Infant Sleep: A Different Perspective

Part 1: How do babies sleep? and Infant Sleep Basics

infant sleep

Infant sleep is one of the most common concerns for new parents. And I totally get it! Sleep is a really big deal in the postpartum time. You’re healing from birth and going through so many changes. You’re up at all hours of the night feeding and caring for your new baby. Parents are exhausted. American culture does not place much value in postpartum rest. Lack of sleep can truly exacerbate mental health conditions and strain relationships.

As a postpartum doula, I am frequently asked about sleep routines and how to help baby sleep better. This is a very complex and complicated topic. Somehow it has become taboo in American society to say that your baby doesn’t sleep through the night. Our culture holds “sleeping through the night” as some kind of holy grail of parenting. People say you have a “good baby” if they sleep through the night. Your friends say, “wow, you’re still waking up with him overnight? You need to let him cry it out!”

American parents face a host of complex challenges while caring for infants. Parents are going back to work shortly after their baby is born. A partner is lucky to get a week off, if the family can even afford it. The ramifications from lack of sleep are wide, and there can be economic consequences for families. I am not naive about the affects of lack of sleep on families. I’ve been night time parenting for 5 years now, with 3 babies.

What does science tell us about infant sleep?

Often times, families have unrealistic expectations for infant sleep. This often comes from well meaning family and friends who advise sleep training methods and rigid schedules to teach babies to sleep better. Routines like “eat, play, sleep” might work for some families, but these types of routines aren’t based in solid science on infant sleep and development. There are a ton of ways to gently teach your baby to sleep, but that’s later in this series. Let’s take a look and what science has to say about normal infant sleep.

Feeding Methods Matter

Babies are designed to wake frequently throughout the night to feed. While babies who are fed formula can certainly still wake up throughout the night, breastfed babies are especially wired to wake up throughout the night. The fat and protein content of human milk is lower than that of other animals, which means that a breastfed baby will often wake more frequently for feedings. Infant formula digests more slowly than breast milk, and it can lead baby to fall into deep sleep in which they do not naturally arouse from easily. These frequent nighttime feedings are essential for maintenance of the breastfeeding relationship and milk supply. Sleeping through the night is not biologically normal.

Benefits of Night Waking

Firstly, frequent night wakings are protective. If an infant falls into a deep sleep for too long, they are unable to wake themselves from sleep to regulate their breathing and oxygen levels. Frequent wakings help regulate baby’s breathing and can support the prevention of SIDS. Around the world, babies regularly co-sleep with their family and night waking is viewed as a normal part of infant sleep.

Infant Sleep Stages

Infants sleep different than older children and adults. They begin sleep by entering a period of light sleep lasting about 10-20 minutes. Firstly, you will notice slight muscle movements, eyelid fluttering, and maybe some sounds. You might notice smiles or grimaces during this light sleep stage. Secondly, your baby will then fall into a deeper sleep period characterized by limp limbs and slower breathing patterns. After about an hour (or less with a newborn), baby will enter a light sleep stage again. During this time, they can be easily aroused by sounds or other stimulus such as hunger, separation anxiety, etc. Cue frequent night waking.

There are a wide variety of schedules and sleep recommendations available for newborns and infants. However, every baby is a unique individual with their own sleep needs. Some babies naturally have a different circadian rhythm than others. Some infants will be naturally awake more than others, and this can change through the variety of developmental leaps in the first year.

If sleep is a struggle, consider what your baby is doing. Sometimes understanding that your baby’s sleep is normal and biologically appropriate is a helpful stepping stone. Your baby doesn’t have a “sleep problem” if they wake frequently throughout the night, feed to sleep, or want to be close to you at night time. These behaviors are biologically normal.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series for more information.

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