And it's not all bad news ...
One of the biggest issues a new parent has to contend with is getting much-needed sleep. It’s particularly frustrating when you hear of those miraculous babies that manage a solid night’s sleep from the get-go. Just to reassure you, although this is a true blessing, if your baby wakes every couple of hours you’re part of the majority — a global club of sleep-deprived parents.
For an exhausted mom or dad, getting a baby to sleep through the night can feel like the most exciting rite of passage in their child’s entire life. Yet, science tells us that there is some logic as to why our little ones wake up so frequently, according to a report by Patrick Smith for BuzzFeed.
“Human infants are not designed to sleep for long periods, it’s not good for them, and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is any benefit to anybody from having a child that sleeps longer and consistently,” shares Peter Fleming, professor of infant health and developmental psychology at the University of Bristol in England.
Darcia F. Narvaez, professor of psychology at Notre Dame University points out that no human being is designed to have a solid eight hours sleep. She reminds us that in pre-historic times, when our ancestors were busy hunting and gathering, they would catch a few hours of sleep here and there.
Narvaez also says that human babies aren’t necessarily ready for delivery at the time of birth. If you think about other mammals, they’re able to walk at birth, or at least stagger. Our precious bundles are still just that, precious. In fact, Narvaez goes as far as to say that a human newborn is still like a fetus at birth.
“So that means you want to keep that baby calm while the brain systems are finishing because they only have 25% of the adult brain-size developed, and a lot of systems haven’t set their thresholds and parameters yet. They’re expecting good care – like in an external womb or nest. We call it the evolved developmental niche or nest.”
Fleming also explains how biology has a lot to do with sleep patterns. Adults have 90-minute sleep cycles, whereas babies have cycles of only 60 minutes. Adults are able to get themselves back off to sleep far more easily than a newborn who might fuss and fidget, and then work themselves up into a panic.
And there’s even further logic to our babies’ nocturnal needs: Some babies tend to sleep all day long and then presto, it’s 6 p.m., the other kids need to eat and you’re absorbed in bath time and homework? Well, your baby knows that you’re around and able to offer him some attention.
As Fleming reminds us: “Actually, biologically, that’s a big advantage because they will have more attention from their two primary caregivers at that time of day than at any other, because there are fewer distractions. From a biological point of view what the baby is doing is completely normal and sensible. It just doesn’t fit in with our 21st-century expectations.”
Interestingly Fleming also points out that while our lifestyles don’t facilitate constant contact between mom and newborn, in countries in Africa and South America, a mother carries her baby with her all day. The baby nods off when they need to and they can breastfeed easily. While this might not make our lives easier, there is some sense to that tight bond from birth.
Now if all this science is not making you reach out and want to hold your newborn tightly, there are a few other interesting things a sleep-deprived mom or dad should bear in mind, and might make them even grateful that their babies are calling on them in the night.
Fleming found that there was a direct link between intelligence, mental health, and babies waking up. Your nocturnally active baby is more likely to have “greater empathy and more self-regulation, they have greater conscience, and one study showed they had more cognitive ability and less depression,” reported Fleming.
So when you’re nodding off to sleep at the same time your little one is crying out for you, take comfort knowing you’re helping them grow into emotionally intelligent adults. Alternatively, you might want to say a little prayer to St. Philomena, the patron saint of babies, to ask for a little help.