Understanding Your Child's Sleep: Debunking Myths and Embracing Natural Patterns

Understanding Your Child's Sleep: Debunking Myths and Embracing Natural Patterns

If you want to make parenthood truly lousy then hold in mind an expectation that your baby should sleep through the night. Or your toddler. Or your pre-schooler. Marry unmet expectations with sleep deprivation and you have a potent dose of guilt, failure and worse still, resentment. So why won’t your baby sleep through the night and why does everyone who says their baby does feel compelled to share that lie? Given our extreme social preoccupation with weather and ‘good’ babies here’s some clarity on the sleep-fussy issue of child sleep:

1. Your child’s sleep cycles

Babies and adults are designed to sleep differently! Babies sleep cycles (moving into deep sleep, then light sleep/REM) last about 45 minutes and it’s common for them to wake between cycles. Adults cycles are approximately 90 minutes and are more likely to transition from one cycle to another without having any awareness of waking. When babies do this we usually believe the baby has learned to self-soothe which is a misnomer for ‘sleep-cycle transition’. The light sleep period in a sleep cycle has a useful evolutionary benefit - it’s opportunity for the baby to raise the alarm if they become aware of;
  • An uncomfortable change in temperature or light
  • Hunger or thirst
  • The lack of a comforting physical presence
  • Discomfort such as a wet nappy
  • Compromise of their safety (their airway for example)
This healthy inbuilt safety system protects the child against SIDS/cot death. Parents can create a comfortable environment but some babies are wired to be alert in this way and others less so.

2. Your child’s biological rhythms

Your baby has no concept of night and day for the first 4 months of life. You can’t change their chemistry so don’t use precious energy trying! The human homeostatic sleep drive starts early in the day and propels us towards sleep at night (and makes us sleepy in the afternoon!). This homeostatic sleep drive is a biological process which counteracts the circadian alerting system which works to keep us awake. When your child’s homeostatic sleep drive meets the circadian alerting system towards the end of the day your child enters a ‘sleep-impossible’ zone. This is the ‘second wind’, the bouncy wind-up at bedtime wind-down! We often seek to repress this bedtime energy but it’s more helpful to go with the flow and allow sleep to happen when it is, at least, biologically possible. Your child’s body clock will eventually stabilise around the age of 5 - until then sleep when you can and enjoy this very unique ‘stage’ in your life!

3. Your child’s developing brain

Your baby’s brain is only 25% developed at birth and grows exponentially in the first few years of life. Frequent night-time nursing and the essential fatty-acids it provides helps build an extraordinary number of synaptic pathways. Brain development goes hand in hand with physical development. Therefore when your baby learns to crawl or walk the extra neurological construction is immense. In turn, the nutritional needs increase and night-time feedings do too. Similarly as your baby grows they begin to discriminate between attachment figures - with this new consciousness comes the possibility of separation anxiety. This anxiety can exist at night where it may not have done before and is a normal expression of the meaningfulness of a secure attachment. In other words, the ebb and flow of how much sleep or sleep-waking occurs is dependent on your child’s milestones, myriad day-time experiences and the stimulating loving interactions on which they thrive.

4. Your child’s sleep training

Trying to manage, control or train your baby to do anything other than follow their natural and neurologically-appropriate drive is to court disappointment. We can never be ‘in control’ of our child’s sleep - no matter how compelling the illusion. Sleep training also interferes with an instinctive process with it’s own protective safety mechanisms. Controlled crying may leave your child quietly exhausted but quiet doesn’t always equate with peaceful (it can mean shutting down instead). If hearing your child cry causes you distress that’s nature’s way of alerting you to something requiring your loving attention. Many parents believe sleep training has been damaging and breaks the child’s innate trust in their caregivers willingness to respond to them. A child who’s worthiness is questioned by a lack of sensitive caring will more likely become clingy and anxious. The independence so prized by society will unfold in it’s own developmentally-appropriate time. Trying to force self-settling or independent sleep is like trying to force a flower to open. Nature takes care of things within an environment of love, support and encouragement and independence will blossom when trust and presence are highly valued.