How we interpret the science of infant sleep can have an impact on how we are able to trust our instincts. Our hearts and our minds can align if we ask ourselves the right question: “How can I support my baby’s sleep development?”.
Infant Mental Health: A primary goal of attachment-based parenting
Early in my career as an occupational therapist, I had the privilege of participating in York University's inaugural Infant Mental Health certificate program. The focus was on understanding the environmental and biological basis for infant mental health.
Since that time I have studied the science of attachment theory and ecology, and learned the impact of our parenting approaches on infant mental health. What has struck me most across all of this learning was appreciating the impact that our environment can have on the developmental well-being of infants and young children. Our children’s environments are largely created but us in the early years, and we have a significant influence on how nurturing their environments are.
Nurturing, stable, safe, and loving environments can have a positive influence on children, including those with a history of trauma. Although we cannot change the past, what we do today to shift towards more nurturing environments can support infant mental health.
The passion I have for connected parenting in the early years and beyond is reflected heavily in my approach to supporting infant sleep. Sleep deprivation can make even the most patient parent short-tempered and less compassionate. Sleep-deficient infants are more easily upset, more 'wired', and often more difficult to get to sleep. And yet, at the heart of it, infants need proximity to a loving adult who has the capacity to parent in a nurturing way. It is helpful to listen to our instincts about how to support their biological and emotional needs, and to seek support (from family, from friends, from skilled mental health care professionals) to do that.
My approach to infant sleep is to inform, to guide decisions, and to change the environment and expectations in order to progress towards sleep practices that support everyone's sleep needs. For families who have additional challenges, including mental health issues, and trauma history, I connect families with local health care professionals who can continue to support families in ways that respect the family's needs and goals.
Understanding the huge impact that we, as parents, have on our children’s well being is not intended to add a burden. Rather, it can help make decisions easier: we can choose to meet the need. We can choose to connect. We can choose to be present with our children. And we can choose to take care of ourselves and to get support when we feel overwhelmed.
Attachment based parenting improves infant mental health.
Our environment impacts our health.
Decisions are easier when we know why attachment is important.
Self-care is critical: fill your own cup so you can fill theirs too.
I am not a mental health professional. But there are talented and compassionate people in our community who are. If you are concerned about mental health and about your capacity to support a nurturing relationship with your child, reach out and seek support.
In Niagara, local supports for infant and family mental health include:
Pathstone Mental Health Services, pathstonementalhealth.ca
Emily Pollak, Social Worker, individual and family counselling, St. Catharines, emilypollak.ca
Niagara Infant Mental Health website (Early Childhood Community Development Centre), http://www.eccdc.org/infant-mental-health/
Within and beyond Niagara, supports include:
911 for medical emergencies
411 for information about local mental health services in some jurisdictions
Your family physician
Local initiatives to support infant and child mental health
When it comes to understanding the normal development of independent sleep, knowing the facts can make a profound difference in our perspective on the “problem”. Understanding normal sleep patterns in childhood can be incredibly reassuring. And, frequently, this involves realizing there is no problem at all!
Knowing what is typical can help us figure out if the expectations we have (or our family has, or strangers have!) match with what is developmentally reasonable. To know that frequent night waking doesn’t indicate that we have “done something wrong” to cause our babies to have frequent night waking, but rather that it is biologically normal, can take away a lot of pressure! Putting energy into coping with the phase rather than fighting our child’s nature can be a refreshing shift from trying to fit our babies into the expectations,. This way we can model our expectations on our babies’ abilities.
In my September 12, 2018 facebook interview with Built to Birth’s Melanie Farrell, we spent an hour online chatting about what is normal, how to shift perspectives on the problem, and how to manage the challenges that come with supporting infants and young children to gradually develop the holy grail of parenting: independent sleep. One of the papers I mentioned was Sadler’s 1994 paper called (most encouragingly!) Sleep: what is normal at six months?
Here is a bit more of the detail of that paper, and why it is relevant to parents of young babies.
Of 640 parents who completed a survey about the sleep of their infant, only 16% reported that their 6 month old “slept through the night”.
16% of the infants were reported to not have a regular sleeping pattern at 6 months of age (meaning a sleep pattern maturing from within the child, rather than a lack of ‘routine’ from the parents). This suggests that the internal regulation required for a regular sleeping pattern takes several months or more to develop. This fits with our understanding of infant development and neuro-maturation.
61% were sleeping in their own room by 6 months, but many ultimately shared a bed with the parents upon waking: a whopping 43% were always, almost always, or routinely (34%) brought into mom and dad’s room upon waking.
The author suggests that knowing that these sleep patterns (frequent waking, proximity to parents during sleep) are normal can be reassuring.
What may help in re-framing the perspective of night waking in your 6 month old:
It is normal for babies (even at the ripe age of 6 months) to wake often and prefer proximity to mom.
“Sleeping through the night” is typically defined as 5 consecutive hours, not the 8-hours-a-night we come to expect as adults.
The pressure to have young babies “sleeping through the night” does not coincide with biologically normal sleep.
Trusting your instincts regarding sleep problems can be helpful, especially if baby is not sleeping as well as they ought to be because of colic, reflux, food allergies, sleep apnea, or poor air quality.
A return to more frequent night waking at 9 months, after a period of relatively good sleep, is normal. This tends to improve after 12 months of age.
The route to independent sleep is not a linear one.
Sometimes the best strategy is to anticipate the wave, hang on tight, recruit help, and ride it out. When mother nature is the one dictating the rules, changing course may be futile! Nature has a way, and we’d do well to consider that although our environment has changed a great deal, the nature of sleep has not.
So, what is a parent to do if they are struggling with their young child’s sleep but think it might be developmentally normal? Get support! Support can go a long way in reassuring you, in tweaking some strategies for sleep, and in emphasizing (giving you permission!) to focus on your own self-care. Parents who have sought my help and needed, primarily, reassurance, are among the most rewarding consults I’ve done because it puts the power back in parents’ hearts that what they are doing feels right, is supported by evidence, and, in the end, works to create healthy, and even joyful, bedtimes and a happy and confident independent sleeper. It may not take much to bring this power back to parent decision-making, but it can make a world of difference to how you feel about your child’s sleep.
Sadler (1994). Sleep: what is normal at six months?. Prof Care Mother Child. 4 (6): 166-7.