Interrupted sleep is the most common complaint of new parents in the UK. Tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion, all the synonyms come into play when describing what for many is the hardest part of being a parent, especially when the children are still very young. Everything I’ve read indicates that we have unrealistic expectations of how well and long babies should sleep but also how well and long adults should sleep too. There’s such a lot of fascinating research on sleep that I’m going to write this in a few parts.
There is a school of thought that says that babies and toddlers who don’t sleep through the night shouldn’t be expected to. If we look at sleep practises around the world, bed sharing and breastfeeding during the night are so common that putting babies in their own room to sleep all night can seem rather bizarre. Are we really the only culture that doesn’t sleep with their babies? Would it be better if we did? Should babies be sleeping through by six months or a year?
The first point is indeed true. I am yet to find another culture where the majority put their babies to sleep in their own beds and in their own rooms, even those from wealthier economies where this would be financially possible. In a cross-cultural study of sleep comparing a selection of Western countries with countries right across Asia, the Asian countries all reported a very high frequency of co-sleeping either in the same bed or in the same room but on a different surface though this might mean a little bed right next to the parents bed.
Would it be better if we also slept with our babies? Well according to Helen Ball from the Parent/Infant Sleep Lab at Durham University it probably would. Not only do babies who sleep with their mothers disturb their mothers less so over all they get more sleep but there is a concern that sleep training babies under the age of 1 goes against a babies physiological need to wake often, sleep lightly (REM sleep is when the brain develops) and breastfeed.
However, it isn’t as neat as West is wrong and the Rest are on to something. When asked whether they considered their infant or toddler to have a sleep problem 76% of Chinese parents did so even though they mostly bed share. In Vietnam only 10% of parents reported a problem despite also sleeping with their babies and toddlers. Do Chinese children really sleep terribly or are their parents expectations to blame? Unfortunately the study doesn’t answer this question but from research on Western attitudes and beliefs on sleep I would say that expectations play a huge role.
And onto the crucial question. Should our babies be sleeping through the night? Sleeping through the night is a modern invention which correlates with the development of industrialisation. Accounts of medieval Britain concur with ethnographic studies that show adults left to their own devices tend to sleep in two large chunks with an hour or so of quiet wakefulness in between. Industrialised societies require people to work set hours, usually during the day and more fluid patterns of sleep just don’t fit in with this. In the 1950’s both the medicalisation of birth and parenting coincided with more women entering the work force. One of the main medical studies that is still used today as a marker for standard sleep patterns in babies is based on a 1950’s study in which all the babies were bottle fed and slept in their own rooms. This ‘norm’ along with the comparatively new idea of sleeping through the night has been extremely hard for many parents (and adults with insomnia) to adhere to as a result.
Both adults with sleep problems and sleep-deprived parents could all benefit from having more realistic expectations around sleep and better information on what ‘normal’ sleep is. Most babies aren’t biologically programmed to sleep all night until well into their toddler years and beyond. Most adults aren’t biologically programmed to transition from bright rooms and stimulating screens to sleep in dark, silent rooms alone either.
Before taking sleeping pills, or putting a rigid sleep method into practise I think it would be worth reflecting on whether your expectations are realistic and whether there are other ways to improve your sleep.
This post was based on various articles sent to me by Professor Helen Ball at Durham University that are unfortunately not free to read. If you have any questions fire away.
Here’s an extremely cute video of a South Korean baby falling asleep