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Babies need it. New moms and dads want it. And if you’re reading this, you might find yourself desperate for it, turning to the wisdom of Pinterest and other moms for sleep tips and advice.
I’m going to let you in on something: I’m about to tell you a sleep secret you won’t hear from many other places.
And I’m going to give you the research to read yourself, too, just so you know I’m not making this up.
When I was a new mom and desperate for sleep, I found myself reciting what I had learned from my pediatrician and just about every other mommy blogger out there about safe sleep: Crib. No bumpers. No blankets. Firm mattress. Baby on back. Got it!
But then there were these other buzzwords. Self-soothe. Sleep through the night. Sleep schedules. Sleep training. Cry-it-out. Interventions.
Just about every place I looked told me these things were necessary. Critical for healthy sleep.
And there were dangerous things to watch out for, too. Props and associations that would hinder the development of good infant sleep, like nursing or rocking.
I wanted to get to the bottom of what I needed to do to get some sleep, because I was one tired breastfeeding mama! And to my horror, my baby only slept well right next to me.
So I turned to the research. And no, I don’t mean I consulted “Dr. Google.” I logged into my alma mater’s research databases and looked at actual studies on “normal” infant sleep.
And what I found would probably shock a lot of moms!
Because the truth of the matter is, most of what Western cultures teach about what good infant sleep “should” look like isn’t based on objective scientific fact or biological norms.
Here’s what I mean:
BELIEFS ABOUT “NORMAL” OR “GOOD” INFANT SLEEP ARE INCREDIBLY CULTURAL
“It is important to note that many ‘problems’ with sleep during childhood, such as difficulties falling asleep alone or waking at night and seeking parental attention, are based on culturally constructed definitions and expectations and are not necessarily rooted in sleep biology” (Source).
It’s important to keep in mind the historical context surrounding infant sleep advice. Many early psychologists in the 20th century perpetuated the popular belief that early night-time separation of mom and baby was essential for healthy psychological development (Source) under the assumption that it would encourage independence and circumvent the need to break the so-called “bad habit” of cosleeping (Source-full text). To achieve this, training (a popular area of study amongst early 20th century psychologists [Source]) became both necessary and mainstream (Source).
So it wasn’t unusual for an American baby to be sleeping away from mom, often in his or her own room, as early as possible (Source, Source-full text). Child-rearing “experts” like Spock, Brazelton and Ferber continued to pass on this wisdom, as well as their views on different training approaches (think “cry-it-out” a.k.a. “extinction” methods, etc.) (Source). As breastfeeding fell out of fashion, few bothered to study the actually very complex relationship between it and infant sleep (Source), causing us to start viewing biologically adaptive behaviors, like night waking, as sleep “problems” (Source).
As a result, the Western/US understanding of what “good” infant sleep should look like is primarily based on 20th century research studying the bottle-fed, solitary-sleeping infant (Source). This research became the “gold standard” of “normal” infant sleep, and it continues to be the standard by which clinicians and parents evaluate infant sleep development, particularly in the US (Source).
But of course, there is a massive assumption being made: that it is normal for infants to be bottle-fed and sleep away from mom at an early age in the first place.
This assumption becomes glaringly obvious when we look at other cultures, particularly Asian cultures (Japan is an excellent example) that value family unity and interdependence. Many parents in these cultures view infants as “too little to sleep alone,” so babies rarely do (Source).
One study found that two-thirds of mothers from 136 different cultures slept with their infants, and another study found that “infants regularly slept with a parent until weaning in all but 1 (the United States) of the 12 communities studied” (Source).
In yet another study examining 169 societies, researchers found that babies slept in the same bed as mom in 73 and in the same room as mom in the other 96. And perhaps most interesting: None of the 169 societies studied put babies to sleep in their own rooms. Furthermore, mothers from cultures in which breastfeeding infants regularly slept with mom tended to accept night waking as normal and did not define it as a problem (Source-full text).
While it might be nice to think that Western cultures are simply more enlightened when it comes to infant sleep science, multiple studies have shown that pediatricians and other parents offering what we take to be evidence-based sleep advice are more often simply passing down their own personal opinions, assumptions and cultural beliefs about sleep (Source, Source, Source).
