Why your baby needs good sleep
If there’s one message I want to get out there this year, it’s that you shouldn’t take poor sleep as a given just because you’re a parent. Here are just a few of the reasons why your baby needs good sleep – and so do you.
Although mysterious, good sleep is vital for health and well-being
Humans have been sleeping, for as long as anyone can remember. Indeed, Aristotle wrote about sleep and sleeplessness in 350 B.C.E. Yet the fact is, sleep has always been a bit of a mystery to us. Most of what we know is opinion and theory – at least until 20-30 years ago and we started being more scientific about it.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilization, makes some people wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
But the fact that it’s still around just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and well- being.
To date, the scientific community can’t yet tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is definitely a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in a whole lot of ways.
It’s necessary for learning and memory
We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only half the battle (or if you really want to get technical, only a third)
Learning and memory are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Put simply, you need to receive the information, then you need to preserve the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it as needed (when you’re watching “The Chase” or involved in a pub quiz for example).
While acquisition and recall take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”*1
So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, without good sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain. Then, when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank and making “that” face. (You know the one, the face your husband gets when you remind him of something you’ve told him a number of times already, before he denies all knowledge of ever hearing it before. That face).
Learning is your child’s primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of life!
Now, I’m a firm believer that learning and education should be a lifelong pursuit, but once we’re out of school, learning becomes substantially more optional. For children though, learning is their primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of their lives.
And it’s not just book smarts. Babies under 2 years of age do an incredible amount of learning. Indeed, the first two years of life are when rapid brain development occurs (more than 1 million neural connections form each second). So, considering how much your child needs to learn and retain, the importance of a healthy sleep schedule is hard to overstate.
Do you really want to wait until your child is 3 years old to figure it out themselves? (a lot of children will improve their sleep around 3 years of age, but a lot won’t without your help).
It’s necessary for emotional wellbeing
We all know that when we don’t get enough good sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.**2
This isn’t exactly new information. You’re likely aware that you too get emotional in very negative ways when you’re running on too little sleep. But why?
Why shouldn’t lack of sleep have similar positive effects to say, a few glasses of wine? Why doesn’t sleep deprivation cause us to start telling people we love them, help us get better at playing pool or develop an overconfidence in our karaoke abilities?
Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala.
The amygdala is the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of anger, fear and anxiety, among other things. It’s considered our emotional brain. These amped-up feelings (that reach over and above cognitive thought) can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others. Hence, the lashing out. And who gets most of this negative emotion? The ones close to us, that’s who. Double whammy.
Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible benefits? Well, short of eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,”
Research shows that people who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night.***3
There really is no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Do you need to sacrifice your sleep with children?
But it all changes when you have a baby, right? Now that you’ve brought a new life into this world, aren’t you expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years? Maybe six or seven at the most (although I regularly work with 9 year olds too). This is in order to respond to your baby’s needs, which, for some reason, they seem to have in spades in the middle of the night. That’s what parenting is all about, right? WRONG!
This belief, in my mind, is the most problematic myth about parenthood, and one that needs to change. Pronto. Because here’s the thing; your baby needs sleep even more than you do.
Sleep lays the foundation for your baby’s growth and development
Those little bodies may look like they’re idle and peaceful when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes.
Growth hormones are being secreted to help baby gain weight and sprout up. Cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies. All kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development. And they’ll continue to do so throughout adolescence, provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.
Nature does the heavy lifting. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep.
Don’t believe the sleep naysayers!
With sleep being my field of expertise, I see A LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well and that’s how it is. Even parents of older babies and toddlers should expect their little ones to be waking them up seven or eight times a night. Can you imagine how tired that poor parent is, let alone the child?
To those people saying you should just accept lack of sleep, I would like to say, you have absolutely NO idea what you’re talking about. Your advice isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful.
Telling people to accept their baby’s sleep issues as a part of the parenting experience is preventing them from addressing the problem, and that’s a serious concern for everybody in the family.
Good sleep is not necessary because the parents are selfish and enjoy sleeping late (you likely still won’t get that much of a “sleep in”). It’s because they, the parents, and even more so, their children, need adequate sleep for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.
Multiple night wakes is not the way “Motherhood” should be
If your baby is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you come into the room and rock or feed her back to sleep, that’s not motherood-as-usual. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping, and it’s interfering with their body’s natural development.
In a way, sleep issues are no different to an ear infection or jaundice. It’s a health issue pure and simple, and it has a remedy. So anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next three to six years is peddling horrible advice. I’m sure it’s not done maliciously, but it still needs to stop.
Accepting inadequate asleep in infancy leads to accepting poor sleep in adolescence. And eventually you end up with grown-up adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it. And believe me, those Mother’s who have battled with poor sleep from their own childhood often reach out to me to ensure their children don’t experience the same fate. They know how hard not being able to sleep is!
Don’t accept the idea of sleep as a “luxury”
To every new parent out there, I implore you, please don’t accept the idea of sleep as a “luxury” that you’re going to have to do without for a few years.
I know from many past clients that it sometimes takes courage to tell family and friends that you’re prioritising sleep for your child. But I urge you to please continue being brave and giving your child the best start in life. Sleep is essential for baby’s development.
If you’ve had an issue and resolved it – you’re to be applauded! And if you’re thinking that a few things need to change for better sleep, I’m here to help.
If your baby (or child) is not sleeping well, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary, and the benefits are prolific.
Sometimes the remedy is pretty simple too. If you’d like to learn how I can help, book in your FREE initial call today.
Kim Corley is a certified sleep consultant and sleep coach who has been through the ringer with sleep with her children. She wholeheartedly believes in the health benefits of good sleep. Kim knows sleep is a necessity in childhood and that it should be a priority in all families. Follow along on Facebook and Instagram to find out more.
**2 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.
***3 National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings retrieved from org/sites/default/files/2008%20POLL%20SOF.PDF