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Science of Sleep

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Do you have red, watery eyes? Are you feeling like a zombie lately? Does your baby not sleep more than 2-3 hours at a stretch, night or day? If any of these symptoms sound familiar, read on.

For most new parents, sleep deprivation is almost a rite of passage. A few lucky parents have miraculous babies that sleep through the night at as early as six weeks. Chances are that if you are reading this article you are not a part of that coveted club, but anxiously want to join.

Getting babies to sleep through the night is not easy and sleep training is usually required. However, before tackling this herculean task, most parents have to fight the feelings of self- doubt and guilt that accompany sleep training.

When I was starting the process of sleep training my son, I underwent a lot of angst and kept asking myself questions like “am I being a lazy parent?”; “will sleep training techniques harm my child?”; “is my baby ready for sleep training?”

The good news is that there is a great deal of information on sleep training babies that can help allay your anxiety. Baby sleep is almost a science and there are several research laboratories and sleep centers dedicated to researching baby sleep patterns and solutions. These laboratories use medical as well as anthropological research methods to study how babies sleep. This research more or less covers the spectrum of topics on baby sleep- from co-sleeping, to SIDS, to the effects of sleep deprivation, to sleep solutions.

To pacify my apprehensions, I conducted extensive research on sleep training. I scoured through popular literature on sleep solutions and several medical journals to help answer my questions and mitigate my anxiety.

This article is written in an effort to provide you with some of the information that I helped me. Hopefully, it will help answer some of your questions and make your sleep training journey a little easier.

This article addresses the following:

  • Common fears associated with sleep training and some clarifications
  • Impact of sleep deprivation on you and baby
  • Key sleep training facts about babies
  • Important factors to consider before sleep training your baby

COMMON FEARS ASSOCIATED WITH SLEEP TRAINING AND SOME CLARIFICATIONS

Many parents put off sleep training their babies because of the following reasons:

  • Fear # 1 – It is dangerous: Some parents fear that sleep training can negatively impact their baby’s emotional and physical well-being due to amount of stress it might cause
  • Fear # 2 – Losing baby’s trust: Some parents are scared that letting their babies cry-it-out can negatively impact their relationship with their baby and might lead to feelings of abandonment on the baby’s part

Clarification: These two fears are commonly associated with Cry-It-Out (CIO) sleep techniques. There are opinions, on both ends of the spectrum, regarding whether CIO sleep techniques are dangerous for babies and if they will lead to adverse long-term effects on a parent-child.

Firstly, it is important to note that all sleep solutions are not CIO techniques. There are several sleep training methods out there that involve minimal or at least less crying than the traditional CIO techniques.

Secondly, that there is also a rampant misconception that all CIO techniques are “full-extinction” techniques which essentially involve letting babies cry for endless periods of time. That is not the case. A lot of CIO techniques involve leaving a child alone in their cribs for specified intervals and consoling them intermittently.

As far as long-term adverse impact of CIO techniques is concerned, there is not much of scientific evidence (supportive or unsupportive) about these techniques. This leads me to conclude that till more conclusive scientific studies specifically linking CIO sleep techniques to long-term impacts on the cognitive behavior or physical wellbeing of children surfaces, we need to be guided by our instincts regarding CIO sleep training techniques and decide whether it is for us or not.

  • Fear # 3 – I am being an un-nurturing parent: Sleep training babies always involves a little bit of crying leading to immense guilt peppered by self-doubt about whether your parental style is not providing adequate nurturing to your child

Clarification: Letting your baby cry-it-out, in an effort to sleep train them, is not the same thing as being an un-nurturing parent (there are several studies regarding nurturing a baby and long-term development). Just because you are trying to sleep train your baby does not mean you are abandoning them and are not meeting their emotional, mental and physical needs. As long as you are still nursing and/or feeding your child according to their nutritional needs, spending quality time with them, giving them adequate love and attention, not being abusive, exposing them to an enriched social and physical environment you are being a nurturing parent- don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Fear # 4 – Nutritional deprivation: Parents might be concerned that night time weaning might cause an issue with the baby’s nutritional need

Clarification: As far as nutritional deprivation is concerned, as long as your baby is healthy, has no medical condition, is over 4-6 months of age and is meeting her milestones for height, weight and development, there is no evidence that indicates that sleeping through the night will cause nutritional issues. However, it is best to consult with your pediatrician to discuss your baby’s health before beginning the process of sleep training.

IMPACT OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION

Sleep deprivation can have very adverse, long-term effects on both parent and baby.

 Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Baby

Children need a lot more sleep than adults. The following chart lists the amount of sleep, on average, needed by babies and toddlers (by age):

A good night’s sleep is important for physical and cognitive development in children. Additionally establishing good sleeping habits, early on in your baby’s life, will lay the foundations for good sleep habits later on in life.

There is a lot of evidence to support the adverse impacts of sleep deprivation in children. Some studies on the subject have concluded that inadequate sleep can result in:

  • Increased risk for being overweight
  • Adversely impact memory, learning and other neurobehavioral functions
  • Difficulties with focused attention
  • Chronic overtiredness
  • Less physical coordination
  • Fussy and cranky behavior
  • Difficulty modulating impulses and emotions
  • Increases the risk of injury among children

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Parents

Apart from the negative impacts of sleep deprivation on children, parents also need to consider the effect that extended periods of sleep deprivation has on them and their style of parenting. Besides the fact that sleep training can adversely impact their home and work life, it can also have a negative effect on their behavior towards their child.

Sleep deprivation can render parents:

  • Less patient
  • More disoriented
  • Less attentive
  • Easily frustrated
  • More forgetful
  • More prone to losing their temper

These effects can manifest themselves in fractious relationships with significant others, tense environment at home as well as feelings of resentment and angry behavior towards their children.

