I once babysat for a family who could not get their baby to sleep. They had experimented with every strategy they could think of - lights off and sound machine on, walks in the stroller, car rides around the city. All in vain. One particularly desperate afternoon, the family drove around Boston for well over an hour in an attempt to lull their wide-awake baby to sleep. Later that day, they confessed to me that they had been paying large sums of money to an in-home ‘sleep coach.’
The more I babysat for this family, the more I heard about this sleep coach and the advice she was giving. Each tidbit would leave me with a feeling of unease. Her advice included directives such as, “Leave your baby alone at night for increasingly longer periods of time, even if they’re crying, to help them learn to self-soothe.” Not reacting to a baby’s cries did not feel right to me, although I couldn’t articulate why at the time. After a quick search on Google, my skepticism was confirmed; there is no specific training or certification required to become, or to proclaim oneself, a sleep coach. But some parents are so desperate for a good night’s sleep that they’ll pay up to $7,500 for one.
There is a better route to rest for parents and their babies. This route is not based in the $325 million sleep industry but in biology. Shifting one’s perspective on sleep from a behaviour to be taught to an instinctual biological need can radically transform sleep outcomes. This article will guide you through this shift and leave you with several effective, research-backed ways to improve your baby’s sleep.
In order to learn the best practices that will lead you to a well-rested baby (and a well-rested parent), we’ll start by learning the biology of sleep. Sleep is an essential human function, like breathing or digesting food. If humans go without sleep for too long, we become paranoid, hallucinate, and even enter psychosis. In order to survive, our ancestors had to prioritize and learn how to safely engage in sleep. Life in the Stone Ages was little more than a game of eat or be eaten, and sleep was a dangerous part of that game. When we are sleeping, we are at our most vulnerable.
Some species of mammals, called cache mammals, address this problem by keeping their young sheltered together in safe places, like nests or dens (think birds and rabbits). Mothers leave their young in these safe places, confident in their security, to hunt for food. When mom returns, her sleeping babies wake, safe, sound, and ready to eat. Although this type of living may sound pretty close to modern human living - we are sheltered together in houses, occupy ourselves with household tasks and daily chores while our babies sleep in separate rooms - humans aren’t biologically cache mammals.
Humans are carry mammals, meaning we are hardwired to protect our vulnerable, sleeping babies not by keeping them sequestered in a nest, but by constantly keeping them physically close. This physical proximity ensures that the mom can always meet her baby’s needs. Instead of mom leaving to collect food, she already has a supply of breastmilk to feed her infant as often as needed. Carry mammals develop rapidly, so constant access to a quick snack is a must.
Feeding is a natural way to induce sleep, one you are likely already familiar with. Who doesn’t want to curl up on the couch after a big holiday meal? Feeding and sleep are so intertwined that mothers naturally produce melatonin, the sleep hormone, in their breastmilk at night. Biologically, our minds and our bodies need to feel safe, secure, relaxed, and tired in order to fall and stay asleep. A full belly helps support these needs.
The final thing our bodies tell us about sleep is that we are not naturally wired to sleep a full eight hours at once. This is the reason so many people have to fight the urge to take a nap at 2 pm. Sleeping for eight consecutive hours would have left our ancestors too vulnerable and our babies too hungry. Instead, we naturally shift between states of sleep and wakefulness as needed. These 1 - 4 hour periods of sleep do not happen exclusively at night, especially for babies. Periods of wakefulness and sleep are highly variable and individualized. When young infants are able to follow their unique biological rhythms of sleep, the result is high-quality sleep, which directly supports their rapid rates of development.
You may be wondering, if this pattern of sleep is so natural, then why did we move away from it in the first place? The answer: the industrial revolution. This time period brought about such massive shifts in our culture and society that today, in order to survive, people must work through the day and sleep only at night. Vice versa if you’re working the night shift. This restrictive pattern of sleep is in total conflict with how humans have been sleeping for hundreds of thousands of years.
Because of this shift in how families provide for themselves, parents no longer have the luxury of being constantly available to their babies. These forced changes in human behaviour transformed our overall infant care patterns and perspectives. Fast forward to today and we are told that responding too often to a baby’s cries will ‘spoil’ them and that by 3 months, babies should ‘sleep through the night.’ Trying to meet these unrealistic expectations puts unnecessary stress on mothers and babies. Of course, there is no blame to be placed on any individual mother or caregiver for following the status quo - if this is all we know, how could we do anything else?
