It seems this is often the first question that everyone asks new parents – “Is he a good baby?”. The supermarket checkout attendant, the barista at your favourite café, that friendly neighbour walking their dog, even your best friend. I never really understood what a “good baby” was meant to look like. Is it one that only cries for milk, or one that never cries at all? Is it one that takes long naps or one that is interested in exploring the world and doesn’t want to miss a thing? Is it one that wants mummy cuddles all the time, or one that likes being wrapped in the bassinet? And if there are good babies, does that mean there are also bad babies? How can a baby even be bad?
And, of course, the second question is nearly always…. “Does he sleep through the night yet?”
And there you have it. Society’s underlying assumption that a good baby is one that sleeps through the night.
Why on earth do we think this would even be a good thing? Babies, particularly those under 6 months and certainly plenty that are much older, need to wake in the night to feed. Breastfed babies need to stimulate their mother’s breasts 8-12 times in 24 hours to maintain supply. You do the maths. Even most formula fed babies will want milk overnight. Feeding is not all about nutrition for babies.
Why would we even think it is normal to sleep through the night? Many adults don’t sleep through the night. Waking for a drink, to go to the toilet, to roll over in bed, to pull up the doona – all normal and expected during the night. Babies often can’t manage these things themselves so need the help of a care-giver to tend to their needs. Even just some reassurance that mum or dad are nearby is normal. After all, mum or dad are usually right there during the daytime and come over at the slightest whimper – why would the baby not want this during the dark, lonely night?
What is needed is a change in our society’s expectation of what normal infant sleep looks like – a reality check. We do new parents no favours by maintaining the mythical milestone of “sleeping through the night”. This is not a marker of good parenting, or a good baby. We do not help to align expectations with reality.
Does this mean that as parents we are destined to walk around in a sleep-deprived daze, holding our double-shot latte in one hand, while hoping our baby takes a nap for longer than 20 minutes so that we, too, can get some precious shut-eye?
No, of course not. By understanding what is normal, by understanding the science behind sleep, and by knowing that it is not the number of wake ups per night that causes fatigue but the time taken to get back to sleep, we can still enjoy parenthood in the early days while also being woken up several times at night.
If you are struggling with excessive night waking or if you are not coping with your baby’s sleep patterns, please come and see us so we can give you some ideas to experiment with. We cannot eliminate all night waking as it is biologically normal, but we hope to be able to improve the situation.
by Dr Briony Andrew