It’s pretty common for this to be one of the first questions parents ask me. Most of the parents I have the pleasure of working with are pretty selfless and sacrificial. But any parent who wants the best for their child may get concerned from time to time about whether their child’s needs are being met. This goes for sleep too.
“I’m worried my baby isn’t getting enough sleep for their development”
“Is my baby sleeping enough to be able to learn and grow?”
“I’ve heard that sleep on the move doesn’t ‘count’…”
“My baby seems to nurse through the entire length of her nap – does this count as sleep?”
I can assure you that in the vast majority of cases, I can probably reassure you immediately. But let’s dig into these questions a little and try to unpack them.
Sleep and development
Many parents are concerned that if their baby does not get the amount of sleep that charts and books say is average or normal, that they will come to harm. They know that children grow during sleep, and have become concerned. For some parents, their baby’s sleep doesn’t even bother them, but they worry that they are damaging their baby by not helping them to sleep more, or ‘better’. Ok – so this is actually the easiest myth to bust!
- Firstly, all babies are different, and as much as those charts with average sleep needs are a useful baseline, we need to remember that there will always be outliers
- If babies are generally cheerful and interactive, then there really is no immediate evidence that they are suffering for lack of sleep
- We should be looking at individual children and seeing if they are getting the best sleep they can get, for their individual needs
- It doesn’t make a lot of sense that babies are suddenly being diagnosed as sleeping insufficiently and that this will impact their development. Babies have been needing parental help to fall asleep and stay asleep for tens of thousands of years. They have been waking in the night for thousands of years. It doesn’t make sense for an evolutionary norm to be responsible for developmental regression and stunting
- If your baby is sleeping in their favourite place, and in their favourite way, and still wakes a lot, or has a short nap, then it is likely that this is the best they are going to be able to do. So, if you want to test whether your baby can sleep longer, put them in their favourite location – the baby carrier, your arms, or the pushchair. How long do they sleep? If it’s still short, don’t stress…
What about learning and behaviour problems?
Usually next on someone’s sleep hit list is the concern that if children don’t sleep enough that they will perform poorly in school, not achieve the results they could have done, and generally not fulfil their academic potential. Some people worry that children will have behavioural problems or social conduct issues. This issue is a little murkier, but let’s dive in…
- Studies that explore cognitive outcomes and school performance are looking at older children who are sleeping significantly less than recommended
- Among studies that examine cognitive outcomes following sleep fragmentation in infancy, about half report poorer performance, but the other half report no association. It seems there is no evidence…
- More than 80% of babies aged 6-18 months wake at least 1-3 times per night. It therefore makes very little sense that this is causing widespread poor attainment and school performance
- There is some evidence that children (again, not babies!) with significantly lower amounts of sleep than recommended may exhibit symptoms that can be confused with ADHD, but we need to remember that this is children we are talking about. Not infants.
- Infants who have not slept enough are sometimes cranky in the day for sure, but there is no evidence that this will be a long-term thing. One decent nap and they wake up bright eyed and full of smiles again.
What about naps on the move?
This is a more complex issue I think. It may stem from the fact that as adults, we often prefer to sleep in a bed. When was the last time you slept well on a plane? In a car? On a sofa? Yep – me neither. But does it follow that this applies to babies? We have strapped babies to our backs and got on with our daily chores for thousands of years. It doesn’t sound sensible to me. Here are some thoughts though:
- Are you stopping and allowing the pace of the day and the environment to facilitate sleep? Is motion or movement sleep happening as the default because you’re out and about? What would happen if you slowed down and had an easy day?
- Where is your baby’s favourite sleep location? If it’s motion, then it’s unlikely that this is causing them to sleep poorly. Try putting a baby who likes to nap in arms down in their crib and they’ll probably have a short nap. Most parents instinctively know that to protect and elongate sleep, they don’t risk a new location!
- Babies often settle well with motion, especially in the early months. It reminds them of in-utero life
- Babies frequently find movement regulating from a sensory perspective. Sure, too much rocking and swaying might be stimulating for some infants, but many enjoy movement.
What about nap nursing?
I’ve left the trickiest subject till last! Nap nursing is as old as time, but there are many potential issues to explore with this. I don’t know where you’re at with this: whether you find this annoying, or whether you’re simply worried from your baby’s point of view, but I’ll try to cover the most common concerns.
- Babies are 100% capable of nursing throughout an entire nap
- The more naps a baby has, the lighter, and shorter the sleep they will achieve
- Babies can therefore have a fully restorative sleep while continuously nursing
- Sometimes the feed is more efficient when babies are awake, but it does not mean that babies are not getting milk during these sleepy feeds
- If there are concerns about feeding in a more general sense, or the baby is not gaining weight as expected, then obviously this is another matter entirely. See my earlier blog on let down surfing as a possible cause of low milk intake
What if my baby really struggles with sleep, and gets significantly less than recommended?
Some babies really are having a hard time. I’m not going to patronize you and gloss over this. If this is your issue, then it’s worth exploring what the underlying problem is. Is your baby uncomfortable? Do they have an unresolved feeding or health problem? Often, sorting out whatever is making your little one wake up frequently will have a dramatic impact on their sleep, without even touching the sleep. Can you work on sleep very gradually? Addressing it step by step can be much more achievable than trying to sort it out all in one go. See my earlier blog on this subject.
But what about me?
The final issue is whether any of this is becoming unsustainable. That’s a whole separate discussion. Hopefully you can now relax and know that your baby is sleeping ok, but maybe you feel terrible? Perhaps this is becoming unsustainable. Have you first made sure you’re looking after your own emotional and mental health? How’s your self-care? Do you have enough support – or is it an option to get more support? If you’re having a really hard time, then check out my earlier blog on sleep crisis. I’ll leave you with the idea that no way is your baby going to suffer in any way if you are practicing normal, loving, responsive parenting. It just doesn’t make sense. If, however, you are finding things tough, then first see what you can make easier for yourself. Then address underlying causes. Finally, see if some small changes to your little one’s sleep give you back the much needed balance you need.
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.