The power and purpose of sleep

At the end of the day, baby whisperer Dorothy Waide is convinced of the power and purpose of sleep - for babies and parents alike. 

Confused by conflicting advice, people often ask me for the rules and regulations regarding sleep. The reality is the amount of sleep a baby needs differs from human to human. But what I can say for certain is that sleep is important to a baby’s development. Vitally important.

As a guide, most newborns will sleep approximately 16 hours in a 24-hour period, but this will vary from day to day. Some babies need more sleep, and others not so much. How well your baby sleeps will influence your baby’s feeding rhythms, thus having a significant effect on you and your family.

Some parents assume that their baby instinctively knows how to establish healthy sleep patterns, but in my experience, newborns need guidance to learn how to self-settle, resettle and sleep soundly.

By the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake; and overall a child will spend 40 per cent of their childhood asleep. Sleep is especially important for children as it directly affects mental and physical development.

Power and purpose
In society we talk about food as a nutrient, but it is important to understand that sleep is also a nutrient and is as vital to your baby’s wellbeing as food. Neuroscientists have found that much of your baby’s complex brain development occurs in the weeks immediately before birth and continues at an extraordinary rate throughout the first year of life – much of it while sleeping. At no other point in our lives does this staggering level of brain development take place.

Understanding your baby’s sleep cycles will help you deal with challenges in establishing a healthy sleep pattern. Your baby’s sleep is composed of light (or Rapid Eye Movement, REM) sleep, and deep (non-REM) or 'quiet' sleep. During the light sleep phase, your baby’s brain is exceptionally active, processing the day, storing information and dreaming. Their bodies become immobile, and their breathing and heart rates are irregular. It is during the deeper sleep cycle that blood supply to their muscles is increased, energy restored, tissue growth and repair take place, and important hormones are released for growth and development.

Your baby eases from one sleep cycle into the next somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes. For some babies, digestive issues wake them around the 20-minute mark. For others, the process of passing from light sleep to deep sleep wakes them. Babies who do not progress beyond the threshold of light sleep often fall into a pattern of short sleep cycles (catnaps) and frequent feeding cycles. For example, a baby may sleep for 45 minutes or less, and then wake up crying. New parents may respond by getting them up to feed – assuming that sleep time is over, rather than giving them
a chance to resettle. Unfortunately, catnaps and frequent feeding inevitably produce an overtired, over-stimulated baby, which compounds sleeping and feeding issues.

During their first three months, babies spend about half their sleeping time in each of the sleep states, compared with one fifth for adults, and their sleep cycle is around 45 minutes. At about six months of age, REM sleep makes up about 30 percent of sleep. This explains why babies wake so easily compared to adults.

Surviving sleep deprivation
Sleep is a nutrient for parents as well as babies, and is important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, just like food and exercise. Lack of sleep may lead to mood changes, health issues, reduced energy levels, and can affect one's concentration.

Sleep deprivation is a big issue in parenting, and even more so in today’s busy society. It can have a considerable impact on the family unit but is often overlooked. Parents frequently feel like it is just a part of being a parent, and that they just need to get on with it, but sleep deprivation can put both mothers and fathers at the risk of postpartum depression which, in turn, can affect their parenting. For fathers working outside the home, it can put additional pressure on their normal daily life, affecting essentials such as driving vehicles, managing workloads, and supporting their partner when they get home from work.

Coping with sleep deprivation is not easy, but some of my tips are as follows:

■   Sleep when your baby sleeps. It is amazing how a 'nana nap', power nap, or what I call a band-aid nap, can get you through. Some people find it difficult to nap during the day. If you're one of these people, then do something that helps you unwind. It can be as simple as having a relaxing bath, putting your feet up, watching television or hanging the washing out.

■   Adjust your way of thinking. Expectations and reality can be two very different things in parenting. While we're in the midst of sleep deprivation, it is easy to think that the grass is greener on the other side, and more often than not, your friend’s baby will seem perfect. If this is the case, and it is affecting your wellbeing, I suggest that you find someone who openly admits that they are on the same page as you, rather than comparing yourself and your baby, and having unrealistic expectations. There is no such thing as a perfect baby, and all babies are different. Also, remember babies are meant to wake overnight, and most babies are feeding anywhere from 90 minutes to around four-hourly in those first few weeks.

■   Stay energised. Stock up the fridge with snacks that are easy to prepare and easy to grab. Forget about cooking a three course meal, you're going to live on quick healthy nutritious meals for the next few months. Also look at enhancing your diet with supplements. This is one time of your life when your body needs a little help. Your body needs to be hydrated, so keep that bottle of water on hand and don't forget to drink it. Remember the sugar-loaded snacks will only give you a short-term buzz, whereas good healthy snacks will keep your energy balanced.

■  Accept help when it is offered. In the ‘good old days’ new parents would usually have their families around them picking up the slack. These days our families are often miles away, and it's perfectly okay for support to come from neighbours and friends.

Adopt an 'it's okay' mantra
It’s okay:
■   if the house is a mess
■   to still be in your pyjamas at 3pm, or all day
■   to stipulate visiting times
■   to turn away visitors if you’re not up to it
■   to refuse to wake your sleeping baby just so visitors can have a peek
■   to ask house guests to wait on you, rather than the other way around
■   to request visitors wash their hands, or use hand sanitizer before holding your baby 

Remember, parenting is a lifelong journey, and parenting to sleep is part of that journey. There is no right or wrong way, but there are easy and hard ways, and the best thing about parenting is that you can’t fail. Hold onto these thoughts, especially on those tough days, and you will get through to the next day. 

Dorothy Waide is a baby consultant, Karitane Mothercraft nurse and member of the OHbaby! panel of experts. She is the author of You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn. Visit her at or ask her a question in our Experts section. 



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