Attend any playgroup and you’ll hear exhausted moms venting to one and other about how their baby, “just isn’t a good sleeper”, or how they “have to teach him to self-soothe”.
The cause and effect of our current cultural norms and this new generation of humans who refuse to sleep “well” at night is pretty glaring. Parents didn’t have these same troubles, to this extent, decades ago. There have never been more books on the market about babies and sleep, yet somehow the problem just keeps getting worse.
Some parents I’ve worked with have been through several sleep training attempts before looking at a gentle approach to getting more rest. So, what has changed?
Hint: Human-beings are hard-wired for sleep as they always have been. We do however, have less hours in each day as our lives are filled with “stuff” in every capacity. More work, more entertainment, more food, more information, more choices. Technological advances ensure we have less time than ever before to just BE.
So, how did we get here?
Ever heard of the Paleolithic diet? The theory is that by eating and moving as we did thousands of years ago, we set ourselves up for optimum health and wellness.
Well, I am practicing an uber-hip style of sleep, called Paleo Sleep. It involves the whole family sleeping in one bed together. The theory is that by responding to your babies cries, you protect the whole family from predators, AND you are able to regulate breathing and act as a natural pacemaker for your infant.
I’m only half kidding. While I am being tongue-in-cheek, I do find it interesting to look at how what goes around does tend to come back around, full circle.
Folklore has it that medieval times pretty much resembled today. Parents were extremely busy doing labour intensive jobs and required their babies to be as low-maintenance as possible. Babies were tightly swaddled and even tied down to cradles while mothers attended to chores and meal preparation.
In more affluent homes, wet nurses were hired to nurse the baby, who often stayed on after the child was weaned to continue to care for the child as the mother attended to social obligations, banquets, tourneys and the like.
During the 19th century, while there were books and magazine articles written on baby-care, sleep was rarely mentioned as a problem. Most possibly because adults had a much more relaxed attitude about sleep in general.
Sleep at night was not as ultra-consolidated as it is now. Could you imagine a time where you might get up at midnight, tend to some chores, tell a few jokes to your spouse, and go back to sleep? Taking a nap was the norm for everyone. Artificial light was not polluting the senses and overstimulating parents and infants.
Fascinating, that there was once a time when we didn’t carry out a specific recipe of winding down our kids. Everyone used to just go to sleep, and it was simple and natural.
Roaring 20′s Sleep: Interestingly, it was not until the 20′s that sleep and babies became a topic worth any real discussion, coinciding with the popularity of caffeinated beverages and use of electric lights. Stress disorders were becoming more prevalent as people were having a hard time acclimatizing to the demands of modern society.
Regulations of school and working hours meant that naps were no longer an option for most, and humans were required to seriously begin consolidating their sleep to specific times. Pediatricians began upping their recommendations of the hours of sleep babies required. Teddy bears were invented, as the original “lovey” to assist with involved bedtime rituals that parents were advised to practice. Let the sleep wars begin!
Time was speeding up, and of course modernization and inventions from radio to television kept appearing. There was more and more stimuli to be recovered from in order to achieve optimal rest.
Babies being made to sleep independently grew more and more the norm, as the parents wanted to plug into these new distractions rather than simply resting while the baby did. The “problem” got worse, and the literature on how to best treat it, so evolved. Behaviorists began prescribing strict schedules and lack of affection, to toughen up the child and prepare them for the “real world”.
A child was considered wild and unruly with the parents role becoming to “break” them as you would a horse.
The Spock-era and Sleep
Dr. Benjamin Spock emerged in the late 40′s, and his recommendations and books, such as “Baby and Child Care” were hugely influential throughout the next several decades. He was the guy who told our parents to put us to sleep on our stomachs so we wouldn’t choke on our vomit. While considered a softie compared to his predecessors, he wrote the following
in regards to getting your baby to sleep:
“Three to four months old… She almost glares when her mother sits down for a well-needed rest, as if to say, “Woman! Get going!”. Her parents say her lids often close And her head droops as they carry her, but as soon as they start to lay her down she wakes up with an indignant yell…
The cure is simple: Put the baby to bed at a reasonable hour. Say goodnight affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don’t go back…”
Coming full circle
As I said in the start of this post, we have now sort of come full circle. Behaviourists gave way to developmental science, with Dr. William Sears becoming the most trusted source for baby-care advice.
“The Baby Book” written in 1993 introduced Attachment Parenting as a “high touch style of parenting to balance the high-tech life of the new millennium”. Many still Influenced by the Spock-generation and aforementioned behaviorists are still finding the concept of “belief in the language value of your babies cries” taboo, or even unrealistic.
And so it goes… more and more working and buying stuff, and the filling up of every second –and less and less time to BE.
And now that we are here where we are — I am asking if the answer is to ignore all we are learning about the science of infant sleep needs? It does not exactly fit in to our current culture and societal demands.
So do we harden our hearts when every fiber of our being is telling us to go to our babies at night? And at what cost? Thanks to developmental science we now know that conventional sleep-training is a band-aid “quick fix”. We now know that the approach is similar to crash dieting for weight loss – it gives us quick results, but is in-effective long term, can actually have a detrimental effect, and often needs to be repeated.
So to keep up with the times, do we enforce stricter schedules on when our infants sleep and nurse? Do we need to continue living full speed ahead? Or is there, maybe, another solution or strategy to allow the baby and sleep stuff to happen with ease and grace?