Baby and toddler sleep problems are rife in society today, but has it always been so problematic? Did our ancestors struggle as much as we do? Here are six reasons why twenty first century life may be causing problems when it comes to baby and toddler sleep - and how to avoid them.
1. Primitive Babies in a Modern World.
The babies of today have the same needs as the babies of a thousand years ago. Modern day life however couldn't be more different. As adults, our lives are complex and busy and we find it hard to balance this with the needs of babies at night. Frequent night waking, although normal, is hard to cope with when you have to work the next day and don't have the village of old to support you. This doesn't mean that our babies and toddlers have a 'sleep problem' though.
2. Electric Light.
In the late 19th century the first commercial light bulbs were created. What we gained in light we lost in sleep. Electric light sits very much on the blue colour spectrum, especially modern energy saving light bulbs and that emitted by screens such as TVs, phone and tablets. This blue light tricks our bodies into thinking it is daytime and in turn our optic nerves send messages to our brains to inhibit the release of melatonin, the hormone of sleep. The same chain of events happens when we use bedtime light shows, nightlights and light up thermometers in a child's bedroom if the light is blue, green, white or purple. The only colour light that doesn't negatively impact melatonin is red. The same colour as fire and candlelight, indeed the only light our ancestors would have used. Red light does not inhibit our body's release of melatonin and in turn our sleep. For this reason red is the only colour light that should be used in your child's bedroom at night, click here for some tips on sleep friendly lighting.
The ideal temperature for sleep is 16 to 18 degrees Centigrade. The body's core temperature needs to drop in the evening in order for the sleep hormone melatonin to be released. This should happen naturally in the evenings as the sun sets and the ambient temperature drops. Armed with only fire to warm the environment our ancestors would have slept in much cooler environments than us. Modern insulation and central heating systems however overheat the environment, with average bedroom temperatures sitting around 20 degrees. For better sleep we need to be more like our ancestors and have a cooler sleep space, by opening windows, turning down room thermostats and turning off central heating at least two hours before bedtime.
Thankfully modern medical research allows us give our children pain relief when they are ill or teething. Something not available to our ancestors. While the analgesia however may soothe pain and fevers, which in turn may allow our children to sleep more easily, many of them are full of additives which can interrupt sleep. Contrary to popular belief, sugar doesn't make children hyperactive and doesn't negatively impact sleep, but E-numbers, used for colouring and flavouring do. The worst E-numbers, and those to avoid, when it comes to sleep are E102, E104, E110, E122, E124 and E129. Unfortunately many common products used by young families include these additives, examples include Calpol and Anbesol teething gel.
Historically our babies have always been breastfed. If they did not feed from their mothers they fed from wet nurses (women paid to breastfeed the babies of others) but the milk they consumed was always human. Formula milk is a very modern introduction to humanity. Many, incorrectly, believe that feeding formula milk makes babies sleep for longer. While it is true that cow's milk is harder for human babies to break down and digest than human milk, research has actually not shown that formula fed babies sleep for longer. Breastmilk ingredients change over the course of the day. In the evening and during the night it contains melatonin, the hormone of sleep, as well as the nucleotides 5 AMP, 5 UMP and 5 GMP which all help to regulate sleep cycles and thus to encourage sleep. Formula milk, in contrast, remains the same whatever time of the day it is given.
6. Cots and Cribs.
Historically cots and cribs are a fairly new addition to child-raising. In many parts of the world they are still unusual and other cultures view Western culture as strange for wanting to separate parent and child at night. Our early ancestors, and indeed many tribes in the world today, slept in close proximity to their babies and toddlers, often sharing a sleep surface. Bedsharing, if done following safety guidelines, meets the needs for parental proximity that babies and young children have at night. In turn this usually means a better night's sleep for all.