A few days ago, we took the decision to say goodbye to co-sleeping with our baby. Despite all the myths about it, during the first year of life of our little one we lived the benefits of this practice: pleasant breastfeeding during the night, synchronized sleep cycles, bonding encouragment, decreased anxiety levels and a more effective rest. Although we had already tried to make this transition when I returned to work after maternity leave, on that occasion we did not succeed. More recently, our baby was waking up several times at night and due to that we decided to try again.
Some people believe that when babies turn a year old, they should be able to sleep through the night and that they should not be fed during this time. Some pediatricians even advise to let them cry so that they learn to go back to sleep by themselves. So in my eagerness to make the transition the best possible way, I have read and learned a lot in the last few days.
When a baby is born, sleeping cycles are almost the same as the ones in the mother’s womb. The baby will sleep as needed, which varies between 12 and 16 hours in the first days. Newborn babies only have two sleep phases: REM and light sleep. The REM phase, which is the one in which we dream, is what babies have 80% of the time. As soon as they get physically tired, they sleep and do not need any of the other phases.
After 4 months, the baby is able to differentiate between day and night, and has acquired all the sleep phases that adults have: wakefulness, numbness, light sleep, deep sleep and REM. However, sleep is unstable and the awakenings are more frequent than in the first months since they need to adapt to the new phases.
From 8 months up to 24 months, babies go through multiple changes and learning processes: crawling and walking, object permanence, solids introduction, potty training. This can cause anxiety and like adults, sleep can become restless and awakenings during the night can still be frequent.
It is until after 3 years that children have many more hours of day time activity. They spontaneously stop taking naps and sleep becomes very similar than adults.
Sleep is then, an evolutionary process that adapts to the needs of the human being.
A baby is not born knowing how to sleep alone so adults try differnt methods to make them feel sleepy. Routines can be very effective and they usually include bathing, massaging, storytelling, lullaby time and nursing or taking a bottle. But once a baby has fallen asleep and wakes up in the middle of the night the most effective way that moms resort to get the baby back to sleep is offering the breast or a bottle since that’s what they have done for months.
Nursing or drinking from a bottle has the main function of being fed but we cannot forget the emotional charge on it. Sucking is the most soothing thing to do for a little one, so is not surprising that when a child wakes up at night, even if not hungry, sucking will relax and eventually make the baby fall asleep again.
Should parents leave a baby cry to help them learn how to sleep?
Once I understood that a baby’s sleep routine will not be stable until 3 years old, I wondered why are there still pediatricians who recommend letting babies cry to help them learn how to fall asleep again. So I also decided to read about the effect this “method” has on the babies.
Neurologically, there is scientific evidence that indicates that the development of specific areas of the brain related to stress management are established in early childhood (0-2 years old). An increase in the stress hormons levels that happens when a baby cries for long periods of time could damage neurons. To counteract these effects, the brain could release other substances being normal that after crying, a baby falls asleep. This does not mean that the baby learn something, but that the substances have taken effect.
Emotionally, the first years of life are a sensitive period to establish trust between the child and the caregiver. The relationships you have in early childhood, will serve as a model for future relationships. Many parents think that the short-term pain of tears is compensated by the long-term advantage of the child falling asleep easily by himself. However, when the baby’s needs are taken care without stress, the baby develops a sense of confidence. When those needs are ignored, the opposite effect could occur.
Trying my own method
Although I love co-sleeping, it was evident that every time one of us would move, our baby would wake up. At 13 months old she was waking up 5 or more times at night. We took the decision of transitioning to her crib but if she would wake up we would no problem with immediate attention, nursing or sleeping together the rest of the night. Surprisingly she actually is been sleeping better. One day she will not need her mommy any more and mommy will sleep 8 hours straight!
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