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Why your baby should NOT be sleeping through the night

Today the Little Dot Company blog is talking about sleep. We interviewed Dr Mary Nolan, Professor of Perinatal Education and editor of International Journal of Birth & Parent Education, about the early stages of having a baby and her advice and expertise on sleep, routines and parents supporting each other.
A great interview and a very interesting read. Professor Nolan’s advice is probably a huge comfort for many parents and an important awareness for mums and dads-to-be.

LD - The first few weeks at home with a newborn are exhausting and there can be a certain amount of pressure on mums to have their child in some form of routine from the get go. What is your advice to mums, and even dads, on managing the initial time at home with their baby? 

PMN - Babies don’t come into the world with any idea of a routine! Their main concern is to stay physically close to someone who is going to look after them – generally mum and dad – and to be fed when their tummies tell them they need feeding. On average, babies double their birth weight in the first six months of life and triple it in a year. That means a lot of feeding. Babies know best when they are hungry – just as older children and adults do. If a baby calls for food, it’s for real. Imposing a routine is not how babies work. The time for routines comes later on; at the right age, they’re great because small children thrive on them. However, a pattern of day-time waking, regular feeding and night-time sleeping  isn’t going to emerge until the baby is at least six months old. So there’s no point in trying to get him or her organised before then. In fact, it’s much easier to accept things the way they are than fight - you’ll almost certainly use up more energy trying to get your baby into a routine than simply going with his or her flow. 

LD - How can parents try to work together to support each other in the early stages of having a baby? 

PRM - If you’re still pregnant – plan ahead! It is SO much easier to think straight before you have the 24/7 responsibility of your new baby with all the tiredness that goes with it.

So agree who is going to do what after the baby arrives. Discuss which parts of your life you really want to hang onto (football with the team on Saturday mornings; evening out with best friend once a month….) and how you will support each other to continue with those activities. 

Decide on your priorities – if you’re working on your house, what has to be done and what can wait until your baby is older? Is visiting family members vital – or is controlling their visits more important?! 

Tell each other what worries you most about the first few months with the baby, and work out ways of helping each other manage these particular stresses.

If your baby is already here, keep talking to each other. Tell each other how you’re feeling and try, as far as possible, to make sure each of you grabs every opportunity for sleeping, cat-napping, resting, winding-down with a cup of tea/glass of wine……

And keep on communicating……

LD - Do you think there is an expectation for babies to start sleeping through from fairly early on? Is this realistic?

PMN - Babies simply do NOT sleep through the night. They are not designed to do so. For them to sleep from 7.30pm (when their parents might like them to kip down for the night) to 7.30am (when their parents might be happy for them to wake up) would be harmful. A baby’s tummy is very small and he or she has a great deal of growing to do, so they simply have to feed very regularly, and certainly can’t go 12 hours without feeds. In addition, babies are programmed to check that you’re still around during the night hours – human babies are very vulnerable and nature hasn’t taken into account that we have baby alarms in the 21st century! Babies are primed to signal to their carers at regular intervals to make sure they’re still there. Your baby is looking for you because you’re the most important thing in his or her life – the source of security, love, food and warmth.

Research is very clear that babies are going to wake regularly throughout the night for around the first six months of their life and perhaps for longer than that. They’re all individuals. Some adults don’t wake at all during the night, but others will wake once, twice or even more often. Babies are just the same. But babies need to feed as well, so their wakefulness is geared towards survival, unlike adults’.

Health professionals consider that a baby is ‘sleeping through the night’ when they’re going from around 11pm to about 5pm – still only 6 hours and not what we would consider a satisfactory night’s sleep! Things will change and by a year – maybe earlier, maybe later – most infants will be sleeping for most of the night, letting their parents get some proper rest.

LD - What’s the best way to approach parenting to help both baby and parents have a happier and healthier relationship? 

PMN - When people are very tired, they can be unreasonable and short-tempered. That goes without saying. Having a new baby in the house is exhausting, even if completely wonderful at the same time. Relationships can become strained, even when couples have been happily together for years. There are four things that really damage relationships. Firstly, it’s criticising each other – about the state of the house, or how you’re caring for the baby, for example. Secondly, it’s making snide, contemptuous remarks about the other person (‘Think you’re so clever’ muttered under your breath kind of thing); thirdly, it’s being sarcastic (the ‘Well, we do know it all, don’t we?!’ ) and lastly, and perhaps most dangerous, it’s stonewalling or pretending that nothing is wrong when in fact, there’s an awful atmosphere between you.

If you’re having problems, think how you would advise a friend who came to you to complain about their partner. You’d almost certainly say, ‘Have you tried talking to him/her about how you feel?’ Finding a few minutes when the baby is sleeping or content to sit down and ‘have it out’ is generally the way forward. It’s important not to go into blame-mode but to explain how you’re feeling, for example: ‘I feel that I’m doing all the housework and you’re having all the fun with the baby’. Suggest solutions, rather than simply listing problems. ‘I’d like you to take the baby out on your own one afternoon’. 

If things between you are really grim, it might help to ask someone whom you both trust to sit down with you and help you talk things through.

LD - Can you summarise in 5 bullet point tips (could be less or more if you want to add) the most important aspects of living your new role as a parent.  

  1. Remember that YOU are the best mum or the best dad for your baby. Your baby thinks you are amazing and is devoted to you.
  2. Most babies will, during the first year of life, get the hang of settling themselves back to sleep when they wake in the night. So hang in there!
  3. It sounds twee – but do ENJOY your baby, especially the moments when she or he doesn’t seem to want anything. Those calm moments are the wonderful times when you can talk and sing to your baby, dance with them, play, read stories and build the positive life-long relationship you want to have.
  4. The person who knows your baby best is YOU. If you feel there’s something wrong, you’re probably right, so speak to your midwife or health visitor. 
  5. Get out of the house and talk to other mums and dads as often as possible. They’re the ones who really know what you’re going through and who can offer the best support.

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