To this day, there is no solid research supporting the hypothesis that early night time separation leads to greater independence, despite the fact that this justification is still cited as a reason for the necessity of solitary sleep and sleep training (Source). Very few studies on the relationship between sleep arrangement and autonomy have actually been done (Source-full text), .
“No study has ever determined if the ability to sleep alone through the night at an early age relates to the emergence of other skills or personality characteristics unavailable to infants and children sleeping under different circumstances” (Source).
“…Research on extended bedsharing has not found any social, emotional, or cognitive detriment for bedsharing children relative to children who were placed in their own room in infancy” (Source).
In short: We have failed to recognize the fact that biologically normal infant sleep might not match our Western cultural understanding of what “good” sleep looks like.
WHAT IS BIOLOGICALLY NORMAL INFANT SLEEP? AND DO I NEED TO SLEEP TRAIN?
“Thus, failures in the process of night time sleep consolidation constitute a problem for parents who expect a night of sleep. Of course, night time awakenings do not constitute a problem for parents or communities that do not expect infants to ‘sleep through the night'” (Source-full text).
“Most conceptualizations of sleep problems are based on culturally and parentally constructed definitions and expectations, not biology” (Source).
Sleep is developmental; infant sleep patterns and circadian rhythms are different than those of adults. In the first year of life, infants spend about the same number of total hours in the 24-hour day asleep, and over time, more and more of those hours occur–or are “consolidated”–at night. It is not until closer to 2 or 3 that a child’s sleep patterns begin to more closely mirror ours. Research suggests this holds true cross-culturally (Source-full text).
Sleep is also complex. Biology, daytime stresses, cultural expectations, sleeping arrangements, family interaction and even feeding style (breast vs. bottle, formula vs. breastmilk) affect how baby’s sleep develops and along what timeline (Source). Even things such as type of birth (C-section vs. vaginal) (Source-full text) and length of labor (Source) have been associated with night waking frequency.
So to narrow down the cause of “problems” like night waking to individual parenting habits (e.g. rocking or nursing to sleep) is, quite frankly, an overly simplistic way of thinking.
It’s important to note: Night time sleep will happen. Perhaps not always along the culturally preferred timeline, but along a biological/developmental timeline dictated by much more than social ideology (Source). (This is assuming, of course, the absence of an actual medical issue preventing restorative, healthy sleep).
Just as infants do not have to be formally taught to crawl or walk and a wide range of normal exists for the development of these skills, the same is true of sleep. No sleep training is required for “self-soothing skills” to be developed, and there is literally no research to indicate otherwise. Sleep-training only starts to become necessary when the objective is to get a child to sleep in a manner that is not congruent with his or her biological wiring or developmental timeline.
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? WHAT SHOULD I DO ABOUT SLEEP?
That is, unfortunately, a question I cannot answer for you. But hopefully what I’ve shared here will help inform your decision making process.
If you’re on the fence about sleep training, know this: You will not do your child a lifetime disservice by not training him or her to sleep alone through the night as an infant. And you are not creating a lifetime crutch by consistently attending to your infant when he or she cries at night, either.
On the contrary: Research has shown that babies who are attended to consistently at 2 months of age cry statistically significantly less often at 6 months of age, and “attachment parented” babies in another study cried about 50% less overall (Source).
While there is indeed research demonstrating that infants soothed to sleep by parents are more likely to cry when they wake up (Source, full-text), I have to wonder if less crying would be observed if the norm in these studies didn’t involve parents being separated from baby at night to begin with. In other words, would these soothed-to-sleep babies be crying as much upon waking if they were sleeping next to mom?
Research on infant response to maternal smells, touch and movements shows that being near mom reduces crying “while positively regulating infant breathing, body temperature, absorption of calories, stress hormone levels, immune status, and oxygenation” (Source). Biologically speaking, infants “are well adapted to sleeping in direct physical contact with an adult” (Source-full text). Breast milk produced at night has been shown to help babies sleep longer overall and reduce colic (Source), and mom’s night time emotional availability has also been shown to promote better regulated infant sleep (Source).
