Why your baby “sleeping longer” might not be so good after all…

Have you seen the headlines the past few days about a new study that was just published?

“Babies Sleep Better In Their Own Rooms After 4 Months, Study Finds”

“Babies may sleep longer in their own rooms after 4 months, says new study”

“Babies put into their own room at six months ‘sleep longer'”

Sounds great doesn’t it? I mean, what new mother doesn’t want more sleep?!

Sophie’s baby sleeping.

While the research did not look at HOW babies were being fed (breastfed babies tend to wake more frequently than formula fed babies) they did come to the conclusion that babies slept 40 minutes longer if they were in their own room. Yes a WHOLE 40 minutes longer! Ha! Big deal. Yes…I know, I know. May of you would kill for an extra 40 minutes but honestly I thought this was ridiculous to claim all of this wonderful “extra” sleep when we’re talking about minutes here. Anyway, what I want to talk about though is why this separation from our babies is actually NOT ideal for many reasons.

Kirsty and her baby. Photographer Kristy Hofstetter/Anchor Photography

 

So why is it not a good thing to put your baby in a different room and get more sleep?

1. Babies are not supposed to sleep through the night. They are literally not wired for it and it is the biological norm for babies and toddlers, children…(and adults!) to continue to wake in the night. The difference is that as we get older and we are developmentally ready to do so, we have an easier time putting ourselves back to sleep.

2. There are actually many evidence based reasons as to why it’s important to stay close to your baby and breastfeed frequently.

3. By changing the natural pattern of your child’s sleep through any sort of sleep training or separation you are increasing risk factors for low milk supply and SIDS.

*Important side note here. If your baby starts sleeping through naturally at an early age (initiated themselves without any sort of sleeping training) then that is what they were ready to do! Do a little happy dance and rejoice that you have a unicorn baby. I’m talking about babies who are encouraged to sleep longer through separation/sleep training/self settling etc.

Here’s why:

Let’s talk about the composition of our milk first. Mammals can be divided into four different categories depending on how they care for their young; cache, follow, nest and carry.

As described by La Leche League International [1]:

  • Cache mammals. These include the deer and rabbit. Their mothers hide their young in a safe place and return to them every 12 hours. Consistent with this behavior, the milk of cache animals is high in protein and fat. It sustains the young animals for a long time because babies are fed infrequently.
  • Follow mammals. The giraffe and cow are follow mammals. They follow their mothers wherever they go. Since the baby can be near the mother throughout the day and feed often, the milk of the follow mammal is lower in protein and fat than that of a cache mammal.
  • Nest mammals. These include the dog and cat. Nest mammals are less mature at birth than cache or follow mammals. They need the nest for warmth and remain with the other young from the litter. The mother returns to feed her young several times a day. The milk of nest mammals has less protein and fat than cache mammals but more than that of follow mammals, which need to feed more frequently.
  • Carry mammals. This group includes the apes — including humans — and marsupials, such as the kangaroo. The carry mammals are the most immature at birth, need the warmth of the mother’s body, and are carried constantly. Their milk has low levels of fat and protein, and they are fed often, around the clock. Human milk has the lowest fat and protein content of all mammalian milks. That and our immaturity at birth mean human infants need to feed often and are meant to be carried and held.

My youngest and I. He was only 2 days old here!

As you can see we clearly fall into the “carry” category of mammals. Our babies are born very immature and do not get up and walk on their own until they are about 12 months old. Interestingly this is also when they have reached the developmental stage where they can understand so much more of what we are saying and start to say some words. What does this have to do with babies sleep? A LOT! Human babies need frequent cuddles and frequent breastfeeds for their development. The growth in our babies brains happens incredibly quickly during the first few years of life, along with nerve growth factors including a hormone that facilitates development. These are both promoted through touch and when mothers stop touching their infants, DNA synthesis stops and the growth hormone diminishes [2]. Simply put, these frequent cuddles during the day (AND NIGHT!) are crucial to our babies development…and crucial to your milk supply.

Mum Katie with her baby (and partner in the background)!

Why encourage frequent breastfeeds overnight? 

By limiting feeds through any sort of sleep training or self settling through “responsive settling” you are putting yourself at risk of low supply. Research shows that babies take up to 20 percent of their milk volume at night [3]. By putting your baby in their own room you are making is less likely to hear your baby stir, asking for a breastfeed. Often times a mother will latch her baby on without her baby even needing to cry as there are many signs your baby will need a feed before crying. A mother and baby who are close together in the same room will be much more in tune with these early feeding signs.

Jesse’s baby asleep after a breastfeed.

A baby who is close to his mother will be more likely to ask for a breastfeed and will therefor be less likely to go into a very deep sleep. Going into a deep sleep is a risk factor for SIDS. Babies who are close to their mothers arouse easily from sleep to breastfeed. Research by Dr. James McKenna looks into all of these factors closely and has done extensive research in this [4].

We ALL want more sleep (and probably more than an extra 40 minutes!) but instead of hyper focusing on how to get our babies to sleep longer and “better”, I argue that we just simply help normalize what we know about breastfed babies and what they do naturally. Breastfed babies (and often times toddlers) wake frequently to breastfeed. This helps protect our supply, helps us answer their many needs through breastfeeding, helps prevent the risk of SIDS, helps stay connected overnight after the busy days and allows us to continue to mother through breastfeeding. It is not a problem if your baby continues to wake for a cuddle and a feed. It is simply normal.

Emily’s baby ALMOST asleep!

References:

  1. Source: http://www.lalecheleague.org/nb/nbiss2-10p18.html
  2. Schanberg, S. (1995). Genetic basis for touch effects. In T. Field (Ed.), Touch in early development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
  3. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/117/3/e387
  4. http://cosleeping.nd.edu/articles-and-presentations/articles-and-essays/

For more on sleep check out my BOOBinars on this topic!

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My blog articles on sleep! 

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