Expectations of infant sleep. Why are they so out of whack?

infant sleep3I recently read of a woman having her three week old infant “cry-it-out” in order for the baby to sleep through the night.  When I heard that, well, to put it frankly, it gave me the urge to vomit.  Imagine you were pretty much entirely helpless and the only way you could communicate was to cry.  For months your crying was responded to by love.  And all of a sudden, one night, there was no response to your cry.  That would be very damaging, at least emotionally, if not physiologically.

When did it become okay to ignore our babies cries in the name of letting them learn how to self-soothe themselves to/back to sleep?  Even when I was in the throws of postpartum depression, there was no way I could stomach putting my baby in a room by himself to cry himself to sleep.  Maybe it is because I have done that before myself, and let me tell you, it is not pleasant.  But I was an adult.  That is different.

When my baby cries, even now, it elicits a physiological response from me.  My heart starts racing, my blood pressure goes up, I start sweating, etc.  The reaction my baby’s cry elicits from me is not just a me-thing. It is documented that adults hearing babies cry have a very specific physiological response.  Because of that documented response, I perceive the act of letting a baby cry themselves to sleep to be counter-instinctual.  By counter-instinctual, I mean that there is some force or voice inside our brains telling us not to do something (in this case, let our baby cry) because it can cause or create harm.  If it is counter-instinctual, why do so many American people let their babies cry as a form of sleep training?  How does some book, or tradition, or relative manage to persuade Americans to act against a very primal, intense instinct to conform to some notion of a possible societal norm (that all babies should “sleep through the night” by six months old)?

Which leads me to: why is that even an expectation among American parents?  Why do (what seems like) the vast majority of Americans think it is normal for babies to sleep through the night by six months old?  That seems pretty far-fetched!  My Monkey Man was only sleeping about four hours without waking at that age.

I think that maybe the breastfeeding rates here in America contribute to the number of parents sleep training their babies.  According to the CDC, only about 50% of American mothers are breastfeeding their babies at six months, and only about 25% are breastfeeding at a year.  The percentage drops down to 9% at eighteen months!  It is the biological norm for babies/children to breastfeed for between two and a half to seven years, according to comparisons with other primates.

Breastfeeding has always been an almost instant sleep aid for Monkey Man.  I simply have no need to sleep train him.  At night, if he wakes, I simply roll over and plop a boob in his mouth, and we both fall back to sleep within two minutes.  Right now, he is almost fourteen months old, and he only regularly wakes once or twice during the night once I go to bed.  He is getting in ten teeth simultaneously at the moment, so that number has increased.   I am certain it is only temporary, as were previous increases in night wakings during teething weeks.  There have been eight or nine nights in the past month that he did not wake up at all until morning.

What is even more bewildering to me is that Americans who use “cry-it-out” sleep training are willing to retrain over and over again during developmental milestones.  When a baby accomplishes a new milestone – crawling, walking, etc. – or has some sort of upset like teething, or just a bad day, the baby often has increased night wakings.  In order to keep babies sleeping through the night after the use of “cry-it-out” sleep training, it is common to need to retrain during periods of increased night wakings.

Also, what is this silly notion of self-soothing?  Such a thing really does not exist, at least not in babies so young as six months.  As I understand it, self-soothing does not come about for at least a year, if not three or four.  All soothing/emotional regulating beforehand is provided by outside sources (the mother or father).  Babies that young (6 months) aren’t physiologically capable of self-soothing.

There was a research study published, (I do not remember when or by whom) that was about the cortisol levels in infants while being sleep trained using a “cry-it-out” method.  The mothers would place their infants in a room alone and not return for the night.  There were at least nurses that checked up on the babies.  But anyway, the scientists measured amounts of cortisol in the blood stream of the infants and mothers over a period of three nights. On the first night, both the mothers and babies cortisol levels were very high, and the babies were crying a lot.  By the third night, the mothers cortisol levels were much lower since the babies were not crying nearly as much.  However, the babies cortisol levels on the third night were still just as high.  It only appears as if the babies are less stressed, but they are not.  So the mothers reactions respond according to their baby’s outward signs of stress.  It is clear, though, that the babies were not self-soothing.  It seems they gave up on calling (crying) for some one to come help them overcome their stress.  John on Uncommon Sense explains the concept of self-soothing much more eloquently than I.

I also read of a study that documented the effects of prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol in babies brains.  The physiological consequences of repeated stress changes their brain structure such that they are more susceptible to stress overcoming them later in life.

I will admit that there is usually an element of crying when trying to convince Monkey Man that it is time to sleep.  But it is not nearly as traumatic sounding as “cry-it-out”.  Our going-to-sleep routine looks a little like this:

I take Monkey Man for a little five minute stroll to take his mind off the adventures of the day, during which he usually talks a little bit, and we cuddle, then we head inside towards the bedroom.  Once we reach the bedroom and close the bedroom door (a clear sign to him that it is time to sleep), he immediately arches his back and starts crying a very pathetic, protesting cry.  Once we are on the bed, he rolls around for roughly 30 seconds before I pick him up and offer him my breast.  He takes it, and goes silent.  I start taking some deep breaths, and he mimics the deep breaths, then begins to relax.  After ten minutes or so at the boob, he falls asleep laying across my chest.  Once he is in REM sleep, I pick him up and lay him down next to me, and quietly sneak out of the room.  When it’s all said and done, there was no more than one to two minutes of crying, sometimes less.  I wish there was no crying at all, but I have tried many different bedtime routines, and none have produced less crying than the current approach.  He is just my Monkey Man, and my Monkey Man fights sleep.  Not naps, though, just nighttime sleep.

I feel sad, frustrated, angry, and hurt for all the little babies in America that are made to cry alone in a crib.  I wonder if those babies perceive a sense of abandonment and sorrow, a feeling of genuine pain at their aloneness.  I know for a fact that there is a gentler way to help babies sleep.  It sometimes requires less sleep from mom, but often does not.  I wonder if some parents who choose to let their babies cry are just trying to recreate their previous sleep before baby came along?  Is it stemming from laziness?  From desperation?  What is it that compels American parents to listen to their baby’s desperate cries for help, and not respond, which is counter-instinctual?  I hope America comes to its senses soon.

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2 thoughts on “Expectations of infant sleep. Why are they so out of whack?

  1. Pingback: Sleeping through the night? Just Kidding… | Sitter In a Pinch

  2. Pingback: Perceptions and benefits of extended breastfeeding | My Mothering Journey

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