Babies aren't broken: Parents must change how they look at sleep

Kinderling News & Features

A friend of mine recently had her first baby.

There’s nothing like that 'new baby' smell, their sweet innocent little faces, their tiny hands and feet, to make one want to procreate again.

Speaking for myself, of course.

But then I remember the lack of sleep and I think, maybe not.

The first year of a baby’s life is often the most fraught with broken sleep for the whole family. It’s torture, and as a result we all get a bit obsessed about our baby “sleeping through the night”.

My babies are now children and with hindsight I can say that they didn’t sleep through until nine months, at least. The first year in particular was challenging.

We are sold an idea that just isn’t real

There is a proliferation of baby books, websites, forums and courses that will try to sell you the idea that you can get your baby to sleep through the night.

Given most of us enter into this experience of parenting sleep-deprived (labour not being conducive to a good eight hours of sleep), the idea that it’s possible to get babies sleeping through is like the promise of water after a week in a desert.

Fran Chavasse, Senior Nurse Educator at Tresillian, says that babies aren’t designed to sleep through, particularly when they’re very young.

“They need to feed really frequently for them to grow and develop. In the first month particularly, they don't even have a day/night rhythm yet. By about four weeks, the baby is more awake in the day and will sleep more at night. In the first four weeks, parents will be tired, they will be waking up at any old time.”

When babies don’t sleep through, they’re not broken

My friend who has the new baby isn’t sleeping well.

She’s worried that her baby’s not getting enough sleep. She’s sleep-deprived and has all the crappy things that come with that – gritty eyes, lethargy, volatile emotions.

And she’s looked everywhere for answers – forums, books, local health care providers.

Tresillian recently released the Tresillian Sleep Book. Fran says they were responding to the mountains of information around that were distracting parents from the real game.

“If you want to find an answer [to why a baby isn’t sleeping] you have to understand what babies are doing. It can't be a recipe that fits every single baby because there is no recipe. It's all about each individual baby. Babies are all people just like you and me, they're little people with each of their own individual needs depending on who they are. We need to look at each stage of their development and where they are up to.”

Fran says that there’s not a lot parents can do if their baby isn’t developmentally ready to sleep more consistently.

Looking back on how I felt in that first year, I wonder if it would have been easier knowing that.

Would it have been easier to accept that there was nothing wrong with the way I was parenting? That there was nothing wrong with my baby?

Listen to The Promise of Sleep

You can get your babies into good sleep patterns: it doesn’t mean it will last

As babies get older they will respond better to night and day, to naps and sleeping for long stretches overnight. But as soon as they have a developmental leap or fall ill, Fran says that sleep pattern can be disrupted again.

“If your baby gets sick, then they're going to want you more. They don't know what's wrong with them. They feel yucky. Something's wrong so they want you, so they're not going to sleep. That's that. The end.

“The first 12 months is full of bits and pieces that are going to happen - one step forward, two steps back. These are normal experiences for parents and babies that we can't avoid. It's really unfair to set up an expectation in parents' minds that they're being ripped off somehow. They're not being ripped off. Their baby’s not being naughty or disruptive or giving them a hard time. Their baby’s just being a baby.”

We need to shift our thinking: sleep is a developmental process

Fran says that if we think about sleep as a developmental process, we can support our babies through different phases, and also have hope that it will get better.

“Sleep is a developmental process, just as much as walking and talking. It develops over the first twelve months. A baby's capacity to sleep through the night increases as the baby grows older and certain things have to happen before self-settling occurs.”

If we shift the way we think about babies and sleep, we might be able to relax a little.

We can put good sleep practices into place, but lower our expectations on what a 'good night’s sleep' looks like for us and our babies.

It won’t necessarily improve our sleep, but it might stop us trying to fix something that’s not broken.

For more expert tips and relatable information about your baby or toddler's sleep, check out our brand new podcast, The Promise of Sleep We promise, no false hope here! Just good advice from parents and experts to help you all get a better night's sleep.

What's the best tip you would give a new parent about their baby's sleep?