I’m sure you can guess what my answer is to this question, since I am, after all, a pediatric sleep consultant. I tend to put a high priority on sleep and am, in my humble opinion, justifiably passionate about its benefits for babies.
But is my passion for sleep clouding my view on this matter, or is there evidence to support my position? Oh, I am SO glad you asked.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that feeding our kids a healthy, balanced, varied diet is essential to their well-being. I might even go so far as to say that it’s the single most important factor when it comes to our children’s health.
But sleep is, if not equally as important, a very close contender. Childhood obesity is a huge public health issue, and kids who are obese grow into obese adults, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the myriad health issues that come along with obesity. (But just in case you’re not familiar, they include diabetes, heart disease, all kinds of cancer, osteoarthritis, and joint inflammation, just to name a few.)
But what does sleep have to do with obesity? Again, I’m glad you asked.
A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health looked at the average number of daily hours of sleep that kids between 6 months and two years old were getting, and then compared those results with their occurences of obesity. The children who got an average of less than 12 hours of sleep a day were over twice as likely to be obese than those who slept for 12 or more. A much larger study done in the UK showed similar results.
With all of the health issues, as well as the general quality of life concerns that come along with obesity, it seems to me that sleep should be a major concern for parents.
However, every day I hear people advising new parents with what I’m sure is meant to be reassuring rhetoric, but I must admit, given the evidence, I find it really upsetting.
“Babies sleep when they want to sleep. Don’t force it.”
“Not sleeping is totally normal for a baby.”
“Just follow your baby’s lead. They know how much sleep they need.”
Can you imagine this same kind of talk if it was concerning baby’s diet?
Babies know what’s healthy to eat. Just follow their lead.”
“Eating chocolate is totally normal for babies.”
“Kids will eat when they’re ready. You shouldn’t schedule mealtimes.”
If you heard those words coming out of anybody’s mouth, you would immediately qualify them as a lunatic, and you certainly wouldn’t listen to their advice on your kids.
As parents, we all obviously want our kids to live healthy, active lives, and we want to give them every advantage to ensure they get a good start.
Making sure they get enough sleep, and teaching them solid sleep skills, will go a long way to promoting their overall health down the road.
P.S. I'd love to hear your thoughts on sleep & health. Comment below!
At the risk of generalizing here, it’s been my experience that there’s usually one parent who handles the bulk of the nighttime responsibilities.
And that parent, in a man/woman relationship, is almost always Mom. Now, before you go accusing me of sexism of stereotyping, I’d just like to point out that there’s a reason this happens. As a sleep consultant, I don’t get called into situations where both parents are contributing equally, and where baby’s not relying on any external props, and everyone sleeps soundly through the night.
Anyone who calls a sleep consultant in that situation either has money to burn, or has mistaken me for a dream interpreter.
I’m usually contacted by parents who are having issues getting their babies to sleep, and that’s almost always because baby’s got an external sleep prop that they use to get back to sleep when they wake in the night.
And the most common prop I see, by far, is nursing, which pretty much leaves Dad out of the equation.
Now, this is a problem for a couple of reasons. Obviously, if baby’s waking up six times a night and demanding Mom come in to nurse her back to sleep, that’s taxing on mother and baby.
But there’s another person who tends to suffer in this scenario, and that’s Dad. It might be hard to imagine, if you’re currently reading this in the middle of the night with a baby hanging off your breast, listening to your husband snoring contentedly from the other room, but it’s true.
Dads, the vast majority of them anyway, want to be great dads. They want to have an active role in bringing up their kids, and they love it when they feel like they’re succeeding in that role.
But because Mom is the one with the magical breast milk, Dad often feels powerless to help out in the sleep department, which means Mom’s up every time baby cries, and Dad, while sympathetic, can’t do much but go back to sleep.
This can lead to some hostility from a sleep deprived Mom, who feels like she’s doing more than her share, and some defensiveness from Dad, who gets to feeling attacked for something he has no control over.
But here’s the good news for both of you… If you’ve decided to give sleep training a try, it often goes better if Dad takes the lead.
That’s right! Take a load off, Mom. Dad’s taking point on this one. Because Dad doesn’t nurse, and baby knows it. So when it comes to breaking the association between nursing and falling asleep, baby tends to learn quicker and respond better when Dad comes into the room during the first few nights of baby learning to fall asleep independently.
Here’s the funny thing. Whenever I drop this little tidbit on couple I’m working with, Mom lets out a big woot-woot and teases Dad about how he’s much fun he’s going to have getting up six times in the night.
But then, night one, as soon as baby starts to cry, Mom shoots out of bed and goes straight into baby’s room. Or even more regularly, Mom stands in the doorway instructing Dad on the right way to settle Baby back down, and corrects him every step of the way.
I have literally sent full-grown women to their rooms in this scenario. If Dad’s going to get involved, him and Baby have to find their own rhythm, and Mom needs to have little to no part in it. And as much as they always say they’ll have no problem letting their husbands take the wheel, when it comes down to the moment of truth, many women have trouble giving up control.
So remember, Dad might just be the magical solution to your baby’s sleep issues, but you’re going to have to let him take over. Take heart though. Most of my clients see dramatic improvements in their baby’s sleep in just a couple of nights, so you won’t have to control yourself for long.
After that, you and and your partner will have the evenings back to yourselves, and your whole family can get back to sleeping through the night.
P.S. Do you think you could get your partner involved in sleep training? I'd love to hear your comments below!
Jo Anna Inks
I help tired, frustrated parents get their babies sleeping through the night and napping well so everyone in the family can get the rest they so desperately need!