The Underlying Benefits of Sleep Training
It’s so surprising to me how much ignorance there is around the importance of sleep. Before I got into this specialty, I thought I was a pretty good sleeper and knew the basics of good sleep hygiene. Boy, was I wrong! I naively assumed that if you had a few nights of poor sleep, you could just make up for it over the weekend with little to no effect. While sleep “debt” does accumulate and can be partially alleviated, it is not as black and white as we think. Extra sleep on a Saturday night isn’t going to make up for the multiple five-hour nights you had during the week. Small but constant deficits in sleep length and quality over time have been shown to have escalating and long-term effects on brain function. As important as cumulative hours are when it comes to sleep health, the timing and consolidation of sleep is equally as important.
If sleep is so important for us as adults, quality, consolidated sleep is equally if not more important for our children. Healthy sleep habits begin at birth and stick with us for the rest of our lives. It is important to establish good sleep hygiene early on.
Why is Sleep Important?
Sleep has been scientifically proven as necessary for brain growth and maturation – something that happens rapidly in infancy and childhood. In order to process all that we learn during the day, we need long periods of sound, consolidated sleep. Think about how much learning little ones do each day and thus how important sleep is to reinforce and imprint that learning. This is why our smallest babies require so much sleep – they are processing everything that they have seen, heard, and experienced in their short time being awake. As children grow, their stamina increases and they are better able to manage longer awake times, but sufficient periods of sleep remain necessary for optimal development.
Supports Behavioral Health
We also know that children who sleep better at night are more pleasant to be around during the day. They are more patient, less irritable, and generally have an easier temperament than children who frequently don’t get enough sleep. I’m sure you see this anecdotally in your home and don’t need a study to prove it! Healthy sleep certainly appears to positively impact neurological development and function and seems to be integral in alleviating and preventing many of childhood’s behavioral problems.
Reduces Stress & Anxiety
We know that sleep is important for familial sanity and wellbeing too. Studies have shown that infant sleep problems have a direct impact on maternal depression. We know that infants with depressed mothers often have higher overall cortisol levels which can lead to physical and behavioral issues later in life. We also know that maternal depression is correlated with emotional availability and attachment between infant and parent. Studies confirm that when an infant’s sleep improves, so too does maternal mental health. Many parents are concerned that sleep training will hinder the attachment between themselves and their little one. As is evident, the opposite is actually the case. A happier baby and a happier mom yields a happier, healthier relationship.
The scientific evidence is endless. Sleep is so, so important throughout the lifespan.
But, does that all have to change when you have a baby? Since you’ve brought a new life into this world, are you expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years in order to respond to your baby’s needs which, for some reason, they seem to have in spades in the middle of the night?
This, in my mind, is the most problematic myth about parenthood and one that needs to be debunked once and for all. Here’s the thing: your baby needs sleep even more than you do. Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes. Growth hormones are being secreted to help your baby gain weight, cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies, all kinds of intricate systems are working to lay the foundation for your little one’s growth and development. These systems will continue to work hard each night through adolescence, provided your child has the opportunity to get consolidated nighttime sleep.
This being my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well and that they should expect their little ones to be waking up several times throughout the night for years to come. I would just like to set the record straight here – that advice isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. Telling people to blindly accept their baby’s sleep issues as part of the “parenting experience” is preventing them from addressing a problem that can be a serious concern for health, emotional wellbeing, and development. Parents concerned about their sleep situation don’t just want to sleep late on weekends; they, and even more so, their kids, need adequate sleep for all the reasons listed above.
If your child is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you go in and rock her back to sleep, that’s not “motherhood-as-usual”. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping and it’s interfering with their body’s natural development. It’s no different than an ear infection or jaundice; it’s a health issue and it has a remedy. Anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next six years is, I’m sorry to say, peddling horrible advice. I’m sure it’s not done maliciously, but it needs to stop. Accepting inadequate sleep in infancy leads to accepting it in childhood and adolescence and, eventually, you end up with grown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it.
If your little one is not sleeping well, what’s stopping you from seeking out help? Let’s work together to make some lasting changes that will have a positive, lifelong impact on you and your little one.
If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!