The Lowdown on Baby Sleep
By this point, you’ve probably heard the warnings about how often a baby wakes up (that is, if you’re not already living it first-hand). Your experienced family and friends know how challenging this time can be, and they want to help you, so advice is probably piling on and you may have even received a sleep-training book.
But given that some sleep books have actually been linked to postpartum depression, we want to give you the Sleep Lowdown, so you can cut through the noise and go with what resonates with your heart. We’ve taken the top concerns and whittled it down to the necessary for ease and convenience. So here’s what we think you NEED to know:
Your Baby Needs a Safe Sleep Space
Not the cutest sleep space. Not a magazine-worthy nursery. A bare essentials safe sleep environment. The Health Agency of Canada recommends parents follow the ABC’s of safe sleep:
- Baby sleeps Alone
- Baby is placed on his/her Back
- Baby sleeps in a Crib that meets safety regulations
The Health Agency of Canada also suggests the following precautions:
- The crib (or a basinet) is placed next to the parents’ bed for at least the first 6 months
- There should be no pillows, loose blankets, bumpers or stuffed animals in the crib
- A hypoallergenic, firm mattress with a fitted sheet is all you need
- A sleep sack or swaddler, which gives hips the room they need to develop, is recommended to keep baby warm, rather than a blanket or restrictive swaddle
Your Baby Wants to Sleep With You
It’s interesting that despite it being safer for baby to have their own sleep space near mom, up to 70% of parents admit to bed-sharing at least some of the time. This has to do with the fact that babies expect to see, hear, feel and smell their mother at all times-especially during the vulnerable nighttime. However, unplanned bed-sharing is risky because the sleep environment hasn’t been set up to mitigate common risks, so it’s best to be proactive about creating a shared space.
Rather than comfort a baby in a rocker or sofa when you’re exhausted, try setting up a simple, firm mattress on the floor for frequent wake-ups. This floor mattress can be used for nursing, feeding, and comforting baby. If you happen to fall asleep there, try to both go back to your respective beds upon waking.
The bed(s) your baby sleeps in, even just for naps or a portion of the night, should always adhere to safety guidelines and minimize risks. Suffocation or entrapment can happen at any time of day or night, so your baby’s bed needs to be firm and placed in a space that’s free and clear. This means not next to a higher bed or other tall furniture, and not next to a wall where a crevice could open and cause entrapment.
Unmet Expectations Can Make You Miserable
So have no expectations. Research is pretty clear that babies wake up a lot at night, even into toddlerhood. Not only is waking normal, it’s actually beneficial! Babies wake up when they have a breathing or heartbeat interruption, when their temperature is too high or low, and when they are hungry, lonely, or uncomfortable. Sleeping close to baby allows you to tend to these nighttime needs, and thus reduce the risk of SIDS.
Developmental milestones also play a role, so you can expect particularly bumpy roads and more wakeful nights during the following times:
- 4 months: Often referred to as the end of the “fourth trimester,” it’s as if humans are born too soon and need another period of gestation in a womb-like environment. As their sensory barrier thins out, they are more aware of their environment, causing wakefulness. Around this time, they sleep 14-17 hours a day, approx. 6 hours of which are during the day since the circadian rhythm is not yet developed-this is why it’s so important to sleep when baby sleeps, including at least 1 nap per day. Circadian rhythm development can be encouraged by keeping it dark at night and letting natural daylight be your main source of home lighting.
- 9 months: Coinciding with more exciting developmental milestones (e.g., language, walking), the yin and yang of separation anxiety come in to play. Your parents might tell you that you were sleeping through the night by this point; however, changes in cultural dynamics, including more breastfeeding, rooming-in and other attachment-fostering circumstances, mean that babies appear more demanding than they were in the ’80s. But that’s not just OK-it’s normal. At 9-10 months, you can expect baby to sleep 13-14 hours total, including 1 or 2 naps.
- 18 months: Sleep progression here is due to verbal skill development, making it an exciting time for your little one. You can expect longer bedtime rituals as they babble on, as well as midnight chat sessions and some really early mornings. As you say farewell to baby and hello to your emerging toddler, they are down to 12-13 total hours of sleep and 1 nap a day. The nap will be dropped between 3-4 years of age.
- 2 years: Around here, you’ll be out of the woods…almost! After this point, regular night-waking that requires parental assistance is much less common, particularly if you have night-weaned your child.
But since the World Health Organization now recommends breastfeeding to 2 years and beyond, we’re seeing more children not sleeping through the night until 3-4 years of age. Is this a problem? As far as your child is concerned, it’s still perfectly natural. That said, if you’re finding it unbearable to function on fragmented sleep at this point, night-weaning is an option that may give you consolidated sleep, and can be done gently.
Sleep “Props” Can Be Your Best Sleep “Tools”
I’m not sure who invented the term “sleep props,” but I don’t like it. It implies a crutch, or an element of addiction that we have to break for our babies to develop. The truth is that we rock, nurse, and sing to our babies-and they love it. No science exists to show that these intrinsic drives pose any disservice to the brain development or growth of our little ones.
So when is it a problem to be nursing, dancing, bouncing or rocking your baby to sleep? Well, that’s only for you to determine, and it may never be. But generally speaking, if you’re resenting it, or it’s taking longer than 20 minutes for them to fall asleep, or you’re having to work too hard to get them back to sleep throughout the night, you might want to consult with someone to help you find less exhaustive sleep aids for your family. Just remember, YOU are the expert on what’s working and what’s not.
You Are More Important Than You Realize
Don’t expect to be able to keep the home clean, cook all your meals from scratch, return to a workout regimen, and become a mom-preneur. Don’t expect to get much done at all, really, other than all the things that matter most. Because likely, you’re undervaluing the “invisible work” you’re already doing! All of that eye-gazing, interpreting cries, diapering, feeding, burping, snuggling, and so on is the most important work you can be doing.
It can be incredibly challenging to care for others 24 hours a day if you’re not at the top of your game. And when there’s a lot going on, we tend to put ourselves last. Don’t. There are many small adjustments you can make to keep yourself well while coping with nighttime drama-here’s what I do to help myself when I see signs of burnout, and sometimes even just one helps a ton:
- Eat and drink: I eat a more plant-based diet including daily smoothies, salads and healthy fats. I also ensure I’m hydrated and watch my caffeine intake!
- Disconnect: I go on a social media- and technology-fast.
- Let go: I don’t check the time when awoken at night.
- Lighten your load: I invite people over for playtime with my older child so that I can sleep with the younger one.
- Prioritize: I make a list of my responsibilities and see what can be delegated, done another time, or dropped altogether.
- Read: I re-read up on infant and child development. Some great authors I love are Dr. Sears, Dr. Gordon Nuefeld, Gabor Mate, Lysa Parker, and Barbara Nicholson-you can find them on YouTube or through your local library.
To parent at your best, you deserve to eat well, you deserve support with your decisions, you deserve an ear to listen to you vent or cry, and you deserve to nap when you are tired. Please do not be shy to ask for help, and advocate for your needs. Because when your cup is full, you can pour it into others’.
I hope that this information leaves you feeling more prepared and more validated in trusting yourself and your baby. This season of your life is a chance to really tap into that inner wisdom coursing through your veins, and a sort of rebirth for you as you become an empowered parent.
Brandie Hadfield is the creator of “The DREAM Method” for healthy family sleep, and co-creator of the Infant Sleep Educator certification in partnership with bebo mia inc. She currently serves as president for Attachment Parenting Canada and is the proud mama of two.