Expert / 14 March, 2022 / Lyndsey Hookway
Your little one is here. You’re in a loved-up bundle of bliss on the sofa, reveling in the deliciousness of just hanging out with your baby. Hang on…. That’s not always the way it goes – right? That’s the photoshoot someone put on Instagram.
In the real world, the sink is full of dishes, there’s wet laundry in the machine that smells like wet dog, and you dream of having a long bath all by yourself. Reality sometimes doesn’t live up to expectation.
Firstly, it is hard in the early days, weeks and months. The endless days of snuggles and pottering around your home waiting for your baby to wake up that you may have imagined may not be your reality at all.
Secondly, many parents feel confused about what the right thing to do is when it comes to sleep. We are bombarded with myths from well-meaning friends, family, health professionals, and Dr.Google. Some of it is weird, some is false, and some of it is misconstrued. It can be difficult for many people to tell the facts from the fiction and the evidence from the pseudoscience.
Having supported families for nearly twenty years, it’s fair to say that I’ve heard some big sleep white lies in my time. Here’s a round-up of the most common baby sleep myths.
Firstly, this is not about judging your feeding choices. But many parents who are otherwise breastfeeding well are told that if they give their baby a bottle of formula, they will sleep better. Not only does research not back this up, but I hear from hundreds of parents every year who try this and find it unhelpful. Certainly, if you need or want to give your baby a bottle, that’s totally your choice, but don’t do it for sleep – it’s a promise that probably won’t deliver.
Lots of people claim that strict routines can help babies to sleep. The idea is that if they feed less frequently, they will take bigger volumes, and last longer between feedings. The problem is that all babies are different. Strict routines do not work for about 80% of the population, and are often stressful for all involved. They can be restrictive, inflexible, and not all babies can manage a large feed. This strategy may just make you and your baby unhappy, and potentially uncomfortably full – which, guess what…. can worsen sleep.
This is based on myths that are not backed up by research. I have met tiny babies who sleep for 10 hours, and huge babies who wake every 2 hours round the clock. I’ve met 6-week old babies who sleep through, and 16 month old’s who don’t. Babies sleep the way they sleep, for many different reasons. They all get there in the end though…
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Another idea not backed up by research. There is no food that we would give to a young baby that is more nutrient-dense than milk. A bowl of steamed carrots and broccoli is really not going to leave your baby stuffed. This advice also assumes that the reason babies wake is hunger. Certainly, that is one reason, but there are about 567318 other reasons babies may be waking in the night.
Again, to be clear, this is not about whether now is the right time for you to stop breastfeeding. That’s your personal choice. But the idea that breastfeeding is the sleep barrier is not true. Stopping breastfeeding eliminates a parenting tool. If you don’t breastfeed, you will have to find another way to feed and comfort your baby. Stopping doesn’t change the fact that your baby needs you in the night.
This is based on some research that found a link between bedsharing and frequent night waking. But bedsharing is often the response to frequent night waking, not the cause. Most parents bring their baby in to bed with them to maximise sleep. Bedsharing isn’t safe for everyone – you’ll need to check to see if there are any reasons and risk factors that make bed-sharing riskier for your family, but if you have made an informed choice to bedshare and then stop it, you will probably find that getting out of bed to re-settle your baby is harder work, at least initially.
This is based on the idea that you might be disturbing your baby overnight. Some people also think that parents respond too quickly to their babies in the night, and if they were in another room they might ignore some of the quieter noises. First of all, this is not a safe idea if your baby is under 6 months, and second of all, many babies sleep better when they are close to their parent.
I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t heard this. The idea is that by ignoring your baby, they learn that crying does not get them the response they want. The problem with this is that it can be stressful, loud, doesn’t always work, and that is leaving aside the other objections to leaving babies to cry.
This is often nearly impossible to achieve. Many babies do not seem to have a ‘drowsy’ stage. They go from awake to passed out in 2.1 seconds. Or they fall asleep feeding (which is also normal by the way!). Other babies will wake up fully as soon as they are placed in their crib. This idea can be really stressful and difficult for parents.
And finally, some people claim that the normal fragmented sleep of infancy is bad for a baby’s long term cognition. This is really naughty because what people have done is look at research that applies to school-aged children who are not getting enough hours of sleep per night. They have extrapolated outcomes of poor memory and school performance to infants. This is not true and can make many parents panic unnecessarily.
So there we have it. This, sadly, is not an exhaustive list of all the wacky advice out there. You get an extra hug if you’ve heard all of these myths and more. They can be demoralizing, frustrating and confusing. So, arm yourself with decent information so you know what’s true and what’s not. Good luck!
Article by Lyndsey Hookway, author of Let’s Talk About Your New Family’s Sleep.
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