Sleeping baby, sleep

Photo: Getty Images

Sarah is stressed and anxious. She tells me, “I can’t get my baby to wake up for her 7 am feed.”

I ask, “When did she last feed?”

It turns out that Sarah’s two week old baby was fed at 5.30am, and, being a newborn, she took about an hour to feed and go back to sleep. This meant she had only been asleep for half an hour when Sarah tried to wake her for her next feed. It turned out that the source of Sarah’s anxiety was a book on her coffee table: it advised that whatever time her baby last fed, she should start her daily routine at 7am. Now she was anxious that the routine would be mixed up and that she would then be setting her baby up for bad sleep habits.

There is so much conflicting advice and ‘rules’ about infant sleep that undermine mothers’ natural intuition and common sense that I’d like to bust a few common baby sleep myths.

You must start your day at 7am, whatever time your baby last fed

You have two choices here that make sense. You can start your own day at 7am: Get up and have a shower (you might even have time to wash your hair) and eat breakfast, or even prepare tonight’s dinner or do a load of washing while your baby sleeps.

Or you can snuggle down under the covers and catch some zzzs until your baby wakes. It can create unnecessary stress and be a waste of time to wake a sleeping baby who was just fed an hour ago, and who probably won’t feed well anyway, if he isn’t hungry.

Babies ‘should’ sleep in two hour stretches during the day

Babies, just like all of us, are individuals with differing sleep requirements. These will change according to developmental stages, illness, and environment. As a parent, you know if your baby has woken as she comes up into a light sleep cycle but could do with some help to resettle, or whether she will be happy to get up and play after 45 minutes or an hour of sleep. If you do try resettling, give yourself a time limit - say, 10 minutes - then, if your baby isn’t going to sleep, get her up and play, go for a walk, talk to her and have fun. It makes no sense to stand in a darkened room all day trying to get your baby to sleep, especially if you spend half an hour resettling and your baby sleeps for an extra fifteen minutes. As one mother of three said, “I spent so much time trying to get my first baby to sleep. I wish I had spent it enjoying him.”   

Sleeping in your arms, a sling, a pram or the car is not ‘proper’ sleep

Some ‘experts’ claim that any sleep that isn’t in a cot is ‘junk sleep’ like ‘junk food’ and won’t refresh your baby, especially his tiny brain. But sleep is sleep. A child who is quite flexible about where he sleeps is a lot easier than one who will only ever sleep in a darkened room at home, in his cot. While you may be able to get home for every sleep with a first baby, it’s pretty unrealistic if you have more than one child: if you have a school pick-up to manage, your baby will almost certainly get used to sleeping ‘on the move’.

Also, if your baby sleeps in a pram, a sling or your arms, the rocking motion while he is sleeping is helping develop his vestibular apparatus, a series of canals inside the inner ear that, as fluid moves over them (with movement), send out messages to the nervous system that helps with the development of speech and language, balance and sensory integration (making sense of all the sensations of sound, movement, taste, smell and visual stimuli).

You should never rock your baby to sleep

This method of calming and settling babies has been around for generations, so there just might be something in it, don’t you think? As mentioned above, movement is helpful to your baby’s development and, according to US psychologist Sharon Heller, author of The Vital Touch, many babies may crave rocking if mothers have sedentary pregnancies, and their babies have fewer opportunities for movement that supports vestibular development before birth.

As your baby grows, you can ‘wean’ her from being rocked to sleep by offering more movement when she's awake, and introduce gentle music as a relaxation cue, gradually rocking less. Later, you can simply reduce the volume of the music if you like.

You must never breastfeed your baby to sleep

This causes so much stress, because it's completely normal for a relaxed baby to fall asleep on the breast. Can you imagine being all snuggled up to your partner, then being poked and told, “Move over to your own side of the bed, we're creating ‘bad habits’"? In fact, there are amazing relaxation chemicals in breastmilk, with different hormones and proteins in your ‘night time’ milk (melatonin and neucleotides) that have stronger sleep-inducing effects. This explains why your baby will probably go straight back to sleep after a night feed. Therefore, it makes no sense to wake a drowsy baby who is naturally calm and relaxed.

And just in case you're worried about ‘bad habits’, take heart: your baby may love to snuggle up to a warm breast when he’s 18 – but it won’t be yours!

Pinky McKay is the author of Sleeping Like a Baby – simple sleep solutions for infants and toddlers

She is offering baby sleep seminars (Sleep, Love and Your Baby’s Brain) in October and November in Byron Bay, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane. For more information and to register check Pinky’s website.