Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sleep deprivation and crying babies

Sleep deprivation is no fun. As many people know, it has been used to torture prisoners for many years.  This is because sleep deprivation is known to affect cognitive abilities, judgement and the capacity to handle stress.  But it also has physical health consequences like increasing blood pressure and increasing consumption of food and appetite leading to weight gain.

 Sleep deprivation is no fun, and it is even less so if the cause of the deprivation is your crying baby.  The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne estimates that a baby of 6-8 weeks cries on average for 2-3 hours in every 24, generally in bursts interspersed by being settled.  Thus crying is a normal, natural part of a baby's life, but that may be small comfort to the parents of a young baby that cries frequently and for long periods.

For first time parents this normal behaviour can seem quite abnormal and can lead them to question whether there is:
  • something wrong with the baby
  • something they are doing that is hurting or in some other way, failing the baby.
Either way, they can lose confidence in themselves and in their ability to parent.  I think this has worsened as families have become smaller and  we have had less exposure to babies and young children as we grow.  The loss of confidence has also been made worse by the growth of such myths as:
  • babies sleep best in a room that is silent and dark;
  • picking up a crying baby will spoil it;
  • babies should not be allowed to cry as crying indicates that they are in need;
  • allowing a baby to cry may cause mental health issues in later life.
So why do babies cry?  They use crying to communicate in the early months. They cry because:
  • they are hungry
  • they are tired
  • possibly, because they have a wet or dirty nappy, although this tends to be a later reaction
  • their tummies are uncomfortable: colic, wind, digestive problems
  • simply because they can!
If the baby has been fed and is comfortable, put it down to sleep and if it cries, soothe it gently eg by rocking, nursing and patting.  There are many techniques for soothing a baby but for them to be effective, parents and caregivers need to sooth themselves, reassuring themselves they are doing OK and that the crying baby is not their fault.  Once this is done, it is possible to handle the baby calmly and with confidence, and the baby will eventually 'catch' the calmness and relax, generally drifting off to sleep.

And when the baby sleeps, new parents need to take very opportunity to catch up on their own sleep rather than spending  time on the computer, catching up with friends and doing the housework.  A rested parent is in a far better position to respond calmly and confidently to a baby.

Useful references:
Crying and Unsettled Babies, a fact sheet from the RCH
Unsettled/Crying Babies, Clinical Guidelines from the RCH
The Period of Purple Crying, apart from excellent information and advice, there is a section aimed directly at fathers.
Controlled Comforting, from The Conversation
Crying Baby and Newborn Behaviour, from the Raising Children Network

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