Wednesday, July 29

The Science of Parenting: Sleep and bedtimes

Baby often looks the most angelic when she is asleep. New parents dream of having a baby who is able to sleep through the night as soon as possible. It is a great challenge taking care of a baby who is distressed and have difficulty in sleeping. The chapter on sleep and bedtime presents the latest scientific thinking on the subject of where and how your child should sleep and looks at current research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The most important thing that you need to remember is you need to make your baby/child feels that all is well in her world at bedtime. When you succeed, you will prevent stress chemicals from being activated in the brain. That will leave her feeling very safe and loved as she sleeps and you can sleep tight too.

Facts about baby/child and sleep

  • Babies are awful sleepers. Period. Accept this and you will stop seeing a wakeful baby as some kind of parental failure.
  • The following have been established in research:

    1. Babies are prone to wake far more than adults – average cycle for them is about 50 minutes versus 90 minutes for adults.
    2. Persistent or recurring infant sleep problems in the preschool years are very common
    3. Approximately 25% of children under 5 have some type of sleep problem.
    4. Up to 20% of parents report a problem with infant crying or irritability in the first 3 months of life.

Your task:Calming the brain at bedtime

  • Primary goal: Bring your child down from super alert state by activating the calming brain chemicals, oxytocin and melatonin (sleep hormone).
  • Most likely way of achieving this is by establishing a soothing routine.
  • Whatever you do stay calm. If you are uptight, you can't expect yourself to calm your child. Your tone is everything. Your stress and anger can activate the alarm systems in your child's brain, making her feel unsafe to go to sleep.
  • Snuggle up and read a story. Your body contact with your child will activate oxytocin in her brain, which can make her feel sleepy.
  • Try and set up the atmosphere – dim light, soothing music.
  • Avoid giving food that will keep the child awake such as protein food like meat or fish and chocolate (stimulant) 2 hours before bedtime. Offer carbohydrate food like banana as it activates serotonin which can help make her feel sleepy.
  • Avoid activating the FEAR system in the lower brain. Keep a nightlight, comfort and assure him, or pray together.
  • You may choose to lie down next to your child while he goes to sleep. No talking when you do it. Pretend to be asleep yourself. The skin-to-skin contact will regulate your child's bodily arousal system and strengthen the bond you share.
  • Allow your child to tell you what her fears are concerning sleeping.


  • Extensive research shows that safe co-sleeping can be a real investment for your child's future physical and emotional health.
  • It provides a baby with a sensory rich environment because of the touch, movement, smells and sounds.
  • Skin-to-skin contact throughout the night helps to regulate a baby's immature brain systems.
  • Thermal synchrony happens where the mother's body temperature regulates baby's temperature. For instance, if baby is too cold, the mother's temperature will rise 2 degrees to warm her. Conversely if the baby is too warm, the mother's temperature will lower by 1 degree to cool her. Pretty amazing huh?
  • Co-sleeping means hours of extra body contact. The more touch a child gets in childhood, the calmer and less fearful he is likely to be in adulthood. The physical contact helps to regulate the stress response system in the brain.
  • Some studies show that children who have never slept in their parents' bed are harder to control.

Risks of co-sleeping.

  • Research indicates that the fears about suffocating the baby is unfounded. In fact co-sleeping seems to bring a higher degree of maternal vigilance.
  • If you intend to co-sleep, it is important that you become aware of SIDS and what you can do to minimize the risks.
  • Research around the world shows very low rates of SIDS in countries where co-sleeping is common, for example in Asia. One study showed that only 4% of Asian babies sleep alone.
  • SIDS is caused mostly by unstable breathing and an immature cardiovascular system. Being in close bodily contact with the mother stabilizes a baby's heartbeat and breathing.
  • When do you stop co-sleeping? It's up to your discretion.
  • Studies show that the majority of preschoolers need an adult next to them until they fall asleep, and most come to the parents' bed regularly for comfort. Such is the power of the lower brain's fear and separation distress systems.

All about Sleep training

  • Sleep training is often done because parents and their child are in need of sleep. It is vital for physical growth of the baby as the growth hormone is only released during sleep.
  • When you decide to sleep train, make sure you don't use a method that involves prolonged crying, even for a few nights.
  • Eventually children will grow out of separation distress and until them it is crucial that you meet their distressed states with reassurance and comfort.
  • Why the “cry it out” technique is not good? It may achieved the goal of the baby sleeping but it is at a high cost.
  • Because she went to sleep stressed from the desperate crying, she may wake up frequently in the middle of the might.
  • Baby sleeps eventually more because of the exhaustion, which also means that she sleeps with elevated stress levels. Studies show that after being left to cry, babies move into a primitive defense mode and this results in an irregularity in breathing and heart rate and a high level of cortisol.

Kind sleep training – the safe and no-cry options

  • If your child follows you out of the room, reassure him that he is safe and that you will see him in the morning. Don't ignore and leave him to cry. Repeat the assurance as often as needed.
  • Avoid sleep training that is based on a deal to leave the door open. This activates fear of the door being shut. Repeated activation of this system in childhood leads to anxiety disorders in later life.
  • Use science to inform your methods when it's time for your child to sleep on his own.
  • When it time, it's been shown that acoustic presence of the mother can effectively bring down the stress chemical levels. Give your child a tape recording of your voice, or favourite story.
  • Your smell can also trigger powerful positive feelings. Give her something to hold in the night that smells of you. With baby, place near her a soft piece of cloth with the smell of our breast milk can be highly effective in settling her.
  • Make your child's bedroom a special sanctuary where she loves to be.
  • Encourage your child to have a cuddly toy which also activates comforting brain chemicals.

After reading a few chapters of the book I find that there is a main theme running through - that is your baby/child behaves in a certain way because her brain is still developing. As such, it is crucial that parents do not blame themselves or be frustrated with the baby when he/she seems to "not cooperate". Patience and knowledge of what is going on helps to activate the frontal part of parents' brains so that we do not trigger our own reptilian and mammalian brains!

Next up: Dealing with challenging behaviours.

If you miss the previous summaries on Science of Parenting click here and here.

P.S. Your discretion is advised.

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