Psychology of Sleep: Where Science Meets Expectations
What does sleeping through the night actually mean? To some people, it means eight hours, 10 hours or even 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. I’ve even heard it vaguely defined as closing the door at night and not opening it again until morning. Medically speaking, it’s actually defined as five consecutive hours of sleep. But then comes the question of when does a baby start sleeping through the night?
Many sleep consultants have programs that are offered for babies as young as 13 weeks to start teaching the skills babies need to sleep well. However, there is more to it then this conception that babies can sleep through the night and that they need to be taught how. As a sleep consultant myself, I can appreciate that sleep is a very controversial topic these days, and leaves parents feeling confused, frustrated and anxious which leads them to seek advice from other parents and sometimes even strangers.
There are scientific reasons that babies wake in the night. We all know the physical inabilities — can’t change their own diapers or feed themselves — but what about rational reasoning abilities that have yet to develop? As outlined in the 2010 book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain by American psychologist Louis Cozolino, babies are born with a fully developed amygdala (the fight or flight instinct), but an underdeveloped hippocampus (regulates emotions) and prefrontal cortex (personality development). When they partially wake at the end of a sleep cycle and they don’t see their parents, they believe that their parents no longer exist. They don’t have the cognitive ability to understand that their parents are there even though they don’t see them. And they have no idea that they are actually safe. Therefore, naturally, their fight instinct kicks in and they cry out for comfort, security and reassurance.
So why is this scientific milestone that is explained due to brain development and growth, not accepted by society? By setting the standard high that a baby can and should sleep through the night by a certain age, we are setting our children up for mass production of cortisol (stress hormone), with the potential risk that we are interfering with the development and maintenance of our attachment bond, a known indicator of anxiety and other mental health concerns. Not to mention the anxiety and pressure parents feel and experience when their baby is not meeting the unrealistic set norm.
Our society and culture have set pretty high standards for babies and their sleeping abilities. This is understandable since you regularly see both parents in the workforce and requiring a good night sleep to manage the demands of a busy life. The important and forgotten factor here is that even though our current expectations have changed with society, the science of our babies hasn’t. We are accepting that it takes time for them to develop the skills to walk, eat with a fork and dress themselves, but why not sleep through the night?
We have fast-paced and very busy schedules that leave parents wanting and needing the sleep they had before they had children. This makes it difficult to find balance in getting the rest they need for their day while experiencing broken sleep due to tending to their young children at night. As a sleep consultant, I help parents to understand the science behind their child’s sleep behaviours, and help to reset expectations that are realistic. With a whole-family approach, the goal is to support families during exhausting, demanding and life-changing moments as their children require time to grow and thrive. Controlled crying or modified crying techniques fall under the umbrella of behaviour modification where my science-based beliefs do not.
There is a lot of overlap with sleep and emotional development, and the two areas are natural intersections. Understanding a child’s emotional intelligence will help you as a parent identify the underlying need behind unwanted behaviours like whining, difficulty with taking turns and sharing and tantrums. A deeper understanding of developmental norms will allow parents to adjust their expectations and better support their children to not only regulate their feelings but to communicate them in heated moments.
This article was originally published in the Holiday 2018 issue, where it incorrectly identified the writer’s scientific beliefs. The Holistic Parent apologies for this error.