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Sleep and Babies

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Sleep is a primitive need we must fulfill. Parents know that. Why don’t babies and children yield to that need and go to sleep?

One reason, especially for newborns, is that they need to feed often. Feeding includes being picked up, held, cared for by an protective adult. That’s the other reason why babies and children wake up often. They sleep better when your body is protecting them.

Just as our brains are hard wired for sleep, we instinctively know we’re vulnerable during sleep.We stay partly alert to the chance that something will grab us. That’s our brains preoccupation with “Predation Risk”. This is not something you can talk or train yourself (or your baby) out of feeling.

In fact, an adult sleeping in a different environment gets less R.E.M. deep sleep than at home. Being in an unfamiliar setting, you are instinctively more vigilant. Many animals sleep with one eye open. Half their brain rests while the other half is alert. Then they switch sides and the other half rests. Animals can’t afford to be completely unaware of their surroundings.

Because of this predator risk instinct, babies need to feel, smell and hear you close by. “If you are protected and safe, you can afford to …konk out completely.” *. That’s why, as soon as your blissfully sleeping baby is a few inches from your chest, he wakes right up. Skin-to-skin means they’re safe and warm.

It will help to respect this ‘predator risk’. Co-sleeping may work well for some families. A good deal of study has been done on safe sleeping. James McKenna, PhD offers specific guidelines for safe co-sleeping based on his research at the Mother Baby Sleep lab. With this information, you can create a more comfortable sleep situation for your family. The actual predator risk may be minor, though the hard-wired instincts are major.

*From an RadioLab program program on sleep, with Dr. Charles Amlaner, Professor, Department of Ecology and Organismal Biology, at Indiana State.