Monday, November 28, 2011

Spirit-Led Parenting : The Upside of Up-All-Night

Megan is here today to continue our series on infant sleep! If you are in need of a positive focus during the sleepy days of nights of life with a newborn, here is one to think on.

I loved Laura's post last week on what we wish we had known about infant sleep with our first babies. In our culture, there is so much emphasis on when baby sleeps through the night that the importance of understanding how infant sleep is different from the sleep of a fully-grown, fully-matured, and fully-developed adult can often be overlooked. I think what she touched on in terms of differences in sleep preferences from person to person is so vital to this conversation as well.

"How is she sleeping for you?"

"You getting any sleep at night?"

"So, if she's three months old, she should be sleeping through the night for you now, right?"

These questions are all so common to the early months of parenting. Our culture places a high premium on sleep, and for good reason. Night after night of broken sleep for an adult results in long, bleary-eyed days. It can be so discouraging when you are in the midst of just trying to survive those days to begin to think that there is something wrong with your baby (or with you as a parent) if that gold standard for parenting success has not been achieved.

But what if we really stopped and thought about the biological benefits of all those nighttime wake-ups?

We talked last week about infant sleep patterns. For those of us who believe (as Laura and I do) that we are created according to God's perfect design, we can ask ourselves why would God design babies to have such different sleep patterns than we do? Well, just look at the multitude of differences between a new baby and his parents. He relies mostly on crying to communicate, his diet may consist solely of breastmilk which is digested quickly, he can't tell you if his nose is stuffy or if he is in pain from digestive problems, he can't tell you he is too hot or too cold to get comfortable ...

Nighttime can be an extremely vulnerable time for a baby, and we tend to think it's part of God's design for these littlest ones that they are so sensitive to their environments and what is happening in their little bodies that they are able to awaken easily to alert parents to a need that needs to be met. We don't think it's any coincidence at all that the phase of life when a baby's physiological (digestive, cardiopulmonary, etc) systems are the most immature and underdeveloped is also the phase of life when sleep is most filled with light (REM) sleep. Cycling more frequently into light sleep allows a baby to be more aware of his needs throughout the night.

Now certainly, there are babies who just sleep through the night early all on their own. Maybe you have one of those, and if so, you surely count yourself fortunate. As we look at our older children or our peers, it's easy to be aware of how different people are more sensitive to some things than others. My oldest daughter, Dacey, can go for hours and hours after waking up before she realizes she needs to eat. In fact, last Wednesday when she was out of school for the day, she didn't eat breakfast until 11 AM. Aliza Joy, our younger daughter, likes to have something to eat as soon as she wakes up. I absolutely have to sleep buried under blankets while my husband prefers just a sheet. My sister can't sleep at all if her nose is stopped up but it doesn't seem to bother me a bit. And so there will be babies who just aren't as sensitive to physiological needs throughout the night and there are babies who need a parent to help them meet a need and get back to sleep in the night.

So what is the upside in all of this up-at-night nighttime parenting? I think it helps to take comfort in knowing when baby is up at night, she is doing what babies are designed to do - growing, developing, and maturing. Though it is exhausting at the time, it's also kind of amazing to think about the way God builds in these survival mechanisms that are obvious even from birth. This is also why when it comes to discussions about sleep training, Laura and I are both very cautious about any training that takes place before a baby is six months old. The research indicates there is just so much going on with a baby developmentally in those first six months to take a chance on not attending to baby's cries. You might be wondering if we think cry-it-out sleep training is ever appropriate. You'll have to come back next week for our thoughts on that!

Have you ever considered nighttime wakings to be part of God's design for babies? Does this concept make a difference in how you view nighttime parenting?

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image source: nanagyei

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