Don’t feed or rock your baby to sleep is common advice. A new take on the same theory suggests that this advice is flawed. As detailed here, the dominant theory is that feeding or rocking can become associated with sleep. The concern is that the parent is then required for the baby to resettle after every sleep cycle. This assertion is not necessarily warranted.
A new approach, called the Possums sleep intervention, suggests that the association between feeding, body contact, and sleep is biological, not learned. Rather than trying to break this very natural association, attempts should be made to retain the association between sleepiness and sleep. This is a very good point. When babies get sleepy while feeding or rocking, ripping them away in an attempt to lay them down “calm but awake” may build an association between sleepiness and sudden disruption and parental disappearance, and break the association with sleep. The possum sleep intervention authors argue that a disconnect between sleepiness and sleep underlies some adult insomnia, and may be problematic for infants.
The possum sleep intervention requires scientific testing, but fits with the research on a theoretical level. Recommendations for the first 6 months are as follows:
- Learn to interpret and respond as best you can to your babies cues.
- Don’t delay your response, or respond with something other than what your baby requests unless necessary.
- Encourage consolidated night sleep by setting the body clock.
- Provide sun exposure in the morning.
- Provide natural light and noise levels for all sleeps, such that daytime sleeps are light and night time sleeps are dark and quiet.
- Bring your baby along for pleasant, rewarding parental activities during the day to ensure sensory stimulation.
- Excessively frequent feeds may indicate a feeding issue – see a lactation consultant.
The possum sleep intervention does not aim to maximise the number of hours infants sleep at night but rather improve the quality of infant and parental sleep. This is a valid goal, but from a scientific perspective it may be hard to measure, and wouldn’t allow comparison with the sleep interventions already tested. The only testing of the approach to date did not include a control group. Therefore, the reductions in crying and improvements in the mother’s mood observed could just be due to maturation of the baby. I will post updates in the comments as they are released.
So where does this leave us in practice? Let’s assume that the possum sleep intervention receives some support. I believe it doesn’t have to contradict the advice of laying your baby down sleepy but awake, only moderates it. In the first 6 months, when your baby is sleepy, help him or her to sleep. If all the help required is placing him or her in a cot – great! Sometimes (or often), this will not work, in which case don’t beat yourself up about doing what comes naturally, whether that is feeding, rocking, or patting. As most experienced mothers will tell you, the same method doesn’t always work. Don’t limit your toolbox to cot-bound settling. This way you can retain the sleepy-sleep association and help your baby to experience a variety of sleeping conditions.
Have you fed your baby to sleep? How did that work out for you? Please share your experiences by adding a comment. Also, I have collated all my research on sleep. For a summary of what I have found see the sleep category page. To focus in on research-based practical approaches that are likely to fit with your family situation please consider the Sleep Options Wizard for 0-5 year olds.
Whittingham, K., & Douglas, P. (2014). Optimizing parent–infant sleep from birth to 6 months: A new paradigm. Infant Mental Health Journal. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21455