Sleep is a contentious and controversial subject with most families. It is one of the most discussed topics between parents, one of the most common questions parents are asked and one of the area’s as health visitors we support the most with. With an increasing number of ‘sleep consultants’, sleep is clearly an issue many families struggle with.
I have written many blogs in relation to sleep, as sleep is a HUGE subject with so many sub categories; the biology of sleep, how development affects sleep, baby sleep, toddler sleep, to co sleep or not to co sleep etc.
I have decided to write this blog on something I am really passionate about, the language used and myths around sleep. The concern I have is the rhetoric ‘good baby’ ‘bad baby’. My enthusiasm to write this was encouraged by a recent example of a news presenter asking the royals if they had a ‘good baby’.
This terminology is especially used in relation to two areas; crying and sleep. Why as a society, do we describe and label babies as good or bad? Where has this evolved from? What exactly defines a good or bad baby in relation to sleep?
When researching for this blog I tried to find where and when this phrasing originated. I could not find its beginning, yet it is a deeply ingrained social construct and wavers a great deal of power and influence over parental behaviour. It seems a ‘good baby’ is one that sleeps a lot, that never cries, is always happy and content and does not need to much attention. We have these expectations of babies and yet reflecting on adults, our sleep changes on a daily basis, we cry, we aren’t always happy and content and we need hugs, attention and love from our family and friends, how can we expect babies to be any different?
Recent research suggests this terminology of ‘good and bad’ is damaging. Especially damaging to parental mental health including parental confidence, but also damaging to relationships and attachments parents have to their babies and damaging for the babies being labelled. I have experienced this first hand with some of the parents I have supported, sending them into anxiety despair and feelings of failure. These labels of being ‘bad’ can also stick with children through their childhood, potentially reducing their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Sleep behaviour myth busts;
- Can babies be good or bad?
No, is the simple answer. Babies are not good or bad and neither can they try and intentionally be one or the other. Babies do not have the emotional intelligence to manipulate adults with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Baby brain development starts in the womb but predominantly takes place from 0-3 year. How parents respond and parent their children up to the age of 7 shapes and encourages the development of the frontal lobe (part of the brain), which increases emotional intelligence, therefore shaping behaviour.
- Can babies have good or bad sleep?
All babies have indvidual sleep needs. Although there are recommendations around age and hours of sleep, some will need more and some will need less. Just like adults. Lots of things effect babies sleep, such as; development, growth, teething, weather, noise etc. Sleep may vary from night to night, from month to month, depending on what else is going on. Babies are individuals and cannot conform to societal expectations and social constructs. This does not make them good or bad.
- At what age do babies sleep through the night?
I would love someone to define ‘through’ the night, interestingly in recent sleep research, parents either under reported or over reported their own night waking’s, meaning parents themselves aren’t even sure when or how many times they wake a night. The wonder of parenthood, sleep deprivation and hormones!
As a 32year old adult, I wake at least three times in the night. I am a particularly light sleeper. I asked my mum if I slept ‘through the night’ as a baby and she can’t remember, I am therefore concluding, the torture of sleep deprivation ends at some point and then is not remembered. Try to remember this at 03:00, this will not last forever!
Just need to clarify, on a safety note – new-borns do not and should not be sleeping ‘through the night’. New born babies have small stomachs and therefore need frequent feeding (at least 2-3hrly) to maintain their blood sugar levels.
- Will setting a sleep routine encourage better sleep?
This might be controversial to some sleep coaches, consultants or other sleep advisers but research suggests setting a new born into a strict sleep routine will not encourage healthy sleep and important feed cues can be missed. Biologically babies are not born producing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin which responds to light and darkness, they start to produce this from around 3 months. They get their melatonin from breast milk or formula which is why they often feed to sleep.
Sleep routines and training may work for older children (after 6 months) however can be often be distressing for both parents and babies. Babies which are left to cry, in a hope to send them to sleep, is actually counterproductive. Prolonged periods of crying increase’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases baby sleep deprivation and overtiredness, as well as being distressing for parents. Multiple sources of research from experts and universities all over the world, suggests leaving babies alone to cry can impact healthy development. It is thought increased cortisol levels break newly formed neurological (brain) pathways.
Recommendations from leading academic and paediatric experts are; pay attention to your babies’ early sleep cue’s (yawning, fussing, eye rubbing, glazed expression) and encourage them to sleep at this point by being calm, soothing and nurturing them. Making them feel safe and loved, builds trust, encouraging sleep. Responding to your babies’ individual cues increases their emotional containment, allowing your child to grow into a confident adult.
Common parent-led routines such as; feed, play, sleep, have been shown by research to a negative impact on parental mental health as they often fail due to important sleep and feed cues being missed. This results in decreasing parent confidence and increasing feelings of failure. These kinds of routines go also against worldwide health recommendations of responsive parenting.
My plea to all parents to understand every baby is different, they are individuals with their own personalities this does not make them good or bad, and it does not make you a bad parent if your baby;
- Wakes frequently,
- Doesn’t form to routine,
- Needs your love and attention more frequently than others,
- Becomes fussy if you are further than 5mm from them.
Please try to ignore sleep gloaters and boasters, and the people who love to tell you how to parent your child. Just remember YOU are the expert of YOUR BABY. Paying attention to your baby and learning their individual personality and what they like and need is what makes you a responsive and attentive parent, hopefully making your life and theirs better and easier.
Let’s eradicate the ‘good and bad’ baby forever.