Last week, we shared a first part about communication towards new parents, following an article by Ouders van Nu. Today we discuss the second half of that contribution.
The article also discusses sleep rhythm: it speaks about a ‘normal’ sleep rhythm. In line with previous questions: what is the definition of ‘normal’? Whose standard are we talking about in this context? English has two beautiful words that are often used: ‘normal’ and ‘common’. Many things that are ‘common’ are in fact not biologically ‘normal’ (according to the biological norm). It is important to make a conscious distinction in this regard. What we refer to as a ‘normal’ sleep rhythm is different for every culture. In many countries they take a siesta; in the Netherlands we don’t do that. Is it ‘normal’ to take an afternoon nap or is it normal to only sleep at night?
Every adult human being is different; every baby is different too. All patterns added together form an average (perhaps referred to as ‘normal’). Even if not one baby sleeps according to the average pattern, it can still be the average (this is math: add everything up, divide by the number of elements). You can try and steer this a bit, but you cannot force it. Some children are very active and curious and energetic (and therefore awake a lot) from an early age and other children love to sleep a lot. Either way, they all need a sense of security to confidently surrender to sleep. That safety lies mainly in your presence as a parent, in your ability to co-regulate your child, to be sensitive and responsive and to satisfy your child’s needs as best as possible. If you succeed in that, sleeping will usually not cause too many problems. And if your baby is awake a lot and needs you, that shows something important: it might not be such a good idea that parents are often expected to combine taking care of their child with all kinds of other urgent obligations. It may help us to realise that it may be time to reshape this (socially constructed, culturally coloured) pattern of care for newborn babies.
Always looking at the baby monitor as a problem: good point, to focus on your baby and not on technology.
etting your baby sleep with you for too long: all the aforementioned points apply again here. What is ‘too long’? According to whose opinion? On what basis can someone say it is ‘too long’? What objections can be raised against it? It is, as stated, certainly useful to have your baby close when you are breastfeeding, but that is partly defined from the perspective of the adult (namely the mother who is breastfeeding). What would happen if we gave all advice about babies and how to deal with them from *their* perspective, from the question of what *they* experience as nice or important or useful or reassuring or comforting? How can we estimate the importance of parental proximity and hearing them to *every* baby, not just the breastfed one? Who decided that at some point a baby *must* go to sleep in its own room? Who says so? For what reason? And why should that coincide with the parent’s return to work (with ‘taking care of a family’ seemingly not being defined as ‘work’)? When a (breastfeeding) mother picks up her work outside the home and the baby goes to daycare, the baby’s need for proximity to mom is often extra great at night. That is exactly for the reason mentioned in the article: babies feel safe when they know mom (and dad) are close. At night, they try to compensate for the separation during daytime. There are babies who then switch to ‘reverse cycling’: they drink little during the day, sleep a lot at daycare, and then make up for contact with their mother’s body during the night. Again, if we look at this from the baby’s perspective, this is completely logical behaviour. Your baby feels best close to you and will therefore try to realise this as much as possible. After all, your child is not focused on a career or other economic matters; your child just wants to be with you.
As a family, as parents you choose a certain nighttime sleep constellation. It is certainly true that children who enjoy this will probably try to maintain it. There’s nothing wrong with that and it makes perfect sense (as adults, we also do our best to keep what we like). However, there may come a time when one or more sleepers in the bed no longer like the situation. Then it is time to come to a different approach in good consultation and with gentle persuasion. Depending on everyone’s wishes, this will lead to a different solution. What parents choose will depend on the value they attach to nighttime contact, how much it disrupts or promotes their sleep, how heavily they weigh their child’s perception of safety, how easily the child can surrender to sleep, how much room there is in the house to do things differently, how the other children react to it… and whatever else you can think of.
In short: every family is unique. Every baby is unique too, but all over the world babies share the need to be close to their primary attachment figures, especially at night (mom, dad, grandparents, sibblings – all partly dependent on what the cultural habits are like). In the interests of baby’s needs, it seems desirable to take a broad perspective and to not persist in approaches that may be considered culturally ‘normal’, but about which science has gained new insights, in line with what we intuitively and instinctively already knew. We do not need to follow the advice of some experts without questioning it; after all, that little child, who wants to feel safe and thus lays a good foundation for a happy adult life, is not their child. It therefore does not make much sense and it is counterproductive to polarise between parent(s) and child in all kinds of media publications. That is also framing: picturing the child in such a way that it seems as if that child is a nuisance that you as a parent have to keep a little (a lot) under control, because otherwise you will guaranteed be in for trouble. Just as a fish cannot see the water in which it swims, we as humans often cannot see the strange habits of our culture. We grew up with it, were brought it up and are then stuck with it, sometimes from one generation to the next. If you’ve always believed that the people who told you certain things were right and you’ve built your own worldview around it, it can be a disturbing idea to step away from that image and say: “Hmmm… yes, now that I understand how that works with a baby or young child’s perception of safety, I can see that a lot of advice is not really useful or even harmful. Let’s approach it differently from now on!” That is often not easy, but it is a mature way of dealing with advanced insight: “I did not know it and I now see that it could be done better.” Especially people in a position with a large general audience bear a great responsibility in this regard. It is to be hoped that as a society we will have the courage to bravely shoulder that responsibility for the sake of our babies, so that they can grow up securely attached and healthy!