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Sleeping Through the Night

mother-feeding-newborn-babyOne of the most common questions I am asked, particularly from first time parents is: “When will our baby sleep through the night?” There’s a loaded question! One could translate that to: “When will we sleep through the night and not feel so exhausted all the time!?!?” It’s a little like looking into a crystal ball, and no one can really answer with any great accuracy.

Firstly, what does “sleeping through the night” really mean anyway? Six hours, eight hours, twelve hours? Again, no strict definition, but I think most of us as parents would love to sleep through an eight hour stretch without being woken, so 10pm-6am, or thereabouts, seems a reasonable guideline to me. Having said that, nothing wrong with going for gold and having your baby sleep through for 12 hours.

But how realistic is it to expect young babies to sleep through? In the first couple of months, don’t get your hopes up too much. Physiologically, babies will wake from hunger during that time, and will need to be fed. Whether that is breast or bottle fed, doesn’t matter.  Babies have sleep cycles of about 2 hours ie they naturally awaken after that period of time. Just like us as adults, we don’t all hit deep sleep and stay there throughout the night. We cycle through shallow and deep sleep, with small arousals intervening. As adults, we have conditioned ourselves not to allow those arousals to waken us completely. For instance, we might change positions in bed, and quickly fall back to sleep without waking completely. Babies don’t have that degree of sleep maturity, but they can quickly develop it.

But how can they develop it? There’s the six million dollar question, and there is no definite answer. Many clinicians, night nannies and “sleep whisperers” put forward their thoughts, none of which are really based in evidence, and are just ideas and techniques they have found anecdotally to be helpful, whether that be professionally or personally. There is no magical recipe to follow that will encourage prolonged sleep in newborns.

However…if babies are going to naturally develop longer sleep, and eventually sleep through, they have to be given the opportunity. And that is where the problems start.

When a baby sleeps, he/she moves, grunts, strains, cries, and makes all sorts of noises to which a response is usually not required. But doting parents often dive in and intervene, thinking they need to resettle, cuddle, comfort or feed. Patience and holding back can be very rewarding. Even the bub who has woken fully may settle off back to sleep after a short period without any parental involvement at all.

I often advise parents to disengage from their children, for a variety of reasons. Whilst disengaging from your newborn baby may seem a little harsh, at least think of it as not over-engaging. That’s if you want your baby sleeping through between two and four months of age. It’s very possible.

There’s a fantastic book called “French Children Don’t Throw Food”. It chronicles the parenting experience of a female American journalist living in Paris, and her experience of French parents and their approach to parenting. The French talk about “The Pause” – the period of time during which an unsettled baby is left alone, to put it bluntly to try and sort themselves out. It’s not forever – maybe 5-10 minutes. More often than not, the bubs self-settle, self-soothe and transition into another sleep cycle without the need for parental comfort, or a breast or bottle. It’s just something French parents naturally do, and essentially describes what many of the parents I see should also try to adopt. If the baby remains upset or unsettled after a short period of time, then by all means comfort them, but they won’t settle themselves unless they are given the opportunity to do so.

I came across a book today on infant feeding. Like all parenting books, there are things I agree with, others I don’t. But no one is right or wrong, just that opinions differ. You might be interested to read these quotes from it:

“Feed regularly by the clock. Baby should not be allowed to feed between meals…Modern teaching is definitely in favour of four-hourly feeding as soon as this can be established – usually after the first or second month.”

 “Night feeding should be discontinued as soon as possible, as this is better for both mother and baby.”

 “Until baby is three or four months old you will find it sleeps at almost any time. Whether it afterwards learns to sleep at night depends on the training that is given at this period… If accustomed to being placed down whilst awake and going to sleep of its own accord, it will acquire the best of all habits – that of sleeping long intervals during the night and waking during the daytime at the regular feeding hours.”

Most of this sounds pretty sensible to me. Even if the book was written in 1933, 80 years ago. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned…





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