I have taken it upon me to ask some of my clients and many of the people who send me questions or messages the following question (when I think it’s relevant):

What do you think is most important for your child’s development?

Almost inevitably parents respond with “Sleep”.  Some say that then catch themselves and wonder why they think that’s most important, some stick with that answer.  It’s not too surprising given the push we have in our society to tell parents that they should worry about sleep nonstop.  Heck, it seems most of the time our parenting is judged by how well our children sleep, everything else be damned.

Now, if you are reading this and wondering why we would even consider something else as being more important, let me just throw out these suggestions:

  • Secure attachment
  • Love
  • Responsiveness
  • Being fully fed
  • Getting enough appropriate stimulation
  • Touch

Do you truly believe that sleep is still more important than those things?  If you think of your own life, is sleep the primary concern?  Does sleep make your problems go away?  Does it help you feel comfortable in your own skin?  Does it comfort you when things go wrong?

The fact is that sleep – though important – is not the be-all and end-all for our children.  The brain needs to rest, yes.  It needs sleep, but the anxiety that parents feel around sleep isn’t about a child getting no sleep at all (though there are such extreme cases, this is not what is on the table when parents talk about their child getting “enough” sleep), it’s about a societal decision that children need a certain amount and, as I will discuss below, this amount and style has no basis in biology.

So what do our children really need?  What should be our priorities as parents and as a society when we are talking to new parents instead of endorsing this fallacy that they need hours upon hours of uninterrupted sleep?

Our children need love and touch and responsiveness

I have written extensively on the importance of attachment to our children’s well-being, but let me be clear: Insecure attachment is associated with an increased risk of a host of problems ranging from mental health disorders to relationship problems to more (for a review, see [1]).  As parents, we need to acknowledge that our children’s psychological well-being is equally important to their physical well-being.  We know the extreme cases where children are physically cared for, but left without comfort, and the devastating effects.  Most of us don’t even get close to that extreme, yet still 40% of our kids are insecurely attached[2].  Forty percent.  This shows us that something is going wrong in early parenting on a large scale that we should all be talking about and trying to figure out how to address.  But know that love, and most importantly, responsiveness is what predicts our children’s secure attachment and any kind of parent can provide that (click here to read more).

Our children need appropriate nutrition

It seems silly that in a culture of such wealth we have children still missing out on vital nutrients and being adequately fed.  This isn’t about breastfeeding versus formula, but rather about families who have to cut formula to make it last or who are using formula beyond expiry dates or keeping it out longer, resulting in babies not getting enough to eat or food that may be contaminated[3].  Or families who can’t afford nutrient-dense foods so babies and toddlers aren’t given the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal brain development.  At a time when programs like WIC in the USA are under fire, it is imperative that we fight for the recognition that families need these services for their children to thrive.

Our children need the right kind of stimulation

This is one that actually ties into sleep too, but for development, our children need appropriate stimulation.  What does this mean?  It means our babies need to be stimulated with sense that are appropriate for them which includes lots and lots of touch (lots of reasons why touch is so important and a review can be read here [4]), time outdoors in nature, witnessing human interactions, music, and the chance to just go about the world as a parent does with lots of close contact to help baby feel secure (for a review of these, see [5]).  This also means a reduction in stimuli that negatively affects development which includes electronics, screen time, loud noises, pollution, gadgets that distract instead of engage (think of most baby toys) and so on.  When our babies get the right stimulation, they learn and they develop.  This also helps them sleep as babies who are understimulated with the right types of stimuli will struggle to sleep.

