The Science of Healthy Baby Sleep

The Science of Healthy Baby Sleep

Perhaps this is why, in parts of the world where bed sharing is the norm, these differences do not appear: parents do not share their bed in response to a problem.

And, indeed, one of the only studies designed to account for this difference found that preschoolers who started bedsharing as young babies were more independent and more socially independent not only than children who always slept alone, but also children who started bedsharing after the age of one, considered “responsive” bedsharing. (Information on safe bed sharing can be found here.)

Sleep problems

Despite how often babies wake up or don’t want to sleep on their own, parents often worry that their children’s sleep isn’t normal. Almost 40% of parents of eight-month-old babies in the large Finnish study, for example, said they thought their child had sleep problems.

So how do sleep researchers define a “sleep problem”?

“There is no strict acceptable or quantifiable definition,” says Hiscock. “But the first step is if parents see this as a problem, it’s a problem we need to do something about.”

In some cases, that may simply mean education, Hiscock says. “If a parent says they have a three-month-old child and they wake up twice a night to feed, they’re exhausted – you’re saying that’s normal behavior.”

This awareness is essential, especially because thinking that your baby has a problem, when he behaves like many other babies, can exacerbate the problem, for example by increasing parents’ stress and anxiety (often already tired). Parents who believe their child has a persistent sleep problem are more likely to feeling angry at their baby and a lack of confidence in their parenting role. (It also goes the other way, with a parent’s beliefs impacting how their children sleep – one study even found that a pregnant woman’s belief that her baby would need help at night predicted that her six-month-old baby would wake up more).

Much of what we think is a problem is also defined by our cultural expectations. In a large study, Mindell found that parents’ perceptions of problems differed enormously from one country to another. Only 10.1% of parents in Vietnam thought there was a problem, compared to 75.9% in China.

“I think the whole idea of ​​babies having sleep problems is pathologizing. parents to think there’s something wrong with their baby, when he’s acting like a baby,” says Ball.

The origin of the myth

And so, although many parents are obsessed with infant sleep, it seems that we are very wrong. How is it possible?

As BBC Future has previously covered, much of how we view infant sleep comes down to cultural values, assumptions and ideologies, not science.

The anthropologist McKenna, a proponent of safe co-sleep (which he dubbed “to sleep“), explains that, for centuries, it was not only common but necessary for babies to sleep with their families. Without electricity or heating (or, often, no room available), staying close to their mothers was convenient, protective and easy In most cultures, this remains the case.

“Before the 19th century, infant sleep was generally not a concern for new parents, with popular parenting textbooks of the time not mentioning anything about it,” said anthropologists Jennifer G Rosier and Tracy Kassels. write. “When a baby woke up, there was either an awake family member ready to care for the baby, or a sleeping family member next to the baby who was able to respond quickly. babies (and adults) slept when they needed to be asleep and were awake when they needed to be awake.”

With the 1800s came the Industrial Revolution, a rising middle class, and a new emphasis on independence. Longer working days meant more interest in uninterrupted sleep at night, urbanization increased the number of new parents living far from family support, and male doctors, who believed that having multiple people in the same sleeping space could “poison” the air, began to replace the advice of mothers and midwives. New books have highlighted the need for rigid sleep schedules and the need for infants to sleep alone so that they grow independent and strong.

This was not the case everywhere. “The Japanese think American culture is pretty ruthless in nudging little kids to such independence at night,” noted one researcher. In Guatemala, Mayan mothers reacted to reports of US sleeping practices with “shock, disapproval and pity”.

Today, many tired parents get their information from baby sleep books or sleep coaches – which are also gaining popularity outside the United States. But many books are not evidence-based, and the sleep coaching industry is unregulated. Ultimately, anyone can call themselves a sleep expert.

Meanwhile, even healthcare professionals often don’t have experience or training in baby sleep. A study found that in 126 medical schools in the United States, students received only 27 minutes of children’s sleep training. A survey of Canadian healthcare providers found that only 1% received pediatric sleep training in medical school and a study of 263 healthcare professionals in Australia found professionals answered less than half of the pediatric sleep questions correctly. And these are countries that prioritize sleep education even more than others.

The bottom line? Perhaps the biggest and most harmful misconception about infant sleep is simple: there is only one correct approach to how infants should sleep.

“Different families have different requirements and preferences and take different approaches to baby sleep,” says Gregory.

“It’s fine as long as safety is always put at the forefront of decisions – and those caring for babies need to be aware of the ways in which they can help prevent SIDS.”

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