prepare. It takes away the element of surprise. It removes the angst of ‘shouldn’t they be sleeping better yet?’, ‘why does my baby still wake?’

A birthing mother doesn’t need to hear every horrific tale of every horrific thing that may or may not happen to her. That does nothing to help her towards her own journey. But it equally does not help to tell her that it will be easy, straight forward and you practically just sneeze and the baby falls out without pain/ discomfort.

A pregnant or new mother does not need to hear every detail of every form of sleep torture she may or may not face in the years ahead with her child. But she equally doesn’t need to sprint to some arbitrary finish line that someone has told her and think that her child’s night-time needs will magically cease and her sleep will return to that of pre-baby.

Let’s be real. Let’s be honest and let’s give new parents the very best chance to set themselves up with realistic expectations for the early time in their child’s life where they will be needed just as much at night as they are by day.

I know this may seem like a pipe dream right now, but all it takes is for voices to rise. Mothers and babies of the future deserve better than what is offered up in mainstream society today.

When we know better, we can do better and so, for all of those in the know, it’s our turn to share our voice, speak our knowledge and share with all we can the truths of normal infant and toddler sleep.

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Ten little known facts about your baby’s sleep

1. It is biologically normal for a baby to wake and nurse frequently throughout the first year and beyond. It is not a sleep problem. Some babies do have underlying issues that may be exacerbating their normal wakeful behaviour and addressing these is crucial but the idea that a baby of X age is ‘too old’ to be waking is based on fallacy not fact.  

2. Feeding to sleep is the biologically normal way for a baby to find and maintain sleep. It is not a sleep problem.

3. The vast majority of cultures do not sleep separately from their babies or young children. A baby not wanting to sleep in their cot is not a sign of something being wrong with the baby and their ability to sleep but a sign of society having a problem with how babies prefer to sleep.

4. Keeping your baby close, limits the disruption of normal wakeful behaviour to both the breastfeeding mother and her baby’s sleep. Not having to physically fully wake to go to another room, then try to stay awake to settle or then need to wind back down  to sleep, all helps the mother. Nighttime breastmilk is also packed full of sleepy goodness that help both mother and baby return to sleep more easily. This one also links to number 1, 2, and 3. In our society that is obsessed with making babies ‘sleep through the night’ by cutting nighttime parenting out of the parenting role as quickly as you can and places high value on solitary sleep, we see many mothers keeping their babies at great distance. This is exhausting and extremely difficult to maintain and can result in both mother and child losing far more sleep than if they were close together.

* There are many safe cosleeping arrangements that can be considered to suit the family, from bedsharing to side car cots. If you haven’t already, read up on safe sleeping practices to help guide your family.


5. Your baby’s sleep will cycle through patches of relative ease and then through intense times with more frequent waking right up to the age of 2. It is rare that a baby proceeds in a straight line of gradually dropping feeds and sleeping longer without ever going through times of needing more. Just because they could find and maintain sleep one way last week, does not mean they necessarily can right now. This isn’t your baby ‘forgetting’ how to sleep, this is their body and mind going through the rapid development, growth and painful experiences (like teething) that they need to in the first couple of years of life. Them needing you to help them find the comfort, peace and support to be able to fall asleep and then maintain it, is normal.

6. Babies and young toddlers lack the brain development required to self regulate enough to ‘self soothe’ themselves from a place of distress. It is normal for babies and young children to need help to find and maintain sleep.

7. No two children are the same when it comes to their sleep needs, just as no two adults are the same. No one has a ‘formula’ that tells you when and how much your child needs to sleep. The only guide is your unique child.

8. ‘Catnapping’ or sleeping for only one 1-2 sleep cycles (20-40 mins) during the day is normal. Sometimes a baby may resettle for longer but it is okay if they do not. So much time and energy is wasted trying to resettle babies who are simply ready to get up.

9. Babies who are separated from the caregiver by day may ‘reverse cycle’ by night to meet their nursing and connection needs. Closeness and contact can help achieve their needs.

10. Many ‘experts’ like to name an age when night feeds are no longer necessary. What this fails to recognise is that night nursing is so much more than feeding. They may only ‘need’ say 2 feeds but they equally needed those 2-3 other quick nurses as well. Nursing for comfort, pain relief, immune boosting, connection and to help them relax when their busy growing body and mind cannot seem to find calm are all valid reasons to need nursing aside from nutrition.

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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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