In my two previous entries I offered a (perhaps) different approach to sleep training and a discussion surrounding expectations versus reality that new parents often experience. My goal has been to invite parents to think about infant sleep in a new way; mainly reflecting on their own relationship to sleep and the adult expectations we often place on infants introduced into the family unit. I want to expand this into a conversation about the science of infant sleep.
Let's look at sleep in general. There are many ways that we can approach the ‘problem’ of sleep in our society today, but I offer this basic introduction: the world requires more of us in a day and has gotten BRIGHTER and LOUDER during the dark hours when our minds used to rest.
The 20th century saw many of the inventions that embedded these nocturnal disruptions in our society and culture. Electricity, radio, TV … massive amounts of stimuli that require more time to recover from to achieve the optimal amount of rest. What has remained the same through these technological developments? The evolutionary embedded sleep needs of the infant.
Baby sleep cycles are different from adult sleep cycles. Period.
There is nothing to ‘teach’ an infant about sleep, nothing to impart about how to be a ‘good’ sleeper at 4 months of age. Barring any diagnosed condition (colic, acid reflux, etc.) humans are hardwired with the evolutionary know how to sleep and for how long. In fact, interfering with these cycles to prolong your infant’s sleep could affect their development. Babies from 0-9 months old need 17 to 14 hours of required sleep per day (decreasing with age) in intervals ranging from 3-7 hour stretches mixed with varying nap lengths. What becomes frustrating after the fourth trimester for new parents is the marked difference in the infant’s relationship to sleep as compared to their own.
Adults typically move through sleep in 90-minute sleep cycles, which include a period of light sleep moving into deep and R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) sleep. It is during these times that we will get up to go to the bathroom or toss and turn. Infants have much shorter sleep cycles - an hour or less - and this is a good thing! Frequent periods of light sleep regulate breathing, allow the infant brain to process the events of the day to consolidate information and aids in cognitive development. Forcing a baby to sleep deeply early on can have a limiting effect on the baby’s cognitive development.
“Why does my baby keep waking up!? I fed my baby until both breasts were emptied, put them to bed with a new diaper, beside me, in a pitch-dark bedroom. Why did they wake up an hour later?”
They were too cold, too hot, needed a cuddle, were lonely, scared, need a new diaper change, or are thirsty … again! Breast milk is digested much easier than formula so will result in more frequent feedings. Infants know that their immediate environment (the chest of the birth parent or primary caregiver) represents their survival. The heart beat, body warmth, breathing, and feeding regulation that the adult provides to a new infant is necessary for development. Regardless of which sleep personality an infant is blessed with, it is up to the adult to determine the most stress-free accommodation of it in the initial years of growth for optimal cognitive development and psychological well-being. Certain sleep training methods have been shown to produce anxiety in children, and require multiple attempts at re-training after each illness, travel, or teething episode.
A sleep educator can help a family plan for and work through these stages in a way that won’t disrupt the infant’s development but meets as many needs of the family unit as possible. As always it is useful to remember that these stages are temporary and providing a healthy relationship to sleep early on will result in a positive association to it later in life.
Babies possess ‘arousal skills’ as a protective measure against pulmonary or cardiac crisis. They cannot yet change position in their sleep if they are uncomfortable and they cannot problem solve to achieve their own immediate needs (feeding or changing or calming themselves if they’ve woken up alone and afraid). At birth, babies have a fully developed amygdala. As such, they are immediately wired for fight or flight responses, i.e. crying. However, they require another person to resolve their needs for them. Infants are not born with hippocampal development. This is why they can’t talk themselves out of irrational fears like being put down or left alone for periods of time. They do not process cause and effect and cannot reasonably understand that their caregiver will return if they leave. As they age, this changes.
Our society’s focus on individualism over community has created an isolating experience of parenthood. Humans aren’t meant to go through life alone. Infants are a constant reminder of this fact. They need help to meet their needs, and so do adults. Find your village and put it to good use. A postpartum doula can act as a first responder and provide referrals to new families in this area. The more we work to normalise infant sleep and the temporary sleep disruption in a family unit as necessary and productive to achieve long term cognitive benefits, the less we will question our infants sleep patterns. We are social beings from birth to death, let’s not allow the individualistic structure of our society deter us from fulfilling our needs. Our babies prove every day that they aren’t letting it deter them.