The Science of Newborn Sleep: Changing our perception

By Dulce Piacentini, Holistic Sleep Consultant and Postpartum Doula at Motherly Hug

In the beginning of May, just 2 days after Meghan Markle gave birth to a baby boy, she was asked during interviews if her baby was sleeping well and if he was a good baby. I cringed when I heard that, as every baby is a good baby, and “sleeping well as a newborn” is a concept that definitely needs an update! You don’t need to be royal to be asked if your newborn baby is sleeping through the night. This is a question that comes up in everyday conversations, even among mums! And where the idea of “a good baby is one who sleeps well” comes from, when most babies don’t sleep through the night in the first few months, many not in the first year, is something I really wonder. Why does our society have this expectation of a baby so young sleeping through the night when even science has proven it’s not natural for a newborn to do it?

Sleep has been more and more researched in the last couple of decades, and science tells us that a newborn sleep is polyphasic (they sleep multiple times in a 24-hour period), they spend 50% of their sleep in REM, that is light sleep, and nature has made them this way as a surviving tool. It’s important for a newborn to wake up several times overnight, since that decreases the risk of SUDI (sudden unexplained death in infancy), allows them to be fed regularly – we know their stomach is really small and breastmilk digests really fast – and allows babies to wake up and cry with any discomfort. Clearly all very important to make humankind thrive!

But science hasn’t stopped there. In December last year, Pediatrics published a study by Canadian doctors who worked with 388 babies when they were 6 and then 12 months old to know if they were sleeping through the night. Bear in mind researchers considered a night when they slept blocks of 6 or 8 hours uninterruptedly. So, before I tell you their conclusions, even if 100% of the babies were sleeping 8 hours straight, in many cases this would still mean a broken night for parents, as babies usually have a night 11-12 hours long.

The results? At 6 months, 38% of the babies didn’t sleep six hours without waking and 57% didn’t sleep eight hours at once. At 12 months, 28% didn’t sleep six hours straight, and 43% didn’t sleep eight hours. We have even more exciting news out of their research: there was no difference in the mental development of the babies if they slept or not through the night.

Science has also shown us that melatonin, the famous sleep hormone that relax body and mind and therefore paves the road to sleep, starts being produced by baby’s brain around 3 months, and baby’s body clock – a group of cells in our brain that produce our circadian rhythms, which controls our daily activities – won’t be fully developed until that same age.

So there you go: super normal for young babies to not know the difference between day and night. Are there things you can do to support their brain development regarding that? Yes, there are. But again, whatever we do it won’t make newborn babies sleep through the night.

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Some of you might be thinking: “But I have a friend whose baby started sleeping 8 hours in a row when he was 4 weeks”. Indeed, there are babies that, for several other reasons (but not because they’re “good babies”!) that don’t fit in this post, will sleep through in the early weeks. I had a baby like that myself – when my daughter was 8 weeks old, she was sleeping 9 hours straight. That didn’t mean though I was sleeping 9 hours straight too. After two episodes of mastitis (because milk production is higher during the night and as baby was sleeping – and not having a feed – my breasts got so full that I ended up having mastitis), I had to wake up in the middle of the night anyway to pump. Also, the fact that I wasn’t breastfeeding during the night when the levels of prolactin, an essential hormone for milk production, are at their highest, ended up affecting my milk supply and I wasn’t able to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, as I wanted to. So, is it always an advantage to have your baby sleeping through from the early days? Not necessarily.

Of course, if a baby has been waking every hour during the night for weeks in a row, this will affect their parents, who will probably go really sleep deprived, and that situation can start affecting baby as well. Again, science has already given us tools to help improve the situation in sleep-deprived families. But we should never expect a newborn baby to sleep through the night.

So, it’s about time we stop asking Mamas of young babies if they’re sleeping through the night. On the contrary, we should accept it’s their nature NOT to sleep through and ditch any expectations we put on new and experienced Mamas regarding baby sleep. What we can do instead is offer Mamas help, is to support them in their daily tasks so that mothers can have more opportunities for a rest and really make use of them.

Supporting a mum in having more time to bond with her baby, in going through the emotional rollercoaster that is typical of postpartum feeling supported, in giving her the time and space she needs to find out who she is as a mum, among other challenges that come with the arrival of a baby, is essential to promote a healthy sleep for families with a newborn. And now we know that a healthy sleep doesn’t mean sleeping through the night.

Newborn sleep definition = Updated!

If you are in Wellington, for several tips on how to deal with sleep challenges when you have a newborn and how to promote a healthy sleep for the whole family in those first few months, come to our talk on “The Science of Newborn Sleep – holistic tools and understanding” with the Holistic Sleep Consultant Dulce Piacentini, from Motherly Hug, and Kate Anderson, Lactation Consultant on the 3rd of September 2019. You can find the event here.

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