Sleep, or rather lack of it, is at the forefront of many new parents' minds. Many will go to great lengths, trying increasingly desperate steps in the exhaustion and hope that their baby will reach the magical milestone of 'sleeping through the night'. But do any of these techniques really work? And is it really actually feasible to affect your baby's sleep at all?
Unfortunately in many cases, no. Some babies seem to sleep through at an early age, whilst others (most) continue greeting you at 2 am for longer. Why? Well, waking up at night is developmentally normal for a start. Most babies continue to do it throughout the first year and beyond, regardless of what some Facebook statuses might claim. As adults many of us still wake up at night but do not need the help of someone else to get us back to sleep in the same way babies often do.
Do solids encourage sleep? Unfortunately not...
One of the most common questions asked around sleep is whether giving a baby solid foods will help them sleep through the night. The idea that introducing solids to a baby early, or giving a baby more food, especially before bed will help them sleep is certainly appealing, but sadly a myth. Research has shown that it doesn't matter how much food you give them in the day, their sleep is unaffected. Likewise, trying to 'feed them up' before bed doesn't help them either. Nor the unsafe practice of putting cereal in a bottle. For a small minority it might appear to work but that is usually because they were due to start sleeping more anyway and we attribute our actions to this. On the flip side, others can react badly to food and actually wake up more due to pain and discomfort.
Why doesn't giving your baby solids work in helping them sleep more? Well, really, why would it? Even taking the idea that babies only wake up at night because they are hungry, typical weaning foods are not going to help. What often happens when you introduce solids is that your baby naturally cuts down a bit on their milk so you're back at step one. More milk - whether it is breast or formula - is actually one of the healthiest and easiest to give energy dense foods you can give a baby until they are ready for solid foods at around six months. And even then milk will still play a major role in their diet.
It's not all to do with hunger
But actually, waking at night isn't just to do with hunger. Newborn babies have tiny tummies so have to feed little and often. However older babies wake for all sorts of reasons, just like adults do. They wake because they are too cold, they've dropped a favourite toy, or they simply want comfort. Just because it is night time and we have socially constructed ideas that babies should be quiet and alone during this time, doesn't mean they have taken this on board. They continue to have needs that they need support with during the night.
Babies often have big leaps in their development in the early months and it seems to be that just before they accomplish something physical, they start waking up more. It's like their brain is in overdrive making all those new connections. This particularly happens around four months and research that tracks sleeping patterns shows that babies start to wake more at this time. This can mistakenly be seen as a need for solid foods but it's really more to do with big developmental changes. Wait a couple of weeks or so and the data shows they naturally start sleeping (a bit) more again.
The need to better support new families
Moving away from what is normal for babies, potentially the problem is actually not with their sleep but with our expectations and stressful, often isolated modern lives. In many cultures around the world it is completely normal for babies to share a sleeping surface with their mother and to feed at night when they wake up. Despite frequent feeding at night, mothers often don't perceive any issue with their baby's sleep and often don't even realize their baby has woken up as many of their needs are already met by being close and having easy access to food.
Now - of course we can't simply apply this to our high-pressured Western lives. We have alarm clocks, jobs to get to and often other children to care for - and likely in reality very few people who are going to practically come and hold the baby for us. Conversely in other cultures, caring for babies as a community and ensuring that their mothers are also looked after is far more common. It's little wonder mothers don't report such high stress, exhaustion and levels of postnatal depression in these societies as we experience. We weren't meant to do this alone. We weren't designed to wake up multiple times with our babies in the night and still go chair that meeting in the morning. As a society we were meant to mother our mothers (physically, mentally, economically) so that they can spend this relatively short period of time caring for their babies.
So yes we may crave more sleep. But unfortunately babies are still designed to wake up and solid foods won't help this. What we need to do is to look to how we support new parents. In Scandinavia maternity leave is longer and better paid. Partners have big chunks of time off too, alongside the mother so care can be shared. Mothering, parenting and families are better valued, better invested in and generally better cared for. We need a model such as this to ensure our parents aren't at breaking point.
Finally if you're reading this in a sleep deprived haze, waking as a baby or toddler has no relationship whatsoever with later sleep in childhood and may even be a sign of intelligence. This sleepless stage really will pass and in seemingly no time at all you will have the peace of a sleeping teenage. And then, in rose tinted, restful hindsight... you might just look back fondly on these early days when all they wanted was to be held by you.
Dr Amy Brown explores this issue and more in her new book Why Starting Solids Matters - published by Pinter and Martin