Ask the expert: Should I listen to my friend’s advice on my baby’s sleep habits?

When you become a parent, you can get bombarded by advice from ...everyone

 

Q We have a seven-month-old son who is very placid and content. He was breastfed exclusively up until we started introducing solids at 5½ months and two weeks ago, we started introducing formula feeds and weaning him off the breast. All of this is going very well.

Our concern arises over his sleep routine and, more specifically, our concern arises out of some family and friends’ views about appropriate sleep routines.

Our son has happily fallen asleep every night at the end of his bedtime feed at 7pm. He wakes at around 3am or 4am for a feed and goes straight back down afterwards (again, falling asleep at the end of the feed). He sleeps until about 7am or 8am. During the day, he will fall asleep in my arms after a cuddle and then I’ll pop him into the cot or if we are out he will sleep in the car seat or buggy. He has one or two naps a day. All of this works beautifully for him and for us, and he is very happy and never cries.

Recently people have suggested that allowing him to fall asleep in our arms at the end of his night feed or in my arms during the day is setting him up in a disastrous routine, one which will have a negative impact on him when he starts in the creche in a couple of months or when someone other than me and my husband are minding him. We have been advised to employ controlled crying or to put him down before he falls asleep.

Firstly, as he never cries, the thought of trying to make him cry to sleep is horrific to us. Secondly, he is very active and if we put him down partly awake, he loves to roll onto his tummy and then tries to practise crawling and wakes himself up.

He usually feeds until he is no longer hungry and that coincides with him falling asleep, so taking the bottle away from him is likely to wake him up (for example, if we try to wind him before he wants to be winded he reaches out for the bottle and is very determined).

My instinct is that what we are doing is working for our baby and we know how best to make him happy.

I am worried, however, that if we fail to take the advice being insistently provided to us that we may not be doing the right thing for our baby’s future needs.

AWhen you become a parent for the first time, you can get bombarded by conflicting advice from other well-meaning parents and family members. At the heart of this different advice is a “clash of values” about the “right way” to bring up children.

A common clash is between child-centred or attachment parenting and parent-centred or routine-based parenting. Attachment parenting is characterised by trying to respond to the baby’s needs immediately, feeding on demand, letting the baby share your bed and sometimes carrying the baby around with you at all times (sometimes called baby wearing).

The goal of attachment parenting is to create a mutually beneficial close parent-child relationship and to ensure the child’s emotional needs are met by the parent at all times.

Routine-based parenting is characterised by independent sleeping, building fixed routines for feeding and sleeping, and encouraging the child’s independence. The goal of routine-based parenting is to meet the child’s needs within the context of the parent’s life (thus ensuring the parents’ needs are met also).

Parenting styles

It is important to state that it is not simply a case of one parenting style is better than another and most parents try to work out a middle ground that works for them and their baby.

In my work with parents of babies, my goal is to help them understand their choices and to work out a delicate balance between their baby’s needs as well as their own needs as parents – in most of these situations I am advising them to follow their own instinct and this is the same advice I offer you.

You have a lucky situation with your baby son that is working well for you both. He seems happy, well attached and content. If the routine of your son falling asleep in your arms is working for you, then by all means continue it, especially if it is allowing you to enjoy your baby and feel close to him.

Changing times

Things change quickly in the lives of babies so his current sleeping routine could change of its own accord. Even if it doesn’t and falling asleep in your arms becomes a problem in the future, there are plenty of gentle ways to change this that don’t involve “controlled crying”.

These all focus on closely observing your son’s pattern of falling asleep and then gradually increasing his own self- soothing while reducing the support he needs from you.

For example, instead of holding him in your arms until he sleeps, you might hold him as you lie him in his bed and later hold him with only one arm as he gradually learns to sleep by himself.

In addition, you may wish to include his father in the sleeping routine – helping him learn to put your son asleep. This way, you are sharing the joys and burdens of parenting.

Transition

You mention in your question that some of the advice stems from a concern for the future when your son will start in a creche. This is an important transition which needs to be well planned for both of you, and it is worth taking time to find the right carers who provide responsive, consistent and close care for your son.

However, you may not have to change your own sleeping and feeding routine at home as he learns to adapt to a new day time feeding and sleeping routine in childcare. I would suggest that you cross that bridge when you come to it and work closely with his future minders to ensure he settles.

Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a workshop on “Creating Balance in Your Life” on Saturday January 9th, 10am-1pm, in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin 1. See www.solutiontalk.ie for details. For more Ask the Expert columns, see irishtimes.com