Solihull Approach | Parenting


Baby sleep challenges for 21st century parents

Published 26 January 2024

Every baby is unique when it comes to their individual sleep needs

Sleep is fundamental to our physical and emotional health and wellbeing, a fact supported by our own individual experiences and decades of research. Most of us would agree that on waking from a restful night’s sleep, we can feel energised, think more clearly and are ready to take on the events of the day. After a disturbed night’s sleep, on the other hand, we can feel physically fatigued, mentally sluggish and our emotions can be more difficult to keep under our control.

As parents of a newborn or even with older children, sleep is most likely in the top three topics thought about day-to-dayWith the enormous amount of information available from family, friends, practitioners, the internet and social media you might think it would be simple to find a way for everyone in a family to get a ‘good’ night’s sleep. But as many would agree, it’s not that simple 

Sleep is complicated, its biological, its emotional, its connected to family practices and culture and its individual.  

Parents with a newborn generally expect changes to their sleep patterns and to feel tired in the first few months of their baby’s life, but in reality, how that looks and feels for each parent and baby can be very different.  

Feeding and sleeping in young babies are closely associated, babies wake to feed often and then fall to sleep during the day and night. How often and when a baby might feed and then sleep cannot be predicted before they are born. It’s widely accepted that a newborn might sleep between 8 to 18 hours over a 24-hour period and that might change to up to 12 hours in 24 hours by the age of 6 months. But while one baby might wake to feed every 1-2 hours, another baby might go longer or less between feeds and the frequency of feeding and periods of sleeping might change on a daily basis. This is why responding to a baby as an individual is so important.  

Watching and noticing any signs no matter how small and trying to work out what they might mean will give parent clues to help them consider the best way forward for their baby.   

As parents gather together information, they will be building an understanding of what their interactions with their baby might mean in relation to their baby’ sleep and their own.  

In the past, the focus of advice for parents to help their baby to sleep was largely on establishing routines, how much and how often to feed a baby and how to respond to a baby if they woke. For example, feeding was advised every 3 or 4 hours, having a strict bedtime routine from the start was viewed as vital and even leaving very young babies to cry to settle themselves if they woke was sometimes recommended. These practices were based on what was understood and believed to be helpful at that time. However, as with many things, we gain new knowledge and experience and that enables us to look back over what seemed a good idea at the time and move to a new understanding. This new learning can offer us a fresh perspective that will hopefully create sensitive and long-term health benefits for infants sleeping and overall well-being for all members of a family.  

Sleep advice for parents in recent decades changed significantly in a relatively short period of time. Messages about parenting, especially sleep, feeding and managing behaviour that were given to grandparents, may still be circulating in the world of childcare. It is therefore understandable that this can be challenging for new parents as they try to replace or merge different attitudes and information in the 21st century with what was once seen as firm reliable advice. And for grandparents whose intention may be to pass on their wisdom and experience to the next generation, it can feel like a strange, unfamiliar and worrying time.   

By bringing together discoveries from the different fields of sleep over the last 50 years we can better understand and respond sensitively to the sleep challenges of parents and babies. 

Sleep is a time of separation, where we enter our own world and a parent is central in communicating to their baby or child that sleep is safe and being separate is both safe and manageable.    

Parents do this in the way they respond to their baby’s cues, how they help their baby in the early months of life to make connections between the comforting feeling of being fed and the welcome sensation of slumber. It is these early experiences that lay the foundations of how we guide and prepare ourselves to fall asleep as a baby, child and adult.  

As babies develop, they have biological rhythms that change as they grow. Alongside their physical development parents are helping their baby to learn about what feelings might mean and how they can increase or decrease an emotion so they can manage it. For example, parents feed and soothe their baby to help them fall asleep. If they watch their baby for signs of when their baby can manage to do this for themselves and a parent sensitively allows their baby to do so, they are teaching their child to develop their own soothing skills. It’s not purely a one-way process, responding to their baby with empathy and care nurtures positive connections and emotion for parents too and develops their shared relationship. This is where present thinking differs from past advice. Parents have probably always known but may have not realised they knew, that it is not the instilling of a routine alone that helps a baby to develop a healthy lifelong sleep habit but the sensitivity of a parent or person caring for a baby or child to know when and how to introduce a routine that suits an individual child.  

For parents today, having the time and space to think about issues such as sleep can be a challenge. Family life can be busy and in recent years services to support parents have been interrupted. It is acknowledged if parents stop to talk to each other, with a family member, friend or professional about any aspect of being a parent, including sleep, it can be helpful. This applies across many aspects of parenting and the challenges facing modern parents. If there are sleep difficulties, finding an appropriate person who listens to both the issue and how it feels for a parent can provide an opportunity to explore the situation in a safe thoughtful environment.  

Understanding your baby and their experience of the world and how this connects to their emotional development has been proven to support parents looking to develop close, connected relationships that nurture their child to thrive. 

References and further reading

Helping your baby to sleep

The Solihull Approach have developed a free video library that addresses some of the most common sleep issues parents encounter in infants and young children under 5. You can see our resources by clicking here.

Mary Rheeston

Solihull Approach Manager

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