So, what does all of this mean for a tired baby born in 2022? It means that both you and your newborn already know the secret to sufficient sleep. It is not a one-size-fits-all, poster-worthy piece of advice, but a shift in how you perceive your baby and your relationship. A shift back to biology.
Although life today is far different from our ancestors’ world of curling up in caves and sleeping in shifts, the best route to quality sleep is listening to what our carry mammal bodies have been telling us since the Stone Ages: to respond gently and consistently to our babies’ needs and to keep them physically close. A third, just as important biologically-based impulse is breastfeeding. Not every mother can or has the capacity to breastfeed, however, and focusing on our other instincts can still get us to where we want to be - asleep.
Let’s begin by destroying some myths: babies can be taught to self-soothe and crying is a misbehaviour that can be unlearned. Both well-known “facts” are untrue. A baby left alone in a room who finally quiets after 15 minutes of wailing has not experienced a successful “lesson learned” in self-soothing, but an extreme distress response. This response is an activation of fight or flight instincts. You know, those same instincts that blare the alarm when a bear bares its teeth at you. The truth is, when you clutch the baby monitor, willing yourself not to console your crying infant because a blog or sleep coach told you not to, you are fighting against your biology.
The consequences of ignoring your biology can be severe. Your infant quieting while you ‘wait it out' is, in reality, their body shutting down, resigning to the fact that mom is not going to respond to their prolonged distress. Babies who stop crying as a result of sleep training have the same high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as when they were teary. When they eventually fall asleep, the sad reality is that their body has simply run out of energy. Crying is a late signal of need and is one of the first ways your infant knows how to communicate with you. It is not a misbehaviour, and your responding consistently to your baby’s cry is not a slippery slope to a ‘spoiled’ child.
Now that we’ve debunked these myths, let’s talk about what our bodies are telling us. Recent research has shown what happens in infants’ brains when we listen to our intuition and lovingly respond to our babies. According to this 2017 study, the chemical response in babies’ brains during loving parent-infant interactions can “open perspectives” and “initiate dialogue between science and humanities, arts, and clinical wisdom.” Pretty profound for a scientific study. This bond between a baby and its caregiver is natural, yes, but it must be intentionally nurtured to flourish. Nurturing your relationship with your baby by thoughtfully tuning into and gently responding to their needs is called co-regulation.
Co-regulating with your baby is essential because, compared with other carry mammals, humans are born particularly underdeveloped and cannot yet regulate their own physiology or emotions. Co-regulating helps your baby to eventually learn to self-soothe, the supposed goal of many sleep-training methods that fall short and leave parents stressed and dissatisfied. When done correctly, helping your baby learn to self-soothe is a much more introspective and interactive process than sleep-training methods such as “positive routines with faded bedtimes.” Co-regulation starts with parental self-regulation. Here is more about self-regulation, and here are ways to practice self-regulation. Mothers who feel self-regulated have the capacity to tune into their baby’s external cues because they are in tune with their own internal cues. How can we expect to be in tune with our baby if we aren’t even in tune with ourselves?
The key to learning your infant’s cues is to slow down and observe your baby. Watch curiously and be ready to make mistakes. Every kick of the leg, turn of the head, and smack of the lips is a message from your baby about how they are feeling and what they need/want. Picture a 3-month-old flexing her hand above her eyes. She is showing you that she is interested in her hand. In response, you might playfully grab her hand, thinking she wants you to engage in this way. But baby instantly startles and bursts into tears, so you soothe her until she is again happily fascinated with her hand. Slowing down, you notice that baby’s eyes seem to linger on her fingers, and you try again, this time gently brushing your fingers against hers. Baby smiles and reaches toward you. And, like this, the instinctual dance continues, both you and baby learning and bonding tiny moment after tiny moment.
When caregivers prioritize co-regulation, it has a positive effect on all areas of development, including, of course, sleep. This prioritizing can look different from family to family. Anything from a five-minute, fully present moment with your baby to an entire morning of engaged play makes an impact. Think about it - if your child knows her cues will be read and her needs will be met, she can relax and not expend her limited energy on a distress response. Instead, she can use it to begin developing skills, like self-soothing. She feels relaxed, safe, and secure in her environment, so she learns actively and sleeps deeply.
