Parenting / 5 April, 2023 / Stephanie Modell

Baby-Led Versus Parent-Led: The Different Approaches To Parenting And Sleep

Parenting today can seem wildly polarised: breast versus bottle; purees versus baby-led weaning; routine versus attachment parenting; stay-at-home mum versus working mum. When it comes to baby sleep, there are a lot of heated debates as to whether to follow a routine or not to follow a routine, also known as ‘parent-led’ or ‘baby-led.’

Baby-led v parent led sleep

Parenting to a strict clock-based schedule may work for some babies, but because all babies are unique, one schedule cannot work for everyone. Within the realms of ‘average sleep needs’ and ‘average sleep cycles’, there can be great disparity. A baby’s requirements will also differ depending on how they feed, their ability to feed efficiently, their health and their tolerance to their milk feeds. If a mother is breastfeeding, her milk production will also influence how often her baby needs to feed. For so many reasons, including our wonderful uniqueness, prescriptive clock-based parenting cannot work for all.

On the other hand, attachment parenting is completely baby-led, with an emphasis on closeness and responsiveness. The baby is carried in a sling or pouch throughout the day (frequently referred to as ‘baby wearing’), and parents, or often just the mother, bed share with the baby at night, allowing the baby to breastfeed as frequently as they wish, day and night. Although there is a lot of information available on attachment parenting there is a lack of guidance on weaning your child from this close proximity dependence, which can be a particular problem for working parents.

Do you need to label your parenting styles or can you blend a healthy balance of the two?

In The Baby Sleep Guide, I aim to bridge opposing attitudes by advocating a blend of common sense, gentle guidance, practical advice and a lot of love. In those first few precious weeks, I would encourage you to go with the flow while you recover from the huge journey of birth and enjoy getting to know your baby. Establishing good feeding – whether it be breast or bottle – should be your main focus at this time. If a baby is feeding well and has a nice full tummy at each and every feed they should sleep well, and you will begin to establish a good rhythm.

Attachment parenting v structured parenting: do I have to choose?

As time goes on, I don’t believe you need to make a choice as to whether to follow attachment parenting or a structured style of parenting. As parents, of course you want a securely attached child, and to achieve this you need to nurture a strong parent–child connection by meeting their physical, mental and emotional needs. There is a middle ground, where you can have the best of both worlds by following your baby’s rhythms and cues to connect the bridge between nurture and structure, by encouraging some sleep independence and by adopting a flexible routine.

When to introduce baby’s routine

There is a great window of opportunity at around 3-4 months old where your baby will respond well to having a bit of structure in their lives. This doesn’t mean parenting to a strict clock-based regime but starting to introduce a regular rhythm to the day. You can begin by simply introducing a bath routine. This is a cue to your baby that it’s nighttime and different from the rest of the day.

Try and do this at a similar time each night. Keep it calm and relaxing with the lights low. I like to do a split feed at bath time, giving at least half of the feed before the bath and then a top-up after. This has many advantages; your baby won’t be hungry and stressed in the bath; they often release trapped wind whilst bathing; they are less likely to fall asleep whilst feeding after bath and when you include the post-bath top up they often take a bigger feed than normal which can help them achieve a long stretch of sleep at the start of the night. Bathing also helps to increase their melatonin levels. Melatonin is the sleep hormone and will help your baby settle to sleep.

Baby’s sleep patterns from four months

From the age of around 4 months old, your baby’s sleep pattern will mature and they will start sleeping in sleep cycles. This means that during the night, they will go through a roller coaster of sleep stages from light sleep to deep sleep with periods of dream sleep throughout. In between these many sleep cycles, they will partially or fully rouse from their sleep. So the fact that babies wake during the night is perfectly normal, and it’s nature’s way of keeping us safe. This is a fundamental fact about sleep that it’s important to grasp. In order for a baby to connect their sleep cycles throughout the night they need to know how to do so. This is why you hear and read so much about babies needing to be able to self-settle.

Why self-settling is so important

If they can self-settle at the start of the night, they are more likely to be able to connect their sleep cycles during the night. If your baby has never gone to sleep unaided in their cot before, they may need lots of help to begin with. Put them down drowsy but awake and shush, pat, sing lullabies or do anything at all to help them get to sleep. Stay with them. If they get upset, pick them up and cuddle and once they are calm, start again. Never just leave them to cry. You are building their trust and as they get more comfortable with going to sleep in their cot, start to give less and less intervention. This is called gradual retreat, and once they start to go to sleep without your help, they should find it easier to connect their sleep cycles during the night.

Between 4 and 6 months, you can also work on having some structure to your baby’s naps. There is a fine balance between a baby being over-tired and under-tired by bedtime, and this needs fine-tuning. As a rule of thumb, work towards a nap routine whereby the longest nap of the day is around lunchtime as this is the nap that your child will continue until they are 2-3 years old. So the rhythm of the day would be a short nap in the morning (45-60 mins), a long nap at lunchtime (1.5-2 hours) and a short nap in the afternoon (45-60 mins). However, if your baby likes to cat nap which many do, they can have 4 shorter naps. Sleep is sleep, however it happens. The key thing is to try to avoid them being over-tired at bedtime.

Above all, enjoy this special time and parent how you want to parent. There is no right or wrong way.

Article by Stephanie Modell.

Stephanie Modell is a sleep consultant, maternity nurse and mum to 25-year-old triplets, based in Chichester, West Sussex.

The new revised edition of The Baby Sleep Guide is published by Summersdale Publishers Limited and is available on Amazon and other retailers from 13th April 2023.

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