A Midwife’s Point of View: Newborn Sleep
Sleep is for the weak, they say. Rest is for rebels is another one. It makes me chuckle, as I am on the other side of the regular wake ups, the continual night disturbances and no, I don’t miss it but I do remember it felt like forever with no end in sight. I also have a huge amount of sympathy for those going through it, especially if you are without support. It is really tough.
Back in 2010, I had my first son and followed the night-time sleep rules. My son slept every night in a cot in our room (although he woke to feed every 90-120 minutes to feed) and at 6 months we tried to move him into his own room. He didn’t like it. At all. People kept telling me there was a problem so I looked around for a solution and hit upon some studies and stories that explained more about babies’ sleep and my life turned a corner. I found coping strategies (like keeping him in our bedroom, close to us) and realised his wakefulness was not a problem for me. You may know that I’m a Midwife and yet it wasn’t until I had my own children that I could actually make fully informed decisions that work for me and my family.
So here I am 9 years and 2 more children later and I see the modern world is still in a spin. The pressure on mothers is increasing and the realities of newborn sleep have been hidden and disguised as problems that need to be solved, often to sell products to ‘help’. But what if our babies need to wake in order to feed or check in with us is normal and we have been sold a pile of lies? That our babies need us and that we are enough. That doesn’t sell many books does it?
Human babies, unlike most mammals, are born helpless and totally dependent on their carer to look after them and bring them food, move them around and comfort them. In the Stone Age, they slept with the parent and were fed on cue as any noise would have opened the tribe up to being heard by a predator and potentially eaten. Despite being born into the 21st century our babies are still primitive, totally dependent little beings. They learn to communicate quickly with their voices to appeal for us to keep them close and safe.
Imagine leaving a warm cocoon where you never felt hunger, dirty or had to struggle to get to sleep but then enter a loud world where your carer keeps leaving your side. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? It is so hard being a baby but their needs are very simple and they don’t stop just because it’s night1so it’s a good idea to find tools that help you manage this disrupted sleep to support your baby as they transition from womb to world, a period now termed the 4th trimester2. An easy way in the daytime is to use a sling- babies cry less, it helps protect against postnatal depression, it helps with attachment, helps parent-child interaction, aids longer breastfeeding and best of all, it can be used by a parent or another adult, or even an older sibling. And did I mention you can get out of the house more easily and you have your hands free for cake- never underestimate the bliss of being able to make and eat your food with 2 hands!
There is more research into baby’s sleep which is being added to all the time, thanks to Baby Sleep Info Source up in Durham. Current NHS guidance in the pregnancy and baby section care is for families to co-sleep with their baby for sleeps and nap time for at least the first 6 months2. However this NHS guide also states there are risks to co-sleeping yet discusses risks which are actually associated with bed-sharing2. It’s no wonder there is confusion around the term as many people, including the media and health services apply the term ‘co-sleeping’ to any type of sleeping where a baby is in the same room, when in fact there is a difference.
Co-sleeping (baby in the same room but on a separate sleep surface) is encouraged for all babies as there is a protective aspect for them being near their parent which reduces the incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). As an added bonus the proximity makes night feeding easier as parents tune into their baby and pick up cues quicker, meaning babies cry less and leads to everyone getting more sleep3.
Bed-sharing means sharing a bed surface with your baby, this does not apply if your baby sleeps in a side cot on their own mattress. This is something up to half of all parents will do within the first 3 months of their child’s life, and if not planned bed sharing can be hazardous to a baby’s health4. Sadly this confusion of bed-sharing and co-sleeping being used as one term has led to Healthcare Professionals (HCP) giving out mixed information and without the proper information families aren’t able to minimise risks. A good place to start is by using the Sweet Sleep Seven recommendations5 to see if planned bed-sharing is an option for your family, and if not to work out how to keep your baby comforted and you rested- maybe with a bedside cot. Feeling exhausted and cuddling your baby on a sofa so as not to fall asleep in bed? Not safe. Feeling tired every night when feeding in bed? Make the area safe in case you do fall asleep- planned bed-sharing with the absence of risk factors is safer than accidental bed-sharing
Babies wake to feed but sometimes they just want to suckle and know you are there. When your baby manages 5 hours in a row, do you know what that is? Sleeping through the night. The mythical 12 hours sleep is really just that, a myth. Many adults struggle to stay asleep for 8 hours a night as sleep cycles are designed to bring us close to consciousness, but some will wake and others won’t. It’s the same with babies. If you breastfeed, learning to breastsleep (a phrase coined by Anthropologist Professor James McKenna8) gives even more opportunity for sleep- even more so when your baby can latch themselves on without disturbing you, just minimise the risk factors. Slings can be dangerous if not used properly (as can car seats, buggies and numerous other bits of equipment) so it is important to be aware of safety guidelines or to just head over to your nearest library and get some help. Used correctly, a sling is amazing and can help through the baby stage, through illness, through high emotions and for connection.
Hang in there, it won’t last forever and you will join me looking back remembering how long the nights were but how many cuddles you shared in all those times. A baby who doesn’t want to sleep alone is not broken, they are a bundle of instincts who need you, and need you intensely for a period of time. After about 2 years sleeping patterns will settle and you will get more sleep, and fewer night time cuddles. Just roll with it for now- sleep does come for us, warriors and all.