Co-regulation is not a quick-fix, miracle solution that will immediately solve all your sleeping woes. There is no such thing, despite what some sleep coaches advertise. Co-regulation is a process that, when engaged in, leads to a well-rested, emotionally regulated baby. The earlier you engage in this mindful tuning in, the more prolific the impact. At the same time, it is never too late to start. The impact of co-regulation will always be positive and lifelong.
As we know, to fall and stay asleep, we need to feel safe, secure, relaxed, and tired. Like feeding, physical closeness, or the snuggle instinct, is an intuitive, natural way to help your baby feel this way. It is so natural that it extends beyond just a mother’s instincts; when anybody holds a baby, they get a chemical rush of oxycontin or the ‘happiness’ hormone. But there is more at play here than happiness. As mentioned, human infants are born less developed, and consequently more vulnerable, than your typical carry mammal. We are born without the ability to regulate even basic functions, including temperature, breathing, emotions, feeding, sensory processing, and circadian rhythm. Wow! Your baby relies on you for just about everything, not just diaper changes and feeds. This is why the urge to snuggle is particularly strong for mothers - extended physical closeness with mom meets a lot of these needs. In other words, being near Mom and feeling her heartbeat, her body heat, the rhythm of her physiology, helps newborns begin to regulate their own internal processes.
In some non-Western cultures, instinctual carry mammal practices of always keeping the baby close are still in use today. In Mexico and Guatemala, for example, infants are constantly carried by their mothers in shawls. In Native America and Canada, furs were used up until the 1950s. Today, caregivers from around the world use mei teis, baby carriers that originated in China, to carry their children while performing daily tasks. But how do we integrate physical closeness with our newborn into our 21st century, everyday lives? This integration can take many forms and, like co-regulation, is all about finding what works for you, your baby, and your family.
If using a baby carrier sounds like a viable option for you, this is an excellent way to ensure physical contact without needing to schedule it into your day. If the baby is wrapped snugly against your chest, she can drift between sleep and wakefulness at will while you go about your daily activities. This way, you get your work done while she gets hers done. Ah, the good old days, when our job descriptions were nothing more than eating, sleeping, and pooping.
Another easy-to-integrate approach to physical closeness is co-sleeping. You sleep anyway, so why not sleep with your baby? There is, however, controversy surrounding co-sleeping. Co-sleeping can be completely safe or highly dangerous, depending entirely on the environment and conditions of the particular parent and infant. Safety level even changes based on whether your infant is breastfed vs bottle-fed, so be sure to familiarize yourself with safe sleep guidelines before bedsharing. If these guidelines are carefully followed, bedsharing can help infants settle back to sleep faster and more easily when they wake, and even reduces the risk of SIDS. You don’t have to bedshare in order to co-sleep, though. Co-sleeping is defined as the parent and infant being within sensory range of each other, so having your baby sleep in a bassinet by your bed or next to you while you (finally) kickback to watch your favourite show is also beneficial. The main benefit of co-sleeping is supporting the physiological bond between baby and Mom.
If neither baby carrying nor co-sleeping work for your family, then the priority becomes maximizing moments you do have to be physically close to your baby. Have a five-minute break between Zoom meetings? Scoop up your baby and hold her close. Feeling exhausted keeping up with your newborn? Take a ten-minute break just to snuggle and breathe together. Are you an early riser no matter how hard you try to sleep for just one more minute? Take this opportunity to cuddle until the rest of the house wakes up.
The beauty in engaging in both co-regulation and physical closeness is that they are both practices that feed directly into each other. The more you co-regulate with your baby, the more you will naturally engage in physical closeness. The more you are physically near your baby, the more you will naturally co-regulate. And the more you do both, the easier and faster it will be for your baby to meet all the necessary conditions of sleep (feeling safe, secure, relaxed, and tired) because she has your direct support in getting there. Even when your baby wakes at night, which is completely normal and a built-in protection against SIDS, she will fall quickly back to sleep because she trusts that you will always be there when she needs you.
Shifting your perspective to listen to your biological instincts and prioritize these natural aspects of your relationship with your baby is conducive to better sleep outcomes for both of you. And the best part is, it’s free!
Inspired by a presentation by Kim Hawley (MA, MPH, IBCLC), a Holistic Sleep Coach, Lactation Consultant, and Peaceful Parenting Educator.