As I mentioned above, our obsession with sleep and the idea of “enough” sleep also counters what we know about the biology of infant sleep.  There are tons of resources on this, but suffice it to say that there are a few things you should keep in mind if you panic about sleep:

  1. Infants are supposed to wake regularly at night. Even at 12 months of age, many babies are waking regularly. Often babies will feed at night and feed more than many parents expect and this is 100% normal[6][7][8].
  2. “Sleeping through the night” was never 12 hours uninterrupted, but rather a period from midnight to 5am – quite different from what we expect today.
  3. Even if you think your baby is sleeping through the night, he or she probably isn’t. Parental reports of sleep and objective measures like actigraphy don’t overlap very well with most babies waking far more than parents realize, even if they don’t signal to their parents[9][10].
  4. The light stage of sleep is what is associated with learning and consolidation of information which means that your baby who is sleeping lightly and waking regularly is doing all that learning you’re afraid she might be missing.

What do you do when you find yourself panicking about sleep?  I recommend that you first take a deep breath and look at your baby.  Does he seem tired?  Is she always cranky and fussy?  Even if a baby has dark circles under the eyes, this isn’t necessarily a sign of tiredness as this is more common in babies anyway, even without sleep deprivation.  Look for behavioural signs of sleep deprivation, but if your baby is generally cheerful (they aren’t cheerful all the time), is meeting milestones, and is eating well, then you don’t need to worry about the type of severe sleep deprivation that we worry about.  However, some babies may not be sleep deprived yet, but are sleeping fitfully and don’t meet what we would call “normal”.  This is when it’s time to look at the causes such as dietary issues, medical problems (e.g., sleep apnea), inappropriate routines or schedules, and so on.  Getting help to figure out the underlying cause is highly recommended, but this can be undertaken without a sense of dread, fear, or urgency.

Just because your baby may not be sleep deprived doesn’t mean there won’t be things you want to work on to help the entire family.  Where concern may come in is when it is you who needs more sleep.  This is where most families find themselves, but have somehow come to the conclusion that baby must need more sleep too.  In these cases, I recommend working with someone to come up with ways to help your sleep.  Finding a middle ground between being exhausted and putting the onus of change on your baby is exactly the type of help that most parents need.  In their tired state they don’t see the options that are available to them so finding someone to help there is essential.  Even when change does involve baby, it can be done gently and over time which allows your child to adapt in a healthy way.

Remember: Sleep is important, but it’s not the most important.  If you find yourself feeling frantic over your child’s sleep, please take a step back and ask yourself what you really want for your child.  Look at all the things you do provide and then breathe a sigh of relief.  After that, you can think about the steps you would like to take (if any) while respecting those greater priorities of love and attachment for your baby.

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[1] Benoit D.  Infant-parent attachment: definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome.  Pediatrics & Child Health 2004; 9: 541-5.

[2] Moullin S, Waldfogel J, Washbrook E.  Baby bonds: parenting, attachment, and a secure base for children.  Sutton Trust Report 2014.

[3] Fein SB, Falci CD.  Infant formula preparation, handling, and related practices in the United States.  Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1999; 99: 1234-40.

[4] Field T. Touch.  Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2001.

[5] Douglas P. The Discontented Little Baby Book.  Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2014.

[6] Weinraub M, Bender RH, Friedman SL, Susman EJ, Knoke B, et al. Patterns of developmental change in infants’ nighttime sleep awakenings from 6 through 36 months of age.  Developmental Psychology 2012; 48: 1511-28.

[7] Goodlin-Jones BL, Burnham MM, Gaylor EE, Anders TF.  Night waking, sleep-wake organization, and self-soothing in the first year of life. Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics 2001; 22: 226-33.

[8] Armstrong KL, Quinn RA, Dadds MR.  The sleep patterns of normal children.  The Medical Journal of Australia 1994; 161: 202-6.

[9] Hall WA, Hutton E, Brant RF, Collet JP, Gregg K, et al. A randomized controlled trial of an intervention for infants’ behavioral sleep problems.  BMC Pediatrics 2015; 15: 181.

[10] Gradisar M, Jackson K, Spurrier NJ, Gibson J, Whitham J, et al. Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: a randomized controlled trial.  Pediatrics 2016; 137: e20151486.