23 Feb 2023

Sleep training benefits parents, not babies, says expert

From Nine To Noon, 11:20 am on 23 February 2023

Sleep training benefits parents more than babies and people should be wary of adopting rigid routines, according to neuroscience educator and parenting expert Nathan Wallis.

Babies are expected to sleep through the night early for cultural reasons rather than scientific ones, he says.

Image of a yawning baby wearing a knitted grey beanie hat tucked into cot with white teddy bear poking above the sheet.

Photo: Minnie Zhou for Unsplash

“When you see how rapidly the brain grows, especially in the first year of life, the emphasis to get the baby sleeping through the night is not really founded on science. The brain’s growing so rapidly, the baby's probably at a huge advantage to wake up four times a night and be topped up with breast milk to help that rapidly growing brain.

“There’s a thing in our culture that says the earlier you do things the better, so if your antenatal class gets together after the baby's born there tends to be an unspoken competition over whose baby is going to walk first. And unspoken competition over whose baby’s sleeping through the night first. The baby that actually walks first is probably the child that's most likely to be hyperactive in the group, so that's not really a competition you want to win.”

While good quality sleep is important for the whole whānau, Wallis says the baby’s needs should be prioritised.

“That first 1000 days of your life is so impactful on the rest of your life.

“Of course, mum and dad need to have some sleep to be able to look after all the other kids, but I don't think it's just a matter of automatically getting that baby to sleep through the night as soon as possible for the well-being of the rest of the family.

"We have to really put the wellbeing of the baby first, I think especially in that first year of life.”

There’s no scientific gold standard for how much sleep babies and children need, because different cultures have varying expectations, Wallis says.

“Scandinavian cultures expect their babies to sleep a lot, and they do correspondingly sleep much more than we see in the rest of the Western world. In Asian countries, it's much more normal to leave your children up to the late hours of the night.

"So it's really about just making sure that your individual child has enough sleep that they're functioning properly.”

Wallis says teaching babies and children to sleep through the night is more about linking sleep cycles rather than clocking up a solid eight hours kip.

“There's about three or four times a night where we come close to waking. What we've done as adults is we've learned to link our sleep cycles together."

Teaching a baby to do that means being close by to reassure them when they start to stir but before they fully wake up, Wallis says. 

“If you can get the baby to go back to sleep without being fed, then you're encouraging them to link those sleep cycles together.

"Whereas if they're down in a room down the other end of the house and wake up and start crying and you're trying to do the crying it out thing, that child's really learning to wake up fully in between the sleep cycle, so it's the opposite to what I'd recommend to do.”

Wallis participated in sleep training with his own children and says parents who have done it should not feel bad.

He recommends easing into a routine - starting with leaving the baby to cry for a minute, then a couple of minutes, then five minutes - rather than going cold turkey and letting them scream it out.

“It’s a multi-faceted thing… I'm not saying never to do sleep training, I just think the baby's needs are a wee bit more than other people's."

Getting support from whānau and friends can help ease the burden of sleep deprivation and the disruption of broken nights, he says.

“I wouldn’t immediately put the stress on the newborn baby. I’d try using other whānau networks and stuff first.

"But I know in the real world we have to compromise on all those things together, and come up with a solution that works for the whole family.”