Just let me get some sleep

Childcare experts have written volumes on the best way to cope with babies who don't sleep. Are they right? Or should parents let nature take its course?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Parents live in fear of the three dreaded words: "New research says..." The latest experiments, even those conducted on a sample of 10 children in Surbiton, are almost certain to expose their daily childcare routine as detrimental to their offspring's welfare, probably harmful and quite likely criminal. I avoid any reports likely to conclude that babies remember experiences from the first few weeks of life. If true, my son will have a clear recollection of his mother leaning her chin on the edge of his crib, begging him, in the pre-dawn darkness, to please, please let me get some sleep.

Parents live in fear of the three dreaded words: "New research says..." The latest experiments, even those conducted on a sample of 10 children in Surbiton, are almost certain to expose their daily childcare routine as detrimental to their offspring's welfare, probably harmful and quite likely criminal. I avoid any reports likely to conclude that babies remember experiences from the first few weeks of life. If true, my son will have a clear recollection of his mother leaning her chin on the edge of his crib, begging him, in the pre-dawn darkness, to please, please let me get some sleep.

It's not an edifying image, and certainly an image I would rather he let slip away in the mists of babyhood. But for some, the knock-on effects of prolonged sleeplessness set up a pattern of stress and anguish that could be harmful and might indeed result in criminal thoughts, if not behaviour.

The joys of parenthood are usually accompanied by physical symptoms: headaches, dry mouth, nausea and aching joints; these signs of extreme fatigue are grimly familiar to most parents of young babies. But quite apart from the emotional price of short sleep and short tempers, there is a financial cost as well. The National Health Service calculates that the health problems associated with sleeplessness in parents of young babies are placing too great a burden on the system.

So the NHS has set out to discover what thousands of childcare experts have sought before them: a set of hard and fast rules to get small babies to sleep through the night. Last week researchers from the Institute of Education presented their findings to a conference on Infant Studies and addressed the burning question: can you teach a small baby when it's time to sleep?

Six hundred mothers were given guidelines on getting their babies to sleep through the night from birth. These included:

Feeding the baby between 10pm and midnight; Settling the baby in his basket or cot while he was still awake, rather than rocking or walking him to sleep before putting him down; Stretching the time between night feeds so that he learns to compensate at other times; Getting him used to the difference between night and day, using darkness and allowing less social contact during the night.

Did it work? The first thing to note is that Dr Ian St James-Roberts, senior lecturer in child development at the Institute of Education who led the research, believes five hours is equivalent to a whole night's sleep. This is bound to be comforting to those parents who feel competitive about their babies' sleeping abilities.

According to Dr St James-Roberts, the results showed that, by 12 weeks of age, 10 per cent of participating babies were sleeping for five hours at a stretch.

His team concluded that babies can use information in the environment to learn to regulate their sleeping, and speed up development so they would begin to sleep more at night and less during the day.

Where these guidelines clash with other childcare experts is chiefly in the attempt to control how often a baby is fed during the night. Dr St James-Roberts says "stretching the intervals between feeds does not mean leaving the baby to cry, it means when the baby wakes up, don't feed it straight away, do something else for a while."

Wrong, says childcare guru, Penelope Leach. In her book Your Baby and Child (Penguin), Leach is unequivocal about feeding on demand at night: "If you make him 'wait a bit', he will keep you awake with his crying and when you finally feed him he may too tired and upset to take a full feed."

Wrong, says Jan Parker, co-author of Raising Happy Children (Hodder &Stoughton). "If a baby wakes because they're hungry, not giving it what it needs seems wrong. Do something else? To play with the baby at night is asking for trouble."

Parker agrees that settling the baby in its cot can make the difference between his waking fully during the night, and merely surfacing before sinking back into sleep. "A baby will expect to wake up where it fell asleep. Babies go through peaks and troughs and wake up just like adults. They can panic. If a baby falls asleep where he knows it's safe, it's far better for him to wake up in that place."

The late-night feed, which is advocated by Leach, can make the difference of a few hours' unbroken sleep for the mother. "Some people think it isn't fair to manipulate the baby," says Parker, "but it certainly isn't fair for the baby to have a stressed-out mother."

There are problems with waking the baby for a late-night feed, chiefly, that to wake a peacefully sleeping baby is beyond the willpower of most exhausted parents. The other problem is that the baby will be too sleepy to take much milk, or just go straight back to sleep again. I tried giving my baby a late-night feed because I found that waking to feed him at 2am was absolutely gruelling, whereas I could cope pretty well at 4am. But when I tried to rouse him to feed him at midnight, he just flopped straight back to sleep again.

Some think it entirely wrong to manipulate babies' sleeping or feeding patterns. "You can train babies from birth," says Deborah Jackson, author of Three in a Bed (Bloomsbury), "but what is the cost of doing that? If this research came up with a 10 per cent success rate, you've got a 90 per cent failure rate, so you're setting parents up for failure."

Jackson perceives more potential health problems in sleep training than in sleep deprivation: "Society stresses on parents the importance of training babies. Our goal is to get babies to sleep independently as early as possible. This emphasis on training babies increases anxiety, since friends' babies always seem to be sleeping more than your own. Each baby is different."

Far from standardising guidelines, Jackson (herself the author of a best-selling text book) would advise throwing out the text books and letting parents do what comes naturally. As for settling the baby in its cot, she thinks that's wrong, too. "It's not true that babies need to learn to fall asleep. They sleep in the womb. Babies' sleep patterns are different from ours. If your baby doesn't sleep when you want it to, you haven't got a problem, you've got a baby."

Having read every sleep manual and taking advice from paediatricians, health visitors, parents, friends and passers-by, Joanna Briscoe is inclined to agree. Her baby did not sleep at night at all for the first two weeks of his life. "It's been horrendous. He just cried all the time, morning would come and I wouldn't have slept at all. I've tried so many different things, everyone seems to have a different theory, even health visitors have totally different views. I've read everything, I got completely obsessed with it."

After months of feeding her crying baby every two hours, Briscoe is not impressed with Dr St James-Roberts's guidelines. "I tried giving a late night feed but I don't think it made any difference. I suppose settling him probably helps by building up good habits for later, but it didn't help me. I tried sleep training, but it just didn't work."

As Jackson points out, the major problem for some parents seems to be the pressure to get the baby to sleep. For the time being, Briscoe is content not to search for solutions to her son's sleeplessness any more. "Just accepting it makes it better. I'm perpetually tired but I'm used to it. The only solution is time."

Comments