By Elaine Chow (BMSG President)
Across the various counselling channels that we have here at BMSG interacting with many mothers over the past several months has led us to notice a trend of a new recurring topic – sleep training. Many mums write to us, call our helpline or post on our Facebook group, asking how they can manage or improve baby’s sleep. I thought it timely for BMSG to put our position on this matter publicly.
Worrying about baby’s sleep?
Sleep is such a hot button topic among parents! So many mums worry about how much sleep baby is getting; whether it is enough, how we can get baby to sleep more or longer and many other concerns. There are also so many different, and often conflicting, viewpoints out there. Who should you listen to? Which approach best supports breastfeeding? If you want to learn more about infant sleep, and want to get information that supports breastfeeding, then this article is for you.
Myths & Misconceptions About Baby Sleep
The root of most of these worries and questions is an incorrect understanding of how babies are supposed to sleep, particularly at night. The general misconception is that babies should begin life with x number of night wakings, slowly decreasing to x-1 number of night wakings, then x-2, and all the way down to zero. The reality, though, is that there is a great variance in the number of night wakings that babies have, and this tends to go up and down for the first two years of life or longer. This is much later than many parenting books or “sleep experts” would have us believe.
Another misconception is that babies need to be taught how to sleep, or how to become “independent sleepers”. The reality is that babies do not need to be taught to sleep, in the same way that they do not need to be taught to walk. Babies will sleep best when they are put in an environment that encourages sleep – when they feel full, warm, loved and comforted. Breastfeeding your baby to sleep naturally creates such an environment.
Why Night Waking is Completely Okay
It is completely normal that babies, and even toddlers and children, need help to fall asleep. At such a young age, they can hardly do anything for themselves! They need you to feed them, change them, carry them around. So naturally, they will also need help to fall asleep. There are many ways to help them fall asleep, and breastfeeding is a great way to get this done. The act of breastfeeding, that close contact with mother, is always a surefire way of helping baby calm and settle down. Furthermore, breastmilk that is made at night contains higher levels of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.
One of the lesser-mentioned benefits of breastfeeding is that it reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). The exact explanation for why breastfeeding reduces the incidence of SIDS is still unclear, in part because the reasons for SIDS are not clear. Night wakings protect babies from SIDS, and breastmilk, being easily digested and often consumed in smaller quantities at the breast than in the bottle, promotes night waking.
But with the strain of modern living, especially with mothers having to return to work so soon after giving birth, how can we ensure that we are also getting enough sleep ourselves?
Safe co-sleeping (or bed-sharing) is the main way in which breastfeeding experts recommend for mothers to get as much sleep as they can, while still tending to the needs of baby at night. For tens of thousands of years, bed-sharing between mother and infant has been the biological norm for humans. It is only in modern times, with the decline of breastfeeding, that authorities have begun to recommend infants sleeping separately from their mothers.
The basics of safe co-sleeping are for babies to be sleeping on the back, on a firm surface, in a smoke-free environment, with a light blanket. Babies should not have their head covered, and the bed should not have any stuffed toys or pillows around the baby. Parents should also be non-smokers, and not under the influence of sedating medication, other drugs, alcohol, or other substance that will impair their awareness of baby’s presence.
The dangers of sleep-training
What about the sleep training techniques which are mentioned so often in so many modern parenting books? Methods such as extinction, controlled crying, check and leave, pick-up-put-down, or any other time-based method of withholding feeding or comfort to your child have become part of the vocabulary of the modern mum. But science clearly shows that such methods have a detrimental impact on the child. Babies fare best when they have caregivers who are responsive to their needs.
From a breastfeeding perspective, limiting or scheduling feeds can affect milk supply and milk intake by baby, resulting in other health issues further on such as slow weight gain, early weaning or the need for formula supplementation.
Breastsleeping – yes, there’s such a thing!
All this knowledge and information about breastfeeding, night feeding and infant sleep, has come together in a new concept proposed by sleep researcher Dr James McKenna – Breastsleeping. Breastsleeping occurs when a nursing mother is safely bed-sharing with her nursling. His research showed that:
“…breastsleeping dyads synchronize their breathing and sleep cycles so that baby latches on and mother adjusts coverings, kisses baby’s head, etc. without either waking up fully. Breastsleeping babies also maintain higher body temperatures and breastfeed double or triple the number of times during the night compared with solitary sleeping infants. Both increased nighttime arousals and breastfeeding protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).”
Understand What is Normal
Sleeping close to your baby at night, understanding and accepting his normal biological behaviour to wake at night, responding to his needs for comfort or feeding, all contribute to healthier and happier baby, and helps you maintain breastfeeding for longer. And of course, the longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefit to you and your baby. So don’t worry, your baby is normal, and they will all eventually learn how to sleep on their own when they are ready to do so.
References & Further reading:
- Darcia Narvaez PhD, Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/moral-landscapes/201302/normal-human-infant-sleep-feeding-method-and-development (parts 1-5)
- Darcia Narvaez PhD, Sleep Train a Baby?—Don’t! https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/moral-landscapes/201611/sleep-train-baby-don-t
- Breastfeeding for two months halves risk of SIDS https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171030123401.htm
- 8 Reasons Breastfeeding Reduces SIDS https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/sleep-problems/sids/8-reasons-breastfeeding-reduces-sids
- Co-sleeping and Bed-sharing https://kellymom.com/parenting/nighttime/cosleeping/
- James J. McKenna Ph.D, Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C., Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone https://neuroanthropology.net/2008/12/21/cosleeping-and-biological-imperatives-why-human-babies-do-not-and-should-not-sleep-alone/
- James J. McKenna, Ph.D, Safe Cosleeping Guidelines https://cosleeping.nd.edu/safe-co-sleeping-guidelines/
- La Leche League GB, Letting Babies Cry – The Facts Behind the Studies https://www.laleche.org.uk/letting-babies-cry-facts-behind-studies/
- Dr Amy Brown, Importance of Responsive Feeding https://kellymom.com/ages/newborn/bf-basics/importance-responsive-feeding/
- James McKenna and Breastsleeping http://leadertoday.breastfeedingtoday-llli.org/james-mckenna-and-breastsleeping/
- Breastfeed Chicago, 5 Cool Things No One Ever Told You About Nighttime Breastfeeding https://breastfeedchicago.org/2013/05/24/5-cool-things-no-one-ever-told-you-about-nighttime-breastfeeding/