Parents who suffer from prolonged sleep deprivation have been known to shake their babies, hit them and be abusive. Sleep deprived parents have also been known to unintentionally leave their babies unattended (as they might doze off) leading to bad accidents.

Also, if there is another child in the family, it might lead to negligent behavior towards them. Depression can also rear its ugly head in sleep deprived parents leading to severe short and long term repercussions for the parent, baby as well as the family.

Bottom line, a well-rested parent can create a more nurturing environment for their children and can be more responsive to a baby’s physical and emotional needs.


KEY SLEEP TRAINING FACTS ABOUT BABIES

Here are some peculiarities, about the way babies’ sleep, to be mindful of when you start sleep training your baby:

  • Sleep begets sleep: It may sound counter-intuitive but if a baby gets enough sleep during the day and is put to bed at a reasonable hour, at night, they will actually sleep much better and for longer periods of time. This is because, if a baby does not get enough rest during the day they become over tired and find it more difficult to fall asleep at night.  Overtired babies wake up more frequently at night and also sleep for shorter durations of time.
  • Establishing a routine is important: The earlier parents begin setting a routine for their baby; the easier it is to sleep train them. In fact a bedtime routine can be introduced as early as 6 weeks. Typical bedtime routines involve giving baby a bath, a massage, reading a story, giving the baby some milk and putting her into her crib. The main thing is that the bed time routine should be consistent in terms of activities and timing.
  • Learning self-soothing helps babies sleep well: Most sleep solutions recommend that babies should be put down in their cribs before they fall asleep. This helps them learn how to self-sooth and put themselves to sleep. There is ample evidence that babies who learn how to self-soothe sleep for longer periods of time and are also less likely to cry out for their parents when they wake up in the middle of the night. Additionally, according to some research, learning how to self soothe as a child is correlated to better sleep habits as the child grows older.
  • Babies cry out several times during the night: Our instant reaction when we hear our little ones cry at night is to run and pick them up. However most babies cry out a couple of times during the night, without actually being fully awake. And more often than not, they go right back to sleep after a few minutes. If we pick up our baby every time we hear a cry, we will not only disrupt their sleep but also make it difficult for them to learn how to self soothe. The best course of action is to learn how to distinguish between a normal cry versus a pained cry and pick baby up only if the cry does not seem normal.
  • Babies need to learn the difference between night and day: Babies are not hard-wired to distinguish between night and day. They need to learn this distinction. Some tips to move this process along include:
    • Developing a consistent night time routine
    • Creating an unstimulating, boring environment at night time. Dimming the lights, cutting out any noise and speaking softly creates this environment for babies
    • Avoiding diaper changes at night unless  baby is uncomfortable
    • Designating a spot for bedtime so that the baby can easily distinguish between daytime naps and bedtime
  • Developmental milestones might adversely impact sleep habits:  A baby’s sleep cycle might get disrupted if they have recently hit a major developmental milestone (such as rolling, crawling, standing, etc). Sometimes babies also regress to old sleeping habits and parents might need to sleep train them again

Now that you know these facts about baby sleep, you need to assess if your baby is ready for sleep training and also if you are ready to take on this formidable task.


IMPORTANT FACTORS TO CONSIDER BEFORE SLEEP TRAINING YOUR BABY

Before you start sleep training, you need to take into account the following factors to determine if your baby and you are ready to start sleep training.

  • Night-time Weaning: By about 4-6 months, night feedings can be eliminated as most babies that age do not have a nutritional need to feed at night. If your baby’s weight is commensurate with her age. Speak to your pediatrician to make sure your baby does not have a nutritional need for night time feeds. Typically, doctors recommend waiting till the baby is around 15 pounds (on average between the age of 4 to 5 months) to begin sleep training.
  • Major Milestone: If your child has recently hit a major milestone (crawling, standing, running, etc.), it might be difficult to institute sleep training at that time. This is because they might develop an increased sense of anxiety and may also be more excitable (and therefore less prone to sleeping) as they going through an important transition.
  • Physical Health: Make sure that your child is not suffering from some ailment at that time which might interfere with sleep training.
  • Teething: If your child is about to cut a tooth, it might not be the best time to begin sleep training as they may be experiencing some pain which will prevent them from sleeping well.
  • Time Commitment and Scheduling: Most sleep training techniques require consistency and essentially sticking to a routine. Make sure that you and your significant other are prepared to make the time commitment required to practice your sleep training routine, with the baby, every day.
  • Get Other Caregivers on Board: If you and your significant other are not the only caregivers, make sure your caregiver is fully aware of your method and can institute the same routine when the baby is under their care to avoid any confusion on the baby’s part.

Once you have established that your baby is medically ready, and you are emotionally and physically prepared to sleep train your baby, the next step is evaluating sleep solution options.

For a primer on how to pick a sleep solution , read my article Strategically Searching for Sleep Solutions.


CONCLUSION

Most children need to be taught how to sleep through the night. As fretful as you may feel, remember that the negative impact of sleep deprivation for you and baby is far worse than the anxiety you may feel during the sleep training process.

Once you start the process of sleep training, each passing day will get a little easier. And before you know it your baby, and you, will be sleeping through the night.

Good night and good luck!

 


REFERENCES

 

 


 

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Contributed by saimaismail

Saima is the Editor-in-Chief, and co-founder of Bright Babyhood. She is a management consultant and a Columbia University alumni. She currently spends her days managing and writing for Bright Babyhood, and brainstorming ways to convince her toddler to eat. You can find her writings at www.BrightBabyhood.com.

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