I’m awake writing this during the biologically normative and healthy stages of first and second sleep. Research has revealed that right up until the advent of electric light, humans normally experienced two distinct segments of sleep.
Art Yuen is the KnowledgeBase Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International (API), a member of API’s Board of Directors, and an API Leader with API-NYC in New York City, USA, where she lives with her 2 children and husband.
Factory work, made possible with light, further compressed and consolidated work and sleep hours in industrialized nations. Normal sleep biology has been affected by these modern trends, so it should be little surprise that millions of adults now rely on medicated solutions for sleep to accommodate modern concepts of productive time.
It’s also little surprise that to achieve our quota of sleep, our babies must go along with these modern trends. It’s no longer acceptable for babies to literally sleep like babies. Most parents can attest that this phrase is an ironic fallacy, but nevertheless, there is a distinct infant and young child sleep pattern that fosters health and our society has co-opted that, too: Instead of allowing infants to sleep like they should, our modernized society has notions about the way infants “should” sleep.
The infant sleep-training industry has been happy to “help” parents train babies to adapt to this biologically foreign sleep pattern, just as we parents have adapted to our own unnatural sleep habits.
Are Modern Sleep Patterns Healthier?
It would be interesting to discover a study that investigated possible links between infant sleep-training and later adult sleep difficulty. To date, there are no studies that have examined this. Are we literally setting ourselves up for maladaptive sleep patterns from birth? Maybe not — we can’t know, with the lack of research into this matter — but since we’ve had 100 or so years to adapt as a species to this new sleep pattern, we can and should ask how successful it’s been for us: Has sleeping become more healthy over this time? Of course, GDP has been strong and we’ve been productive — and destructive, waging a few massive wars — but are we all healthier for it? Is our sleep healthier, or even healthy, as a result? Is anyone even looking at it?
Examining trends that qualify under the creep of cultural normalcy is like trying to examine the tip of your own nose without a mirror. Our perspective is never perfectly clear.
Consolidated sleep is a cultural adaptation that’s hard to examine with sufficient perspective, because it is not obviously something we would think to examine. We take it for granted.
Adaptations are not all necessarily good or healthy ones, and there are several examples of the way we’ve accumulated unhealthy habits that don’t seem to be immediately connected. Direct and immediate connections are not the only evidence that “normal” actions are “OK.”
As a nation, we’ve suffered untold illness — much of it related to our abundant food supply and our taste for sugar. It’s hard to wrap our heads around how this happened when many of us would argue that there has “always” been this much sugar in our foods. Yet looking at food over a few generations reveals the truth of our diet shifts that match the health curve.
Not all adaptations are beneficial, nor then, are they instantly or clearly maladaptive. This is a difficult challenge.
The Dependence of Healthy Infant Sleep Patterns
If we take a holistic view of the sleep question, we have to ask how successful and beneficial it is when we discover the “normal” situation of medicated sleep and the reach of adult sleep difficulties into so many lives. Is it “normal” that we should let our babies cry to sleep at a point when they most need short-interval feedings and physical contact with us to stimulate growth hormones? What’s the cost to them when we force them to adapt to our needs versus us to their needs?
Infants are notorious for explosive growth and, as most parents know too well, developmental stages are each marked by corresponding, changing sleep patterns. Like the children they are a part of, no 2 sleep patterns are identical.
Healthy infant sleep patterns — like teething, crawling, bipedal movement, and language acquisition — are the very biological developments that unfold independently over time.
Being helpless, infants necessarily must adapt to their environmental conditions. Their dependent state is augmented by a nifty alarm system they use effectively to call for help: their cry. Ignoring a crying baby is akin to letting the battery go dead in a smoke detector. What would be the point? It’s true that the reason for some cries for help is not as urgent, but our response should never be that we give up looking for smoke.
Babies have their own unique sleep needs that change and respond to their unique needs in a period marked by the most rapid biological growth and development across the human lifespan. Why would we dream of forcing them into our own inappropriate sleep patterns for the sake of our own cultural maladaptions? What is lost when we do?
Combining Adult Structure With Infant Sleep Needs
Adult structure helps by recognizing and providing the time, space, and conditions for an infant to sleep and rest, but doing any more would be akin to trying to force teeth to appear in different places in the mouth at different times.
Cross-cultural studies of sleep have demonstrated time and again what we already know about biologically normative infant and child sleep patterns. Why do we continue to ignore it? Cosleeping and breastfeeding have been species-biological norms from time immemorial.
Light bulbs, alarm clocks, factories, and offices are new cultural inventions that require a whole new sleep-industrial complex to maintain. Taking it all into consideration, there is no question of adaptation. Listening to our babies causes us to take pause and ask ourselves: At what cost to our health and well-being do we continue to believe that our sleep is adaptive, and at what cost to our child’s health and well-being are we forcing them to do the same? What growth do they forgo?
Attachment parenting resists a one-sleep-fits-all solution and instead offers a multitude of potential sleep solutions that can accommodate working parents and infant development. All-inclusive sleep solutions with an infant will necessarily change and will necessarily be unconsolidated if we remain responsive to our babies in a healthy way.
The Sticking Point for Parents
Often in our culture, it is true that parents find themselves in the very difficult place of making sleep-deprived family sleep choices without support. It is also true that in defending their choices that run counter to what is culturally prevalent, parents respond and react more defensively.
But if we follow evidence-based normal human development, early independence is a fallacy. We find instead that parents and infants are designed to be in close contact, breastfeeding and sleeping in intervals that begin at 2 hours and then slowly stretch out over time. If this were somehow maladaptive or unhealthy, we simply would not be here to tell the tale.
This fact leads us to grapple with our culture, our beliefs about it, and the parenting choices we make. Looking again cross-culturally, we can still find cultures that honor biological sleep needs and, perhaps as a result, have less need for infant sleep-training. I wonder if the sleep medication rates differ there, as well? Either way, a good night’s sleep need not be cookie cutter to be beneficial.