Why don't babies know how to sleep?
November 28, 2010 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Why do babies/young children need help falling asleep? Why do most of them need to be taught or trained to sleep through the night?

Of course there are those that do not, but for the most part, babies need assistance with overnight sleep. First, they are rocked and bounced and shushed and strolled. Then they get taught to fall asleep without movement in a safe bed. Still they wake up throughout the night, even after they no longer need night feedings. They are then taught not to wake through controlled amounts of comforting/crying. Or they co-sleep and get settled back to sleep by a parent. They wake up after 20-minute catnaps, to everyone's dismay. They have bedtime routines, stories, songs, baths... all to support healthy and solid nighttime sleep. Why doesn't solid sleep come as naturally as learning to walk does?

Has this always been the way, even before electric light? What would happen if a child was never taught to sleep? Suppose they lived in a community where some caring adult was always up, would sleep eventually consolidate on its own?
posted by xo to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What? No, no, it's not like this. They just nurse back to sleep. Eventually they outgrow that. In the meantime, that's what they're supposed to do. An anthropologist on this.
posted by kmennie at 11:12 AM on November 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

The idea that children need assistance with something as natural as sleeping and eating is contested. It seems that we, the grown-ups, need some assistance instead in un-brainifying and de-Spockifying the parenting experience.
See kmennie's link or this: Jean Liedloff's work. It's all about carrying your kids about and learning to understand their needs, and not putting them away to sleep. Link to the Liedloff Continuum Network here.
posted by Namlit at 11:35 AM on November 28, 2010

Their brains need to mature into regular sleep cycles. Babies do sleep lighter at first, and for shorter periods of time. I don't have the references at hand, but some researchers have suggested that the easy arousal is protective against SIDS. There's a region in the brain that may be involved, and may also be involved in sleep apnea in adults - the article was in Science or Nature 3 or 4 years ago (will repost if I can find it).

If there was a caring adult awake and at hand all the time, babies would still eventually grow into deeper sleep patterns.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:42 AM on November 28, 2010

Prior to 4 months old, babies production of melatonin is erratic and the resulting sleep cycles are unpredictable. This, along with the need to nurse (feed) at short intervals mean most young infants can't and shouldn't sleep through the night.

After about six or eight months, and certainly after one year, much of the waking at night and erratic sleep is the result of parents inadvertantly instilling in their child negative "sleep associations." These are the requirements any particular individual has for falling (back) to sleep. Things like rocking, patting, sucking on pacifiers, falling asleep in front of the television and being carried to bed, etc. All people wake occasinally through the night, it's completely normal. But if a child expects you to be there rocking them, or replacing their pacifier, or yes, nursing them, then they will protest.

The idea behind sleep training is to make a dark, quiet room and a safe crib THE sleep association - one that doesn't require the involvement of the parent to go back to sleep after those normal night time arousals. Consolidated sleep (i.e. long blocks of continuous sleep like overnight) are significantly healthier for children because they allow for a full progression through all the sleep cycles and the result is a genuinely well-rested child.

Sleep training, done well, isn't about forcing a child into sleep cycles that aren't appropriate for their level of neurological maturity (something which isn't even really possible).
posted by werkzeuger at 12:18 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm glad that anthropologist cited above by kmennie refers to Dr. William Sears, because I was going to do that.

Knowyournuts, that's just what the anthropologist (cited above) says, about SIDS, and makes the point that co-sleeping with a parent protects against the long, deep periods of sleep that, she says, are trained into kids who don't co-sleep. She says that, when you sleep with your baby, you're more apt to have a lighter-sleeping baby whose apneas you'll perceive and, presumably, interfere with. (who knows if this is true)

The point is that putting the kid in a separate room and having as your goal an uninterrupted 8-hour period of sleep is for the parents' convenience, not the baby's. The baby will eventually grow into mature sleep patterns no matter what you do.
posted by DMelanogaster at 12:23 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The above answers are all great, but I'd add that the modern affluent West is one of the few places in human history where young children are put to bed alone in private rooms, while other people may be awake in other parts of the home due to electric light. It's really only in the past 75 years or so and in certain technologically sophisticated parts of society that this has been much of a concern.
posted by Sara C. at 1:42 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: After about six or eight months, and certainly after one year, much of the waking at night and erratic sleep is the result of parents inadvertantly instilling in their child negative "sleep associations."

This point is the crux of my question. Why do the children get these negative associations so easily? They don't get stuck on crawling or eating mushy food or needing their hands held to walk, so why do they need special training in order to sleep in a consolidated block? I understand that a pacifier would be hard to kick, but being patted on the back to fall asleep seems more on par with having a hand held while going up the stairs.
posted by xo at 3:00 PM on November 28, 2010

I was told by a child psychologist that they literally have no idea what's happening and it's frightening. They might be dying. In utero, it's all dark and the difference between sleeping and waking is quite vague.

