Baby · Breastfeeding · Postpartum

After the Baby: Societal Norms and Sleep

baby sleep positions
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Many people will be familiar with this picture that floats around the internet every once in a while, or maybe they have experienced this first hand. Some people think that there wouldn’t be much of a problem if the baby slept in his own space. There are so many thoughts about babies and sleep because we’re all trying desperately to get more sleep since the world we’ve created for ourselves doesn’t blend well with the world our babies need us to occupy. The emergence of sleep consultants has become big business with hefty price tags that people are willing to pay for just a little more normalcy. I don’t have any good tips – my little guy, who is just about to be 11mo, has not slept through the night or longer than a 4 hour stretch since his was born. His new wake up and play time is 5am, which looks and feels exactly like the 4am wake up he sometimes tries to convince me to try. Most days I can deal but it is draining to say the least. Yesterday I ran into a fellow mom with a 4 mo old in the carrier, pushing the big stroller of stuff, and her 5 year old running around with a friend, and I asked, “how are you?” She gave me a look and said, “tired.” No other words needed, I completely understood. So if you’re in a similar no-sleep boat, I feel your pain. I’ve been reading a few articles about how we shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to babies and sleep, and postpartum in general, and maybe what we should be expecting of this time.

The Great Sleep Obsession – The key points in this article are that babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults, meaning they have more light sleep periods where they can be easily woken, and the neocortex part of the brain responsible for emotional self-regulation is still developing. This means that the babies will not really be able to “self-soothe” back to sleep, either with the help of a lovey, pacifier, thumb, or anything, and our expectation that they should be able to is unfounded. I know what some of you are thinking, that your baby was able to sleep through the night at just a few months and if she wakes, she can stick her pacifier back in and go right back to sleep. That’s how it was for my twins, who first slept through the night at 4 months. Maybe that’s how it is for babies in France too, according to Pamela Druckerman (while reading this book I just kept thinking, really? is this all really true?). This article concludes with the idea that it is not babies’ sleep that needs fixing, it is our society’s expectations of this postpartum time that needs fixing. If we were able to support each other more (longer time off of work, meals brought to families with young babies, help parenting the older kids, and an acceptance that just being at home is good) and have realistic expectations of ourselves, we might not feel the need to obsess and fix our baby’s normal sleep habits.

The Normalcy of Co-Sleeping and Nightwaking – I don’t love this long article but it does have some interesting points that get into the biology of why babies might wake at night. The author does state that there is an enormous amount of variation in the frequency of nightwakings among infants that are affected by factors such as how close their mother/parent is, how much do they need to eat at night, whether they are going through a growth spurt or emotional/physical development, how the needs of their parents/society/culture affect sleep etc. This author and team monitored the vitals of many co-sleeping mothers and babies during the night and found a few things the first being that babies have more light sleep times that protect them against sleep apnea (pauses in breathing or shallow breathing while sleeping) because they are more likely to wake themselves if they are sleeping lightly and experiencing apnea. The other thing they found is that many moms woke just a couple seconds before their babies, and usually breastfeeding proceeded after that. Some quotes from the article,

What I am speculating about is that perhaps mothers evolved to induce arousals (to have her baby feed) because lots of arousals for several reasons increase an infant’s chance for survival, as well as help protect mothers from a variety of diseases not the least among them are breast and ovarian cancers.

In other words, infants are not always waking for food but, to be (quite possibly) reassured emotionally and when they awaken and subsequently mothers touch, hug, inspect or whisper to them we witness on our monitoring screens a suite of physiological changes including increased heart rate [8] and higher oxygen levels measured by oximetry, all of which is remarkable to observe.

This author is arguing that we have evolved to co-sleep and that it has some physically protective and emotionally beneficial effects for both mom and baby. I have heard many arguments for and against co-sleeping and I think it is a decision that every family needs to make with their specific needs in mind.

Spending 40 Days at Home After the Birth – Not specifically about sleep but more about societal expectations of this time. This author decided to stay home (mostly) completely after the birth of her second baby, a long-held custom in many cultures. She reflects on the experience in this piece with three points that I suggest you take a minute to read because they are great ones. Specifically I wanted to discuss her third point, “It really does take a village, not just to raise a child, but to nurture a newborn mother.” How awesome is that?! Besides having help with the cooking, cleaning and laundry, people are there to help with breastfeeding, teaching a new mom about baby care, giving mom someone to talk to (emotional health), caring for siblings, and allowing mom to rest and heal. It doesn’t have to be the same person or a professional but members of the whole “village” to turn out to help. I especially like the story of the day a bunch of moms came by with their kids and chores was done, people were fed, kids were playing, and laughter happened. Such good stuff that everyone should experience when they have a new baby!

This Sunday, the 15th will be the second workshop class at Leela Yoga in Alameda, about After Birth Care. I will not be talking about sleep because there aren’t enough hours in the day to have that discussion, but we will be talking about what to expect during this time, how to take care of yourself and heal, and learning to care for your newborn. Beth Zygielbaum of Leela Yoga, will also talk about common physical problems you may experience and how to fix them. It’s going to be good!