Sleep is for the weak

One of the first questions people tend to ask you when you have a baby under the age of one is “Is she a good sleeper?” or “Is she sleeping through?” or, more simply, “Getting much sleep?”. I don’t mind these questions, don’t get me wrong, I will more often than not ask them myself as to talk about babies and not mention sleep is like talking about Gordon Brown and never mentioning his little Tony problem. So is Elphie a good sleeper? Well it’s pretty hard to say.
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Picture credit: Anne Geddes

When babies are newborn, they have no sense of night or day, their bellies are so tiny that they need regular refuelling and in general they are pretty traumatised about being out in the big wide world and not being constantly cocooned by mummy – so they ain’t such great sleepers in general. You tend to get a few days grace – straight after birth it’s not so bad, you might get stretches of more than the three hours between feeds that you are meant to be following, you might even have to wake the baby to feed them while they recharge themselves after the exertions of the birth. Then chaos emerges: three hours between feeds becomes a good night; you dream of a five hour stretch; being up three times in five hours before dawn is not an uncommon occurrence: you are literally being tortured by sleep deprivation. To get through this period you have to try to sleep when the baby sleeps – no ifs, no buts, the housework can wait.

This is the point where you expect me to say “ride on through it, this time shall pass” and it likely will and your baby will sleep for longer lengths of time but for some it doesn’t and only three hours of uninterrupted sleep becomes the norm. Even for those of us who get longer stretches on a regular basis, have no fear, there will be nights or series of nights when this pattern will reassert itself and we’ll be called upon every hour or two.

A common question asked is whether your baby is “sleeping through the night” and by this the questioner seems to be thinking this means sleeping from 7am to 7pm. Now the answer to this is truthfully likely to be “no” since most babies will not be sleeping the twelve hours uninterrupted that we seem to expect them to achieve. Two studies seem to be to blame for this belief that babies and sleep mix well – one Moore and Ucko, from 1957, found that 70% of babies in their study were “sleeping through” (in their case meaning midnight to 5am) by three months. The problems with this study, as the Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS) explains is that the study didn’t look into whether this “sleeping through” was regular or not, were doing the study at a time when formula-feeding was the norm (breastfed babies wake more often), and when sleeping in a separate room was the norm – in which case the parents may not always have woken up as much as had the baby been in their room. The other study described by ISIS as influential, Henderson et al (2010) found 53% of five month old babies regularly slept uninterrupted from 10pm to 6am – so the majority by the skin of its teeth, but what about the rest? Well by that criteria, 27% were still not sleeping through by a year old – that’s over a quarter not regularly sleeping through!

A wise lady from my NCT Group paraphrased Elizabeth Pantley (author of The No Cry Sleep Solution) as saying that infant sleep problems were actually adult sleep problems – babies are evolutionarily programmed to wake regularly to protect them from hunger, SIDS and baby traumas like teething as well as the less common phenomena in the modern world, a lion at their cave door (they didn’t get the memo that they are safe alone in their very expensive cotbed).

Elphie is unusual in that her problem is not regular night awakenings, which she does sometimes but not regularly, but going to sleep. While everyone else’s baby has nicely popped off to sleep at 7pm, I am here at 11pm engaged in a battle to persuade Elphie to go to sleep. Often now she goes down relatively easily at 10.30pm, but not tonight – tonight I made the mistake of trying to get her to bed early (9.30pm) as she was rubbing her eyes and seeming tired. Rookie mistake. She finally went off at midnight.

It’s not even as if she naps, when there’s a full moon we may get three one hour naps, but her general mode is two half hour cat naps and if you are very unlucky those are fifteen minutes especially if you dare put her in her cot.

From when she finally goes to sleep, she’ll sleep a good eight hours usually and depending on the mystical alignment of stars might sleep another two hours if brought into our bed. But it ain’t the eleven hours with three hours of napping during the day that chilled out babies are doing!

She just doesn’t seem to need that much sleep and seems to want to go to bed late. The second shouldn’t be massively surprising given both her parents are night owls, and it does have the advantage of meaning we can still go out with her of an evening without worrying about finding a babysitter or what they’ll do if she wakes up. But I do worry if she’s getting enough sleep overall and sometimes ponder whether I am doing the right thing by allowing her to decide when she wants to pass out or not (not that I can seemingly do much to persuade her to sleep if she doesn’t want to at night!).

This graph from ISIS, using data from a systemic review by Galland et al (2012) makes me feel a bit better as there are some babies sleeping as little as eight hours a day.

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Whether Elphie’s sleep is just within the normal range of infant sleep or a miserable outlier caused by something we are doing that will scar her for life remains to be seen. For now the idea of “training” her seems unnatural and out of keeping with the rest of her baby-led world – but like any parenting decision, maybe I’ve got it wrong, so I will continue to ponder it on those nights when Elphie decides the night is still young.

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