We recently welcomed a new General Practitioner Dr Claire Morrow, who has a special interest in sleep in babies, and toddlers. Dr Claire understands parenthood is a time of extreme life-change and poses many new and complex challenges. She also knows it is a time when a huge amount of conflicting and confusing advice is offered to already overwhelmed and exhausted new parents.
In today’s blog, Claire discusses a few things that may help parents understand their young child’s sleep needs. No two babies are the same and there is a huge variation in the amount of sleep that babies need in the first 1-2 years of life. This makes it impossible to provide a prescriptive sleep method that will work for every young child, however understanding the science behind infant sleep can help us adjust how our babies sleep to help the nights become more restful and the days more enjoyable!
Common parent concerns regarding babies’ sleep:
- Frequent night wakening (waking more than every 2 hours)
- False starts at the beginning of the night
- Grunting, groaning or seemingly unsettled sleep
- Large periods of wakefulness overnight
- Difficulty transferring into babies own sleeping space
- Frequent feeding overnight
- Long periods of time required to settle babies to sleep
Just how much sleep do babies need?
Just as individual adults have a huge variation in the amount of sleep that they need (everyone knows that very efficient person who can operate on 4 hours of sleep and also those that can’t roll out of bed without 12), so do babies. In fact, very low sleep needs babies can need up to 8 hours less per 24 hours than their high sleep needs counterparts. It is each individual child’s pre-programmed sleep need that dictates how they sleep during the day and the night and, unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to ‘train’ or ‘teach’ our babies to sleep over and above their own sleep needs. All we can do is work with their biological regulators of sleep to make our nights more manageable.
The two biological regulators of sleep:
The two biological regulators of sleep are the circadian clock and the sleep wake homeostat.
- The circadian rhythm is a clock-like regulator of biological processes that respond to light and dark and are responsible for making us feel alert or sleepy at certain times of the day. At birth babies’ circadian clocks are naturally dysregulated after living their whole lives in a quiet dark space in which they have no awareness of day or night, and although we do expect this dysregulation to mature over time, there are some things that we unwittingly do as loving parents that can prolong this process. There are also tweaks we can make to help their little circadian clocks mature more quickly, namely: setting an early consistent wake up time with exposure to plenty of natural light; and maintaining different sleeping environments for day naps as opposed to the (hopefully) big night sleep.
- The sleep wake homeostat is the concept that we become increasingly sleepy the longer we are awake, or in other words, we are more likely to fall asleep easily when our sleep pressure is high. A lot of the time parents battling with getting their babies to fall asleep or stay asleep are trying to get their babies to sleep when they essentially aren’t tired enough. In order to get deeper, longer periods of sleep overnight we want to push our babies sleep pressure (or tiredness) to the highest level it will be in that 24 hour period. Common things parents may do which inadvertently drop their babies sleep pressure too low during the day are: naps in dark quiet rooms with white noise, long contact or carrier naps and following a strict sleeping schedule. We want the function of day naps to just take the edge of sleep pressure while still building it throughout the day. The best way to do this is to stop focusing on our babies day sleeps and trust that they will take the sleep that they need when they need it (this also allows parents to get out and enjoy the day with their little one!).
By working with the two biological sleep regulators we can gently adjust babies’ sleep in order to get baby to bed easily and quickly, minimise night wake ups and get longer deeper blocks of sleep overnight.
Other points to note
- Your baby will not allow itself to get sleep deprived – we can trust them to take the sleep that they need when the need it
- Babies sleep needs vary and even out over about a two week period – they may get into slight sleep debt or credit for short periods but will catch up in the next week or two
- There is no evidence to suggest that every baby needs a predetermined amount of sleep or else their brain development/cognition will suffer – this causes many parents unnecessary stress and anxiety
- Cat naps are completely normal – there is no need to panic about linking sleep cycles or closely monitoring awake windows. Babies’ sleep architecture is very flexible and different to adults
- It can be developmentally normal for some babies to wake up to 2 hourly overnight but should be easily fed or comforted back to sleep
- Feeding to sleep does not encourage or cause increased night wakening
We are here to help
Dr Claire offers gentle, evidence-based, non-sleep training advice to help with any sleep concerns in the first 24 months of life. Interested expectant parents are encouraged to book in antenatally as Dr Claire can help them to feel prepared and empowered for when their bundle of joy arrives. She offers one-hour long appointments to new parents to ensure there is plenty of time to answer all questions.
If you have any concerns about your baby or toddler’s sleep patterns, please phone us and make an appointment with Dr Claire Morrow on 07 3357 8192 or visit us at www.familydoctorsplus.com.au to make an online booking.