Does the Culture of Baby Sleep-Training Aggravate Postpartum Anxiety

Macall Gordon, a senior lecturer at Antioch University and a certified sleep coach, possesses a wealth of experience counseling numerous new parents throughout the past year. These concerned parents reach out to her seeking guidance on establishing a favorable sleep routine for their 3-week-old infants. They eagerly inquire about the existence of a magical solution that would enable their child to slumber peacefully through the night without instilling undesirable habits. As she astutely observes, many of these parents find themselves “all wound up in knots.” Amidst these discussions, an important question arises: “Does the culture of baby sleep-training aggravate postpartum anxiety?” Understanding the potential impact of prevailing sleep-training practices on postpartum anxiety can shed light on this intricate topic.

It stands to reason. You may find carefully curated postings about how to quickly get your baby to sleep through the night by following any baby-related account on Instagram.

Awake times. Naps. Things to do before bed. Swaddles. The Garb of Merlin. The Snoo, or shared sleeping. Comfortable slumber. It’s a case of too much data. It’s tempting to subscribe to a plan that says you’ll sleep for eight hours a night within eight weeks and has a “success rate” of 98%.

I did. As a mother of two young children under the age of two and a devout nine-hours-a-night sleeper, I implemented sleep routines for both of my daughters, and they were successful; after about 12 weeks, both of them were sleeping for 12 hours straight (with the typical bumps along the way, of course).

What I don’t always mention, though, is how much my anxiety was exacerbated by my obsession with achieving “perfect” baby sleep.

I know I’m not alone.

Experts worry that the lucrative newborn sleep industry, complete with courses and consult calls, may be contributing to more than just sleep deprivation among new mothers. So, people still call Gordon and other sleep doctors all around the country.

The Spiral Climb to Perfect Sleep Schedule

Being a new parent is hard on sleep schedules. In fact, sleep loss is a significant independent risk factor for postpartum mental health problems. It’s a risk factor for postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety (PPA), the two most common forms of mental illness among new mothers. Rates of PPA have also risen during the course of the pandemic.

Postpartum anxiety is typical to some degree. A new mother’s brain goes into high-alert mode after giving birth. New York reproductive psychiatrist Dr. Lucy Hutner says, “We naturally start to think, ‘Is the baby OK?'”

Anxiety might also make you feel like everything needs to be labeled. Even though there is no manual for parenting, some parents find that sleep training courses help. New parents stick to routines with the firm belief that things will get better if they do so.

Dr. Hutner believes that the message that “you have to do things one particular way and you have to do it perfectly, or you’re not a good mother” might make people feel “vulnerable.” No one is actually stating this, but those are the inferences that can be drawn. A prescription for increased worry is to superimpose a fixed or “perfect” concept on the vast array of shifting circumstances that occur after childbirth.

Another problem is that most of the promise-laden advice on sleep nowadays is based on one’s habits. What you do as a parent and how your infant reacts to it are given considerable weight. Experts say it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of self-blame and frustration when you believe your baby’s sleep is contingent on your own activities and conduct.

Worse? It’s natural for parents to worry that their children won’t sleep well or that they’ll fail if they don’t follow a certain set of rules. Many parents who hire her as a sleep consultant believes in behavior-based sleep techniques “like gospel.” The time goes by, and they forget about the baby. It’s as if they have no faith in their own ability to make choices.

The Real Story Behind Why Babies Don’t Sleep

Putting an infant to sleep hasn’t always been so fraught.

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, a psychologist, researcher, and lactation consultant, says that night wakings are typical, healthy, essential, and protective for infants. It’s illogical to believe that strictness and control are necessary.

Young infants require constant feedings. Like you, they continue to wake up occasionally, even after they’ve outgrown the need for frequent feedings in the wee hours. Some infants continue to experience nighttime awakenings well into their toddler years. Self-soothing is a real thing for these creatures. It’s not always possible.

Babies in different parts of the world and at different times in history sleep in diverse ways and with different patterns, as shown by an anthropological examination of the phenomenon. Babies typically don’t have a lot of trouble sleeping in societies where people tend to just go with the flow.

One of the country’s leading specialists on newborn sleep, Dr. Jodi Mindell, has said that modern sleep programs cannot be directly compared to one another. Dr. Mindell claims that his many years of study and practice have shown certain things. Babies benefit from early bedtimes, consistent bedtime routines, and the ability to self-soothe. Babies require a set number of hours of sleep every day, albeit this quantity varies widely. Even though naps are typically spread out evenly throughout the day, that schedule may not be optimal for your baby. Babies, like adults, have their share of sleepless days.

It’s also important to remember that sleep therapies only seem to be successful for about half of the infants in most trials.

Not only do a baby’s behavior, development, and physiological changes affect sleep, but so does the baby’s temperament (which can be extremely varied) and the family’s values.

Let Yourself Off the Hook

Dr. Kendall-Tackett overhears my 8-month-old daughter crying just before I hang up with her. That period of sleep deprivation right after giving birth? They’re not easy. It’s helpful to have assistance in getting to sleep (maybe someone to keep the baby while you snooze or to help with nighttime feedings so you can get some rest). It’s restorative.

The most important thing to remember, though? Dr. Kendall-Tackett emphasizes that you and your kid are unique individuals with specific requirements and preferences. Despite the appealing marketing techniques and lofty promises of a sleep regimen, there are no guarantees when it comes to baby sleep, despite the appealing marketing techniques.

As the brain matures, so does the ability to sleep soundly. Around the third month of life, most infants start secreting the sleep hormone melatonin. And keep in mind that you can’t force a baby to sleep, no matter how well you prepare them for future sleep. Sleep serves a physiological purpose. It’s only a matter of time.

It’s not comforting to be reminded of that when you’re suffering from sleep deprivation, but it would be nice.

And ultimately, being a new parent is about navigating: learning, getting to know your baby, and picking up and dropping things as you go. Finding a pattern that works for you and your child is very different than being home for naptime because you know no one will sleep in a stroller and then beating yourself up over it and being obsessed with your child’s sleeping habits. The distinction between believing something works for you and it doesn’t is also significant. If you’re not creating an issue, then you’re not creating a problem.

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