Sleep and New Motherhood - Expectations vs Reality

In Western society we are utterly obsessed with sleep and ensuring that we get enough of it, something that does not mesh well with new parenthood. Babies are not designed by nature to fit in with our pre-baby sleep schedules, and for good reason. A newborn's stomach capacity is minimal (initially just 5 - 7mls - not much more than a teaspoon!) and babies readily metabolise breastmilk. Therefore, in order to thrive and receive the numerous benefits that breastfeeding offers, newborn babies need to feed very frequently, day and night  (something which is clearly in conflict with many parents' expectations around sleep).

The term 'feeding on demand' bugs me. Babies don't demand, they communicate a need. No limits ought to be placed on a baby's need for food or comfort. In fact, it seems crazy that the term 'demand feeding' came about in the first place. Of course  babies should be fed whenever they need to be. This is the norm. If feeding terminology is required it should relate to those who deviate from the norm ie. scheduled feeding or restricted feeding.

And what is this ridiculous adult notion that babies need to learn to 'self-settle'? Many adults experience times in their lives when even they struggle to settle back to sleep when they wake in the night. Perhaps there's a lot on their mind, perhaps they are sore or uncomfortable, perhaps they are too hot or too cold, perhaps they are hungry, or maybe they are frightened or lonely. If adults struggle to return to sleep under such circumstances, why on earth would we think it should be any different for a completely dependent baby?

At the time of birth, all a baby has ever known is what it experienced in its womb world... the sounds of its mother's voice, heart beat and swishing blood; the warmth and security of its mother's womb; automatic nourishment through its umbilical cord; and gentle rocking motions when its mother moves. It's hard, impossible even, to imagine how a baby 'feels' about the new world it is birthed into. Undoubtedly though, a newborn is comforted by that which is familiar and instinctual to them. Cuddling close to its mother allows the baby to experience warmth, to smell and hear her familiar sounds and reassuring scents, and to instinctively suckle at her nourishing breast. 

Why then, does Western society deem it appropriate to subject babies to a sleep space which is devoid of these simple comforts? Surely mothers instinctively want their baby nearby at night so they can listen to their reassuring breath, and feed and comfort them when they're unsettled. But it appears that the mother's need for sleep and/or the pressures placed upon her by others outweigh this important mothering instinct. And when their baby tries to communicate their needs, mothers are often encouraged to ignore that desperate, primal urge they feel to comfort their baby. Leaving a baby to 'cry it out' is viewed by many as an appropriate way to teach a child to self-settle. Initially they come to self-settle through exhaustion (from prolonged vigorous crying), then they start to self-settle because they have learnt that no matter their needs and how hard they try to communicate them, they are not being heard, they are alone.

When parents appreciate the injustices behind such practices they will often choose to have their baby sleep with, or near, them (something termed co-sleeping). The sleep deprivation that accompanies responsive parenting is hard. Nobody said being a parent was going to be easy. But the reality is that our babies need us - day and  night. Ensuring we get adequate sleep when our babies are little can seem like a futile objective. And because leaving our babies to cry goes against every mothering instinct we have, many of us feel resigned to months or years of sleepless nights and exhausted days.

How then, can families, communities and society in general assist mothers in their need for important, re-energising, milk-producing down-time? Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions around this: 

  • Help parents-to-be to develop realistic expectations around babies sleeping and feeding needs and patterns.
  • Acknowledge co-sleeping as a positive, safe and healthy option, and educate families about the benefits of having their baby sleep close by its mother. 
  • Share our experiences of the ups and downs of new motherhood with other mothers in an honest and supportive manner. 
  • Lobbying government to increase paid parental leave following the birth of a baby.
  • At a more local community-based level: prepare meals for households with a new baby and offer to run errands for them, such as helping out with household chores and offering to take older children to school, playcentre etc. 
  • Encourage new mums to take advantage of supportive mothering groups, such as local La Leche League meetings, baby-wearing groups and home birth coffee groups. 

When we enter new parenthood with realistic expectations and we are supported to parent our dependents in loving, nurturing and intuitive ways, it becomes easier to accept the sleeplessness that accompanies our experience. It doesn't mean that we consistently feel 'on top of things' (far from it!). But it does mean that we feel reassured in giving our children the loving care that they are unreservedly entitled to... that they need.