Many new parents are often surprised by just how much their baby sleeps – waking only to feed. But once the novelty wears off, it is the waking, not the sleeping, that often causes parents the most problems.
It’s well-known that newborn babies turn their parents into sleep-deprived zombies for the first few months of parenthood. But in many Western societies, we suggest to new parents there is something wrong with their baby’s night-time behaviour. People will enquire whether the baby is “good”, or “sleeping through the night”, or “in a routine” – as if the answers to these questions are important indicators of future moral character.
In reality, they are thinly-disguised interrogations about parental competence, designed to reinforce cultural values about parental authority, regulation of biology, and the control of children.
And as a result, most parents don’t discuss their infants’ sleep with others, and when they do, they lie. While behind closed doors, anxious evenings are spent searching the internet for information on when babies ought to be “sleeping through” and whether their baby has a “sleep problem”.
Young babies rarely have sleep problems – but parents may perceive their babies’ sleep to be problematic if it doesn’t conform to “parentally convenient” schedules.
Before widespread internet access, parents voraciously consumed books with titles like “How to help your baby sleep through the night”. These days, things have moved on – and for a fee, parents can purchase Skype consultations and personalised sleep plans.
These are delivered by sleep consultants, coaches and counsellors, who may offer a wide range of services to parents of babies aged under six months – and even to newborns. These range from structured bed-time routines to “bed-time fading”. This is where an adult gradually shifts an infant’s bedtime from the time he or she naturally falls asleep, to the time the parent prefers their baby to fall asleep.
These therapies are used to manipulate babies’ sleep patterns to more closely match their parents’ preferences, along with coping strategies for parents, as they adjust their goal to have a three-month-old who “sleeps through the night”.
But herein lies the problem, because babies do not need to learn, be taught or coached, how to sleep. They emerge from the womb fully capable of sleeping, as do all newborn mammals. They have been sleeping in utero for the last several months, and they spend much of the first few months outside the womb doing so, too.
In the first months of life, babies have no internal body-clock, and have tiny stomachs that empty quickly. So the frequent feeding of babies both day and night is a completely normal and biologically predictable phenomenon.
Human babies, particularly, are growing their brains at a dramatic rate during the year following birth. This is an energetically expensive activity that requires frequent refuelling – something they rely on their parents to provide.
While the sleep coach industry (like the self-help books of 20 years ago) is symptomatic of a belief that infant night-waking needs to be addressed by “fixing the baby” – in reality cultural obsessions with inappropriate infant sleep expectations and “good” babies are what need to be fixed.
But it is totally inappropriate to offer or implement sleep training for babies under six to eight months of age, and well-trained sleep coaches will educate parents who request this.
Baby knows best
So parents who want help with their baby’s sleep patterns should exercise caution when purchasing sleep consultancy. Because, as yet, there is no system for accreditation or regulation of sleep coaches in the UK, and no national training standards.
Sleep coaches can range from experienced ex-NHS staff and trained psychologists, to child-minders or nannies who have completed a two-day course and parents who have read a sleep training guide. Essentially, anyone can hang out a sign or put up a website, and call themselves a sleep coach/counsellor/consultant with little to no training or qualifications.
So parents who do want to go down this route should do their own background research, seek personal recommendations, and investigate the nature of the credentials of anyone whose infant sleep services they opt to employ.
And they should think carefully, too, about what they hope to accomplish by hiring a sleep coach, and why. Because if it is simply to bring a young baby inline with their own requirements, then it might be time for a rethink.