Babies and #sleep, what a nightmare (with added science)!

The one post I made last time that has kept receiving hits even while this blog was “resting” was the one about the 9 month sleep regression (based on this article). So I will focus a bit more on the topic of sleep, in an attempt to put some more information and experience out there. As well as because it is probably the single biggest topic of conversation between Mummy and me. 

First, the science part. There are two natural drivers for humans going to sleep: circadian pressure and homeostatic pressure. Big words, but actually quite simple:

  • Circadian is about the time of day – we are hard wired to sleep at night, i.e. when there is no sunlight. Obvious, as before fire and particularly man made lights we wouldn’t have been able to do anything at night. Babies also need to sleep more often, again at fairly regular or repetitive intervals – what we call naps. 
  • Homeostatic is more complex, but is to do with how “tired” we are – so doing more increases the homeostatic pressure. It’s why we get more tired after a hard day’s work than a sofa day.

However sleep is a learned activity – you have to learn how to fall asleep (I know! This amazes me every time I hear it). Once actually asleep you don’t have one monolithic block of sleep, even though that’s how it can feel, you go in cycles, typically 90 minutes for an adult, but less for babies. One recent fact I like is that humans evolved to sleep in two halves, with a period of waking in the middle – probably protective, with added reproductive benefits, when living in trees/caves. 

In our babies, the operation of these two pressures has been quite evident, but very different. Below table (sorry, analyst) summarises their behaviour on these various traits at about this point (9 1/2 months). 

I can really only stress that I am not exaggerating. Mummy has it very marginally easier during the day in possessing weapons of last resort (breast feeding), but much much harder in them being the only effective option at night. The scores are probably relative, but our children are among the worst I’ve heard about, comparable with other parenting nightmares we’ve heard of. I still laugh in disbelief when people say they’re going to put their child down in their room for a nap. While they are ironically currently both asleep, No.2 is in the push chair and Junior remains where he collapsed on the sofa!

So, given this awful experience, what conclusions and tips would I give?

  1. Breastfeeding affects sleep. A lot. This is just a fact. It means significantly less for Mummy, but also as you will end up cosleeping, less for Daddy too. The benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the inconvenience, but be under no illusion that this will have a long-term impact on how and for how long they sleep. See this recent article on “breastsleeping” for an insight. It also doesn’t mean all bottle-fed babies will sleep.  I didn’t, see #5. 
  2. Put the child down asleep as often as possible. They get used to sleeping on someone, and this is a killer. While mobile phones can alleviate some of the boredom, it is frequently uncomfortable and very dull. Also, it’s a bit dangerous if you really are knackered. As above, at night this is pretty unavoidable for mums, but dads can reduce babies’ dependency on this during their shifts. When I’ve been on parental leave, sleeping has improved as both have realised they can sleep not using a bosom for a pillow (no Brimful of Asha played in our house…). 
  3. Look out for Mummy. She will be more tired than you, and has less opportunity to recover than a daddy does. Mummy to mine has basically not had more than 3 hours consecutive sleep in nearly 3 years. When it gets really bad (teething, development leaps, growth spurts), do something. Anything. Long drive, late night, whatever it takes. When someone is that sleep deprived even 30 minute can make the difference. 
  4. It does get better. Slowly, oh so slowly, but it does. The challenge with Junior was that his sleep would get better quite quickly then regress hugely. But by age 2 and 2 months he was sleeping through the night. And then No.2’s sleep, which for the first few weeks had been excellent, literally fell off a cliff. Her challenge has been that change has been painfully and imperceptibly gradual, but ompense she hasn’t really regressed.
  5. It might be genetic…. It turns out that both Mummy and I were awful sleepers, as was my father before me. I appear to hold the record, being 3yo before I slept through the night. I literally can’t imagine, although consecutively our two are approaching that marker now! Although I have always been a bit of a slow learner…

Some will ask “why didn’t you try sleep training”. Well, seeing as all these are some variety of letting them cry, Mummy didn’t want to do this. I will happily admit I would have, but I haven’t been worst affected or done most of the work, and I want all the family to be happy. And it is incredibly hard letting a small child you love, who knows they want something but doesn’t know what it is or how to get it, scream. So we didn’t. 

We did try a book called “The No Cry Sleep Solution“, which cured a few habits, but I don’t think really did much good in the long run. Mummy bought it at about 8 months, so it took over twice as long again for Junior to get the hang of it…. I’m slightly in awe of those who do (props to a magistrate colleague who got all 4 of hers sleeping through the night by 9 weeks), but not for us. 

So I admit sleep deprivation is part choice. 

However I reserve the right to whinge with other parents!