Once you've closed your eyes and gone to sleep a few hundred times, you're cool with it, but until you've figured out what's going on it's pretty scary. You could wake up anywhere or not at all, ever. Maybe you'll be back 'there'. Maybe you'll still be here. Maybe you've been thrust into the light only to be returned to darkness forever.

I found this idea comforting when the llama family baby was an infant.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:01 PM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

Oh, also, the myoclonic jerk? That thing that makes you feel for a terrifying moment like you're falling on your own mattress? That thing is freaking terrifying when you've basically been held in a toasty bag your whole life. Your limbs freak you out. Their reaching out and touching nothing freaks them out. Emptiness! The void!

It's really fascinating, actually.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:04 PM on November 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This point is the crux of my question. Why do the children get these negative associations so easily? They don't get stuck on crawling or eating mushy food or needing their hands held to walk, so why do they need special training in order to sleep in a consolidated block?

I think the distinction may be that walking is just an activity, while falling asleep is a complete transition from one physiological state to another. In order for that transition to happen, the brain chemistry has to be just right, and that means that there can't be too many stress/arousal hormones circulating that would prevent the transition into sleep. And alterations in the familiar make for stressful conditions, both for children and adults.

This isn't just a kid thing-- plenty of adults would find it hard to sleep with the light suddenly on, or with a different pillow shape, or with unfamiliar ambient noises. But children are probably somewhat more sensitive to their environments, so small changes stress them out more easily, and the stress/arousal creates a biochemical block to the normal process of falling asleep, or remaining asleep through a normal nighttime semi-arousal.
posted by Bardolph at 4:53 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The baby will eventually grow into mature sleep patterns no matter what you do.

I agree the average kid will self-regulate to some extent, but many grade school and adolescent sleep pathologies treated in pediatric sleep centers start as unhealthy sleep behaviors in early childhood. FWIW.
posted by werkzeuger at 5:23 PM on November 28, 2010

A Terrible Llama has some great insight. I would also add that depending on the baby's age, they're often way more interested in being awake and hanging out and looking at stuff than they are in going to sleep. Because, you know, STUFF! To look at!

Having cues that it's time to go to sleep can help babies ramp down from being awake and looking at exciting things.
posted by corey flood at 6:24 PM on November 28, 2010

They don't get stuck on crawling or eating mushy food or needing their hands held to walk,

Umm..sure they do.
Some babies never learn to crawl "right", some do the half-crab thing, some do the soldier crawl, some do the butt-shuffle.
Until my daughter learned to walk on her own, she never did grasp the concept of "hey, those hands are holding me up, I shouldn't let go".

And don't even get me started on using a bottle, something you'd think would be the most natural thing around.

The point is, babies need help with a whole bunch of things, it's just that the not sleeping through the night one has a direct and measurable impact on the parents quality of life, which is why you hear so much groaning about it.
posted by madajb at 7:41 PM on November 28, 2010

Also, it's worth noting that the term "Sleep Training" is a bit misleading. It's not like you're sitting there demonstrating technique with a clipboard and grading pencil. Much of what is referred to as "training" is really just aimed at providing a consistent and conducive environment for sleep so that the baby can figure out sleep on their own. By a certain developmental point, they are capable of putting themselves to sleep, provided that the environment, cues, and reinforcement provided by the caregivers allows them to do it.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:15 PM on November 28, 2010

I am not totally sold on The Continuum Concept or Our Babies, Ourselves - I think there's some wacky Noble Savage stuff happening, and some of it is just not true, like about African babies never, ever crying - but I do think that human babies arrive primed for a certain type of environment: being close to adults all the time, being held, sleeping near their mom, nursing on cue. Humans are really flexible, so if you decide to instead feed your baby on a schedule and have her sleep in a crib down the hall, your kid will be totally fine. But I do think that in many cases, you're going to find yourself working harder because of those choices.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:57 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most children do fall into what is percieved as the 'right' sleeping pattern. Some take longer than others and there is a widespread belief that all children should and can sleep through at x months. Talking about bad sleep associations is part of that belief. Baby anachronism still goes to sleep with someone around, or on the boob. Yet, most nights, she resettles without a problem.Sometimes when she wakes she has some more boob, or a cuddle, then goes back to sleep. According to sleep training, I have instilled a bad sleeping habit - the requirement of a parental presence. In my mind that isn't actually a problem and for the way we live it isn't a problem.
Eventually she will go to bed on her own. And sleep. Currently her developmental needs don't support that though - she still sleeps lightly, she still rapidly digests breastmilk, she still has a physiological need for adult contact.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:54 AM on November 29, 2010

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