Let us assume you misunderstood your nice GP! As a bald statement, of course, this is not a true as 25 -60% of 6 – 12 month old babies are defined as having ‘sleep disturbance’ in most studies.
There are a few aspects worth discussing.
- It is true that after 6 months infants don’t need feeds at night physiologically i.e. they can survive without. But that’s not to say that in your family, with your particular breastfeeding practice and bed arrangements that it’s not perfectly all right for you and your baby.
- Leaving babies to cry to self settle (so called ‘controlled crying’) is not recommended for a number of reasons one of which is, as your GP said “their brain development can be affected”. It is in their first year that babies create specific basic brain connections in response to being secure and loved – or otherwise being abandoned when the dark of the night comes. These beliefs (of being loved and cared for – or not) have the capability of lasting a lifetime. In addition these connections provide the underpinning of later connections to do with all the other so called ‘executive functions’ of the brain, the ability to organise thoughts and regulate emotion, for instance, that our brain needs to function efficiently.
- At six months babies start to develop ‘working memory’ hence the ability to learn things – especially things for which they are rewarded. So it is true that the more you feed them at night the more they will wake up for it. But that is no reason to abandon them to cry.
- If you want to continue just the way you are doing now, please do. Nobody will come to any harm as long as it is mutually satisfying and you can cope with the broken nights.
- If you would however like him to settle better, at six months you have your first opportunity. It is at this age most babies are getting their act together at night and they can certainly be helped in this ability by the following steps:
- Get to know their tiredness signs. By now these should be clear to you and very distinct. Irritability, distraction, yawning, and eye rubbing are among the most common.
- Arrange regular daytime naps. At this age most babies need at least 2 nap times of an hour each and should be offered them whether they are demanded or not. If the infant does not wish to sleep, the time should be a quiet, calm timeout. At this age good naps equals good nights.
- Too much daytime excitement can lead to night-time waking. So a busy schedule from the carer tends to lead to a wakeful baby later. Conversely a busy schedule of activity for the baby may make the baby more sleepy at night. Only trial and error will tell you what works for your particular baby’s personality.
- It is really important from this age onward to adhere to a bedtime schedule. This should be an enjoyable routine, looked forward to by the parent and infant and includes feed, bath time, perhaps a gentle massage, then reading, or gentle conversation. For a full hour or more before sleep time there should be no excitement at all.
- The infant should be put into a cot which is now exclusively associated with sleeping. Except on special occasions the child should always fall asleep in the same location as she will wake up.
- Ideally, he should be put down drowsy but awake. If possible there should be minimal fussing after tucking in. Unless it is your choice and the baby’s habit, once down, avoid rocking, cuddling or patting to sleep. And if it is, you have a choice to gradually (step by step, night by night) wean the baby off such input or continue it.
- There should never be TVs, computers or other screens in the bedroom.
- After putting him down, allow a little time for the infant to self soothe. If not settling, administer low stimulus soothing or lie with him for the minimum time necessary for him to settle.
- Any activities later such as nappy changing, should be done quietly, with dim lighting and minimal conversation
If transient problems occur, such as if the child becomes ill, or holidays intervene, don’t stress too much. Almost all children have short periods of sleep difficulties and as long as the parent does not reinforce the problem, they will soon disappear. So keep all interventions at a low-level with minimum stimulation and minimum reward.
There is more on this fascinating subject in my forthcoming book “Your Cherished Baby” (Pan Macmillan) out on 1st. August 2014.