I Don't Want to Create Bad Habits
Often when people are expecting a baby they start to picture life together as a new family and have some conversations about how to handle different aspects of parenting. One of the big ones is sleep.
Most of us like our sleep and haven’t ever experienced the relentless disruption that a new baby can bring. Sure we all laugh as we say we don’t expect to get much sleep once baby is here but we don’t really know what that feels like, because up until now it is likely that any bad night/late nights can be compensated for in a day or two with an early night or a lie in. Unfortunately babies do not tend to afford us that luxury.
When we think about sleep there will probably be an idyllic image of your gorgeous baby fast asleep, all cosy and snug in the moses basket or crib that you have carefully chosen for them. In fact newborns can be sleeping for around 18 hours a day so………
However your baby may have different ideas. Babies are primitive creatures who are born at a stage where they cannot survive alone. They are 100% dependent on you for their safety and survival and they know it. Being separated from their caregiver is scary, after all a tiger might be lurking ready to eat them, they need you there with them. All the time. So they might be sleeping a lot but it doesn’t mean you are sleeping too.
Along with this comes society’s helpful expectations and advice. Aside from ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ you will also be hearing about how their baby slept in their cot all night from 3 weeks, or just put them down ‘drowsy but awake’, how they did xyz and they never had a problem with sleep. Often the magic trick either doesn’t sit comfortably with you, or you try it and laugh or cry about the epic failure it is in your house.
It will probably feel that your main goal as a parent will be to ensure that your brand new baby is sleeping peacefully through the night as soon as possible and, of course, that will be after you gently put your smiling, gurgling little one in their cot say ‘night night’ and walk off for a lovely dinner.
There are lots of ‘rules’ about achieving this goal. Plenty of talk about ‘rods for your own back’ and creating ‘bad habits’.
The first thing we need to consider is what normal newborn sleep might look like and what they need.
Tiny babies have tiny tummies (and yes even if you birthed a 9lb baby they have a tiny tummy) and it needs refilling very frequently so we can expect babies to wake up every 2-3 hours to feed (sometimes more!) and of course all that feeding means lots of nappy changes too!
Then your baby is back to sleep again, in your arms, full of milk, lovely and cosy and you are wondering if you could put them down because you really need to have a drink/eat/get dressed/shower/nap/laundry etc etc. But it isn’t long after you gently place your baby in their bed and creep away that they are letting you know they need you again (this assuming you managed to get off the sofa with a sleeping baby in the first place!).
What do you need when you settle down to sleep? Can you settle and sleep easily being somewhere different? How about if you feel a bit on edge, a bit unsure of strange noises or worrying if you locked the door? How about if it was a busy day and your mind is racing?
For all of us, we need to be relaxed and comfortable and feeling safe to be able to sleep well and our babies are no different. I know the moses basket is comfortable and safe and maybe you are even wondering about an adult size one, but to your baby it isn’t. It’s quiet, still, hard, cold and, quite honestly, it isn’t you! You are warm and comfy, you move, your familiar heart beat is there and the smell of milk (if you are breastfeeding) is reassuring too. Your arms are the absolute best place as far as your baby is concerned.
In order for our babies to sleep well and happily they need to feel safe and relaxed and this can take time. Of course all babies are different and there are some who happily sleep for hours on their own and can drift off to sleep by themselves but there are many others who can’t be put down and need your help to sleep for longer. Sometimes the battle is over when you realise you don’t have a broken baby because they sleep less but you have a baby with different needs and you follow their lead and support them with what they do need from you.
So what about the supposed bad habits? I think the most common things we are warned about would be;
Feeding your baby to sleep
Rocking your baby
Naps that don’t happen in the cot (pram, sling, in arms naps)
Responding to your baby’s cries
Cuddling your baby when they cry
Let’s have a think about these and whether they are things that can negatively impact you and your baby’s sleep and relationship.
Feeding your baby to sleep
Anyone who has had a baby will know that it is really easy to feed them to sleep. Ever eaten a big lunch and fallen asleep on the sofa? There is a bit more to it than that, but digesting all that milk is tiring work for a little body, not to mention the effort of getting the milk in the first place.
If you are breastfeeding there are hormones in milk that make your baby sleepy and there are more of them later in the day and at night. It is the biological norm for your baby to breastfeed to sleep. Add to that the full tummy and warm cuddles and it seems obvious they will sleep.
For babies sucking is a calming and soothing reflex. Whether your baby feeds at the breast or from a bottle that sucking will relax them ready for sleep.
It is harder to stop your baby feeding to sleep than it is to do it. Of course this doesn’t last forever. Newborns will probably fall asleep every feed but after the first few months they will stay awake a little longer and not sleep every feed but may well use feeding to help them sleep when they are tired. Is this a bad habit? You decide!
We know it is the normal thing for a baby to do but I am also confident there is something in your mind saying you don’t want to be feeding your baby to sleep when they are 5 years old. The thing here is that as your baby grows you have more options. A baby in the fourth trimester can’t stay awake after a feed so putting them to bed awake is a challenge but an older baby who feeds, plays and is more awake is a different prospect and you can use different techniques to change the behaviour at a time that is right for you both. That might be months or years away but it is when you feel the need to change things.
Rocking your baby to sleep
This might happen in a few ways, you might rock your baby in your arms, walk them around a bit, bounce on a ball (another use for your pregnancy ball!) or rest them on your legs and rock them there. However you are doing it, it works because your baby is used to movement. While you are pregnant your baby is gently rocked off to sleep while you walk and move around. It is calming and soothing to them and perfect for getting relaxed enough to sleep. The moses basket doesn’t move and being still might feel a bit unnerving for them. Of course there are plenty of things to help you if your baby wants to rock – you can get rocking stands for the moses basket, you may have a crib that rocks or a bouncy chair that swings or vibrates.