It’s good to remember, too, that night waking in infancy serves biological purposes (Source). This is particularly true for breastfed infants, who spend more time in lighter sleep and wake more frequently to eat (due to the tailor-made composition and easily digestible nature of human milk) (Source), both of which have been shown to be highly protective against SIDS (Source). Sleeping near mom has even been shown to be directly related to the number of times an infant nurses and is associated with longer breastfeeding duration (Source) as well as healthy milk supply (Source).
On the flip side, there is research to support that sleep training works: Infants who receive sleep interventions have been repeatedly shown to, on average, go back to sleep on their own faster and wake less frequently (Source-full text), at least in the short-term (Source).
Although questions remain about how early in life sleep training should happen (only a small handful of studies have looked at sleep training in infants younger than 6 months [Source] even though pediatricians regularly advise this practice), we know that children are resilient. There is evidence that on a long enough timeline, sleep training doesn’t produce statistically significantly different kids (Source). And of course, we know that sleep deprivation is its own special kind of torture; parents–especially parents working outside the home–obviously need rest to function (Source).
In reality, exclusively sleep training/crib sleeping vs. cosleeping/bedsharing is a false dichotomy: Many US parents–despite initial intentions and official recommendations, and especially as a result of rising breastfeeding rates–do a little bit of both at one point or another (Source-full text), and sometimes “training” methods are more akin to “sleep encouragement” than traditional cry-it-out approaches (Source). There is a spectrum.
That is why the purpose of this article isn’t to settle the sleep training debate OR tell you what you should do.
In fact, top sleep researchers agree that there is not a one-size-fits-all “right answer” to the question of infant sleep. Specifically, they say “parents should be encouraged to follow their intuition and synchronize their needs to those of their infants” (Source-full text).
The truth is, it can be hard to follow your instincts when anecdotal horror stories perpetuate myths like sleep training is necessary to produce good sleepers, or you will irreparably damage your child if you train.
The truth is, sleep training doesn’t work for every baby, just like cosleeping doesn’t work for every parent.
The truth is, we’re all tired. And we’re all just trying to get some sleep.
That said, it is good to be familiar with and cognizant of our biases, cultural and personal. There is a lot of bias surrounding beliefs about infant sleep in the US and other Western countries. It can cause us to be downright nasty to both sleep training and cosleeping moms alike, and that’s never a good thing.
Furthermore, it is good to be familiar with normal sleep patterns in infants. With all the pressure to have a baby that happily “sleeps through the night” in his/her own crib, moms are pummeled with stress and anxiety when their baby isn’t liking this arrangement or sleeping the way they expected–which in itself can cause mom get worse sleep (Source)!
Sometimes, all that is needed to alleviate the stress surrounding bedtime is the knowledge that your baby is normal. That your sleep expectations can be adjusted. That there is more than one acceptable solution to this problem. That you don’t necessarily have to fight your child or biology to get some sleep. And, perhaps most importantly, that how your baby sleeps doesn’t make you a “bad mom.”
Stay tuned for more baby sleep posts! Did you sleep train? How did your sleep arrangement work for you? Please keep comments kind and respectful. Rude comments will not be published.
P.S. Yes, I am aware of the AAP guidelines as far as cosleeping and bedsharing. AAP actually recommends cosleeping for at least the first year of an infant’s life and discourages bedsharing under any circumstances. However, many anthropologists and infant sleep researchers actually strongly disagree with the blanket position the AAP takes for a number of reasons. Just as crib sleeping can be made safe or unsafe (with bumpers or loose blankets, etc.), so too can bedsharing be made safe and unsafe, according to the research. That is another post for another time, however! Just remember: There is no requirement to bedshare or cosleep, so do what feels best to you.
P.P.S. DISCLOSURE: This blog post contains affiliate links, meaning I will receive a small commission on products purchased through these links at no extra cost to you. Please see my FAQs and disclosure policy for more information! Thanks for your support :)