Behind Babies Bedtime Behaviour

10/09/2015 10:58 BST | Updated 09/09/2016 10:12 BST

Babies' bedtime behaviour can be very confusing and frustrating - mainly due to unrealistic expectations, conflicting advice contained in parenting manuals, and of course all the information available on the internet.

Here we look at some of the frustrations that I commonly see when working with parents and ask Suzanne Slade, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist to explain the science behind your baby's behaviour.

Q: My baby wants to party all night!

Are you slightly miffed that your little bundle will not magically go bed at 7pm and sleep through the night, leaving you feeling like a Mom-bie? If your baby wakes regularly during the night you might be wondering whether there is something wrong with your baby or your parenting!

A: Long ago, our ancestors walked on all fours, and gave birth alone with little difficulty. The evolution of our species towards an upright walking position changed the shape of the female pelvis and narrowed the birth canal whilst increased head circumference accommodating a larger, more intelligent brain required a shorter pregnancy to enable successful childbirth. Human babies are very dependent, unable to move or defend themselves. It is therefore no surprise that newborns need so much care around the clock, requiring almost womb-like conditions - a '4th trimester' where their needs are instantly met.

Babies' sleep cycles are shorter than adults and their tummies are small, requiring frequent feeding both day and night. The ability to sleep in longer stretches corresponds to a developmental stage and babies' bodily responses to day and night (known as circadian rhythms) do not fully mature until they near their first birthday.

'Going with the flow' is a good mantra for those early weeks, and as babyhood progresses, a consistent, loving bedtime routine can establish good sleep cues. Getting out and about, exposing your baby to daylight can help melatonin secretion from around three months of age and help them to distinguish night and day.

Q: My baby will only sleep or settle on me during the day

Does your baby fret or wake up as soon you put them down to make a sandwich or nip to the loo? And as soon as you pick them up they magically stop crying or fussing, so they must be manipulating you. Right?

A: Don't worry, your baby is normal! Even though society has evolved since the time of early man, biologically-speaking, human babies, like all other primates, are born with the expectation that they will be held closely by their Mothers most of the day and night, and their needs for food, warmth and comfort anticipated and met without delay. Being held helps babies to regulate their body temperature, heart rate and breathing and has ensured the survival of our species - Cave Mummy and Daddy putting Cave Baby to sleep in a cave next door invited threats from predators! Modern inventions like buggies and cots distance babies from the physical closeness they crave, and can prompt proximity-seeking behaviour like crying. Now, this doesn't make taking a shower alone any easier, but does help explain why wearing your baby in a sling whilst getting on with household chores (see here), or practicing safe co-sleeping (see here) could make life a whole lot easier!

Q: My baby won't self-settle and I end up feeding or rocking them to sleep

Many 'experts' assure us that we should put babies in their cot awake and that they must learn to self-settle because rocking them or feeding them to sleep will make a rod for our already sore backs (from all the rocking!)

A: If you have a baby with a sleep problem, or rather, your baby has a parent with a sleep problem, you will undoubtedly have heard a lot about 'self-settling' or 'self-soothing'. Dr Google will have informed you this is something you need to teach your baby quick smart in order to get that coveted night's sleep!

Some methods of sleep training, rather than teaching your baby to be able to sleep, actually aim to stop your baby signalling their distress. Studies show that although extinction methods such as controlled crying or 'crying it out' may work in the short term (the baby learns to give up hope and that signalling their distress is pointless), internally their anxiety (measurable in heart rate and hormone levels) remains high. The unintended consequence is that distrustful that their needs can or will be met, babies can become more demanding and 'clingy', not less.

The simple truth is that babies cannot be taught to self-soothe. The ability to manage emotions develops in the first years of life through being in a relationship with a loving caregiver who is responsive and sensitive to a baby's whole range of feelings. These early experiences quite literally build the foundations, neurologically, for a secure, happy child.