Is this a bad habit? Well, it might sit more in the ‘rod for your own back’ category where we people worry that if you start rocking your baby to sleep you will be doing it for a long time and this one certainly has a time limit which will be linked to your baby’s weight! There comes a point where it just isn’t possible for you to rock them every sleep because your arm muscles aren’t keeping up with their growth.
This doesn’t make it a bad thing and actually your baby already has rocking as a sleep association from pregnancy so not really a bad habit to be created at this stage. Helping your baby sleep in the way that works best is absolutely fine. When the time comes to stop rocking you will figure out what you need to do next.
If it works today, do it. Do not worry about next week, next month or even 6 months time. If it is working for your baby and for you go with it.
Naps that don’t happen in the cot
Newborn sleep anywhere, anytime and this works brilliantly when you just want them to fit in with you and sleep out and about. But as they get a bit older you might want to encourage them to take their naps in the cot at home so that you are able to do some bits around the house or have a rest too. Parents often worry that they need to get baby used to the cot in the daytime to make night time sleep easier so you might be encouraging daytime naps in the cot for this reason.
Naps are fine wherever they happen. If it is easier, or move convenient, for your baby to nap in the pram or sling that is totally fine. You may find they sleep longer because of the movement or closeness to you. Again, don’t worry about tomorrow, make it work for you today.
If you are trying to get your baby used to being in their own bed then nap times can be an easier time to do it rather than the night when you are tired as well. Lots of people find the first nap of the day a good one to work on and often you are home at that time fairly consistently. It doesn’t need to be an all or nothing situation, some naps in the cot and some out and about might just give you the best of both worlds with a baby that sleeps at home and out. No promises!!
Responding to your baby cries or cuddling your baby when they cry
These are often the same but you could separate as for some people responding might be going to your baby and talking or patting them rather than picking them.
Babies are not good at self regulating. It takes the first few years for them to really start to be able to do this and actually well beyond that even into adulthood to have it figured out.
What do we mean by self-regulating – well in this context I am talking about being able to calm themselves and settle themselves for sleep. If your baby is crying and upset they cannot calm themselves down. They need you. You regulate them. Without your input they will stop crying and sleep through exhaustion but the stress hormones stay high and their sleep will probably be unsettled. When you pick them up and cuddle them they calm and their body relaxes as the stress hormones drop and they truly are soothed. If stress hormones stay high in our bodies for long period it has a knock on effect to other areas of our lives affecting behaviour and mental health in the longer term (please note this is not the case when you occasionally leave your baby to cry or you have a baby who is hard to calm but you are holding and responding to this is long term and repeated and behaviour).
Responding to your baby is not a bad thing. Every time you respond when your baby needs you they learn to trust you. They see you are safe and reliable and when they call, you are there dealing with whatever they needed. This strengthens the attachment between you and your baby. It doesn’t mean you are creating a clingy baby who is always going to expect you to pick them up, it helps your baby be confident to explore independently because they know you will be there if they need you – because you always are. Whether it was 3am or 3pm, you were there when they called for you and so they can confidently explore at play group knowing you are there if they need you. Every time you respond you are strengthening the brain connections and attachments to help your baby develop confidently and securely. I know it isn’t easy as you struggle out of bed yet again but all this work in infancy is for the long term and it really is worth it.
Is that a bad habit? I really don’t think so. My children aren’t babies any longer but if they need me I am 100% there for them and I want them to know that. If they wake and need a cuddle in the night that is totally fine with me, and if it is ok for a school age child why would it not be for a baby? Babies aren’t manipulative, they aren’t thinking ‘last night when I cried I got cuddles, let me try that again’. They just need you. They may or may not know why, they just need you.
Having said all that I learnt a lot from those nights where you wake and can’t face dragging yourself out of bed so lie there a minute or two summoning up the energy and then realise it’s all gone quiet! Sometimes it is good to give it a minute or two and see what happens. Are the cries escalating or is it a tired whine that is your baby drifting into the next sleep cycle and not needing you after all?
When it comes to sleep there aren’t any bad habits, or rods for your own back. It is truly a case of figuring out what works for you and your baby and not worrying about what anyone else thinks. No, you won’t still be feeding to sleep or rocking to sleep when your baby is a teenager but feel free to do it as long as you want to without guilt. And yes babies do wake up in the night and need you, there is no age at which they ‘should’ sleep through the night. I wake up in the night, so do they. There are many toddlers who need help to sleep or resettle, not because of anything their parents did, just because that is their need. They will get there one day.
The reason I always say do what works and don’t worry about the future is all the conversations I have with mums who have babies a couple of months old worrying about feeding or rocking. How will I ever stop, I don’t want to be still doing it when they are 12 months old (or 6 months, insert your own age). Which is totally understandable but if it works now and it is stressful for everyone to try and change it – don’t. Wait until you reach the point where you, or they, want to do things differently and then do something differently (not overnight, it takes time!). It is a different ball game when we are talking about an older baby, there are more things you can try to make it easier.
Ultimately don’t feel like you should be doing anything, that your baby should be sleeping a certain way and that you are failing if they aren’t. You do you and if everyone is happy, carry on. If it isn’t working then it is time to look for a change. This phase of life is hard, it is exhausting, it can feel relentless. It is absolutely not forever and you are doing it amazingly.