By: Tracy G. Cassels
Infant sleep problems are some of the most common concerns reported by parents of young children. Ask any new parent and most will complain about lack of sleep. Many will also be worried that what they are experiencing isn’t “normal” and that they believe that their child has a problem that needs fixing. So they search books, ask friends and family or even their doctor about what to do about their child’s problematic sleep patterns. And to top it off, they feel immense anxiety and worry about it. Part of this epidemic of parental angst about children’s sleep is that we live in a culture in which parents are repeated told that they need to worry about their child’s sleep, that there will be dire consequences if their child doesn’t get enough sleep. Another problem is that most new parents, having had little experience with children prior to having their own, have little awareness about what truly is “normal” when it comes to infant sleep.
Simply being made aware of normal sleep patterns can help alleviate the stress and anxiety parents feel, leading to happier times for the entire family.
So what is normal?
In this series of posts, we’ll tackle some of the more common sleep concerns parents have with the hope that they can see them as normal, developmental stages for their child.
PART 3: NORMAL PARENT BEHAVIOURS AND WHY THEY WON’T HURT YOUR CHILD
“My child is still sleeping in our bed.”
Many parents who sleep with their child get comments along the lines of, “Your child will never leave if you don’t move them” or “What about your sex life?”. Parents end up questioning if they are doing the right thing for their child or if they will end up with a 16-year-old who still wants to crawl into bed with mom and dad every night. First, let’s address the question of when a child leaves the bed. Rest assured that your child will not be dragging you off to college so they can still sleep with you even if you don’t force them out of the bed.
The age at which a child is ready to move into their own room varies widely and bedsharing is quite common worldwide. Notably, bedsharing rates in Scandinavian countries and Asian countries are much higher than those in the US or Canada (Mindell, Sadeh, Wiegand, How, & Goh, 2010; Nelson & Taylor, 2001; Welles-Nystrom, 2005; for a review, see Cassels, 2013). Parents polled by one the authors about the age at which their child initiated the move to another room report ages as young as 18 months and as old as 10 years.
Some factors that influence the transition age include: having a sibling in the other room (thus being able to room-share with another child), the presence of a new baby in the bed (and needed attention to safety for the new baby and disrupted sleep for the older child), and the child’s own developmental needs. Each family will need to consider the factors that are relevant for their particular child. No one should tell a family that they must stop the family bed if it is working for them. Importantly, the research on extended bedsharing has not found any social, emotional, or cognitive detriment for bedsharing children relative to children who were placed in their own room in infancy (e.g., Abel, Park, Tipene-Leach, Finau, & Lennan, 2001; Barajas, Martin, Brooks-Gunn, & Hale, 2011; Keller & Goldberg, 2004; Okami, Weisner, & Olmstead, 2002).
The second issue that is often brought up is to do with the marital relationship when the family bed is utilized. New research looking at bedsharing and marital satisfaction has reported no influence of bedsharing on the marital relationship when bedsharing is intentional (Messmer, Miller, & Yu, 2012). When bedsharing is in reaction to child sleep problems, parents may report greater stress on their relationship, but it is likely that this is due to the problems associated with infant sleep problems. As to intimacy, parents of co-sleepers and bedsharers often find creative ways to make sure their needs are met as well. There are excellent (and humorous) blogs on the topic if you’re in need of some extra assistance.
“My child only goes to sleep nursing.”
Most parents in the early months know how quickly an infant can go to sleep while nursing. In fact, nursing often is what sends our little ones to sleep. Although many people do not think twice about these behaviours when their infants are still quite tiny, they start to worry about it as the child ages. It doesn’t help that falling to sleep while breastfeeding is listed as one of the sleep disorders by sleep researchers (Melzer & Mindell, 2006) and that often family and friends will tell you that you’re doing your child harm and that he or she will never learn to fall asleep on his or her own. Many “sleep experts” will recommend not letting your infant fall asleep on your breast for fear of creating this “bad habit” (Meltzer & Mindell, 2006), instead recommending that you rouse your little one before putting him or her down.
As long as breastfeeding your child ‘til they are sleeping and placing them down while sleeping is not a problem for you as a parent, you need not worry about it for your child. How can we say this? First, a child who is tired enough will fall asleep with or without breastfeeding. Although falling asleep at the breast may remain a preferred way to fall asleep for a child (full of the closeness and intimacy that is so necessary for bonding), it will not be a necessary step. As children age, they will fall asleep in various places and positions. Young infants should not be forced to fall asleep without comfort; they may need to nurse to feel relaxed and safe enough to enter sleep. Another factor to remember is that all children eventually wean. Nursing and cuddling to sleep offers comfort for your child, a closeness that is associated with positive developmental outcomes. Children will seek this closeness as a natural part of development. This is not a bad thing, it is simply offering your child the closeness that is a natural part of growth and parenting.
If still uncertain, be assured that breastfeeding is a natural way to help children sleep and provide important support for their growth. Parents should know that breastmilk in the evening contains more tryptophan (a sleep-inducing amino acid). Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a vital hormone for brain function and development. In early life, tryptophan ingestion leads to more serotonin receptor development (Hibberd, Brooke, Carter, Haug, & Harzer, 1981). Nighttime breastmilk also has amino acids that promote serotonin synthesis (Delgado, 2006; Goldman, 1983; Lien, 2003). Serotonin makes the brain work better, keeps one in a good mood, and helps with sleep-wake cycles (Somer, 2009). So because of tryptophan and its wider effects, it may be especially important for children to have evening or night breastmilk for reasons beyond getting them to sleep.
The other concern that is brought up is that infants and children who fall asleep at the breast (or even in-arms) often wake looking for the same environment in which they first feel asleep (Anders, Halpern, & Hua, 1992). This can lead to crying upon waking when they find themselves in a different environment, such as a crib.