One thing is for sure: most new parents struggle, at least initially, with the amount their babies sleep. I know this both from personal experience as a mum and also in my professional capacity running Baby Sleep Workshops. A general observation is that parents - myself included - buy books, search the internet, and ask friends, family and Health Visitors to try to find a solution to their baby’s sleep problems. My starting point is – your baby is not the one with the problem! We seem to have given parents several unrealistic expectations about babies’ capacity for sleep.
by Dr. Amy Brown and her colleagues at Swansea University has shown that it is not normal for babies to sleep through the night and especially not in their first year. Her findings were based on a study of over 700 mums with babies aged 6-12 months and reported that 78% woke at least once during the night, with 61% having at least one milk feed. This is an important message for parents who think they are doing something wrong if their baby does not sleep through the night after the first few weeks.
Dr Brown also found that there was no difference in the number of times babies woke up dependent on whether they were breast or formula fed, how many feeds they had in the day, or how many solid meals they ate. As she herself remarked, "There is a common belief that formula milk or giving more solid foods will help your baby sleep better, and this study shows this isn’t true". So, that is another expectation which I and many other parents had, that is disproven by this research.
I also believed that my baby would sleep better in its own space, beautifully decorated and filled with comforting cuddly toys and soothers. It would seem not, and my belief that this is what my baby would want couldn’t be further from reality. Dr Charlotte Russell from Durham University’s sleep lab
has explained that what our babies want is to be close to us. They are reassured by the sound of our breathing, our heartbeat, and if we speak by our voices, too. The baby has heard these sounds from their mum for several months in the womb. Although the NHS does not recommend sharing a bed with a baby, they do acknowledge that it happens especially when the baby is breastfed. Dr Russell explained that 50% of parents do so often unintentionally, overwhelmed by tiredness. NICE have produced guidelines to help parents to do so as safely as possible. These include not sleeping on a sofa with a baby, not sleeping with a preterm baby, and avoiding any drugs or alcohol if you bedshare with a baby.
So, hopefully, we now have more realistic expectations for our babies’ ability to sleep. What we now know is that it is normal for babies to wake at least once during the night in their first year, it doesn’t matter what, or how often you feed them. They like to be close to us, and there are benefits as well as risks of bedsharing. Whilst there may be general advice in books and on the internet, it seems to me that there is no 'one size fits all' recipe for helping babies sleep. It depends on the needs of every unique baby matched with every unique mum or dad. So, in my workshops, that is exactly what is discussed.