Night-time Parenting by Michelle McHale

Night time parenting requires the parent to be responsive to the child’s needs at night, not just during the daytime. Many parents find the easiest way to do this is by co-sleeping or bedsharing. Other parents will have different sleeping arrangements and strategies to do this, suiting their own unique family but the aim may be the same – the provision of a safe, non-stressful environment allowing the child to thrive at night as well as day. Babies and adults sleep very differently and a modern lifestyle may not support either in meeting their sleep needs. So what is different about babies’ sleep? How do we recognise tiredness? How do we create a safe sleep environment while responding with swift sensitivity and readiness when we are most fatigued?

Understanding infant and child sleep helps to set realistic expectations for sleep. It can also help a parent focus on meeting their own sleep requirements by prioritising rest and scaling down daily tasks.

  • Babies experience light sleep approximately every 45 minutes
  • Few infants can self soothe and resettle during light sleep (REM)
  • Babies take longer to fall into deep sleep than adults (approximately 20 minutes)
  • Night waking (during light sleep) has survival benefits so celebrate your babies’ excellent instincts when they wake regularly!
  • Blood flow to the brain (that’s brain development!) nearly doubles during light sleep
  • Many parents exaggerate how long their children sleep for at night, so don’t take every amazing success story as entirely accurate. Night waking to nurse is healthy and normal

Co-sleeping or bedsharing? Co-sleeping means parents and infants sleeping in close proximity, but not necessarily on the same surface, often within arms-reach of each other. Bedsharing means the child sleeps for at least some of the night in the same bed as the parent/s. Many nursing mothers find that bedsharing offers wonderful nurturing touch (especially after time apart if the mother works) and more relaxed nursing as they could stay in bed and doze off while feeding the baby. An English study of fathers who were initially reluctant to bedshare but later did so found their overall experience to be “more enjoyable than disruptive.” Ball, H. (2006). “Parent-Infant Bed-sharing Behavior: effects of feeding type, and presence of father.” Human Nature: an interdisciplinary biosocial perspective, 17(3): 301-316

Breastfeeding or Bottle Feeding? Research from a Canadian study revealed that routine bedsharing infants breastfed approximately three times longer than non-bedsharing infants during night-time breastfeeding (McKenna, J.J. et al. Pediatr. 100:214-219,1997) meaning bedsharing helps prevent premature weaning.

How to share sleep

  • Sharing sleep requires an informed, committed and responsive parent/s
  • Baby should be laid to sleep on their back
  • Room must be smoke free
  • An ideal temperature is 16-20, beware of baby overheating or their head becoming covered
  • Mattress must be firm and clean – beware of crevices between surfaces
  • Avoid pillows, toys, bumpers or sheepskins in the child’s sleep space
  • Infants under 1 year should not sleep alone with other children
  • Avoid ribbons and ties on clothing that risk entanglement
  • Beware of falling asleep with baby on a sofa or armchair
  • Never leave baby alone in an adult bed – even for naps

General Sleep Tips

  • Children respond to light and dark – consider dimming lights before bed or using black out blinds
  • Some children enjoy white music or classical music when falling asleep
  • Avoid TV in the 2 hours before sleep

Do not bedshare if…

  • You have smoked during pregnancy or post-natally as it increases the risk of SIDS
  • You are extremely exhausted or a very heavy sleeper and concerned you will not rouse easily
  • Baby is premature or low birth weight
  • You have been drinking, are taking recreational drug or prescription drugs or extremely obese
  • You are on a soft mattress, sofa, waterbed or beanbag
  • You are not one of the baby’s primary carers

Consider Rhythms: For some families a predictable rhythm may help with sleep. You can even make your own story book with drawing or photographs of your child doing all those pre-sleep activities like having a bath, putting on pyjamas and reading a book.

Crying: Crying is an expression of need, at every age. There is no evidence supporting unattended crying in an infant. Excessive uncomforted crying results in increased heart rate, temperature and blood pressure. The release of the stress hormone, cortisol, interferes with normal brain development. The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health (AAIMHI) advises, “Controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.”

Do what works with everyone’s well-being in mind: Find what works for you, remain flexible and don’t stick with something if it isn’t working. You may find your baby sleeps in the wrap during the early evening so that bedtime becomes the same for all of you. Be aware of social and cultural conditioning and do what makes most sense for the family. If that means going to bed earlier than normal and reading or watching a DVD in bed then do it! Take the opportunities to sleep – this is a short phase in your life for things to be a little different.

What if my child nurses to sleep?   The benefits are that your child will develop positive, contented sleep associations. For the breastfeeding mother this may be tiring or less practical long term. Some mothers found that feeding their babies and passing them to the father for hugs as they fall into deep sleep felt more balanced. Some mothers of toddlers find that breastfeeding before story-telling meant that cuddling down to sleep was still a reassuring, comforting experience but the nipple wasn’t associated with being essential for sleep.

Do I have a high needs baby? Does your baby wake often, need constant physical reassurance and comfort? Are they very sensitive to noise, frequent feeders and do they feel intense or demanding? High needs babies find sleep more difficult while they attempt to calm the active brain – it is challenging for the parents, especially the mother, so finding family balance is crucial.

When will my child sleep through the night? Do you wake for the toilet, hear strange noises, have a bad dream or lay awake worrying? As you baby matures and sleeps for longer periods they then experience physical developmental leaps followed by the emotional challenges of toddlerhood and beyond. Creating an environment where your child has positive associations with sleep and where they can trust a comforting response through illness, teething and nightmares is a real gift and will bring its rewards long term – stick together, stick with it!

Books

  • Three in a Bed by Deborah Jackson
  • Sleeping with your Baby by Dr James McKenna

Links

Learn More

  • Attachment Parenting’s accredited Positive Discipline course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on sleep and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.
 Michelle McHale

Michelle McHale

About the Author

Michelle McHale is the mum of 2 girls aged 7 and 5 years and is the founding director of APUK, a writer and speaker. An experienced support group leader herself, Michelle trained with Attachment Parenting International and now manages the thriving APUK community nationwide. She is the creator of the upcoming School of Attachment Parenting offering an online e-course in Positive Discipline as well as a collaborator in the unique ‘Love Parenting Project’ offering pay-it-forward coaching to parents. A keynote speaker at the Mumsnet Bumpfest Conference she is an enthusiastic advocate of Attachment Parenting and self-care.

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