The worst question to ask a new parent

I was scrolling through Facebook last week when I came across this post from Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Sleep Book. When I saw Sarah’s words, I almost cried with gratitude. For weeks I’ve been trying to write something about the crazy expectations around babies and sleep, particularly in the first year of life but have struggled to articulate my thoughts. Then, along came Sarah, and did it for me:

Who just sighed at the interview with Harry and Meghan and their new baby when the reporter asked this question: Is he sleeping well? Good baby?

This is possibly one of the most toxic (and stupid) questions we ask new parents. It sets up incorrect expectations, places undue pressure on the parents and perpetuates myths and misunderstandings about baby sleep.

Babies do NOT sleep ‘well’ – or correction, babies do not sleep like adults. They are MEANT to wake very regularly (by regularly I mean multiple times per night, hourly waking is not uncommon). They need to feed often, receive bodily contact from their parents (i.e. hugs) and frequent waking protects them against SIDS. Throughout the whole of the first year (and beyond) night waking is NORMAL. Night waking is common. It categorically does not make a baby ‘bad’ (I guess this is the presumption of a baby who wakes frequently – if those who don’t wake often are considered ‘good’?). It is not healthy for a younger baby to get long solid stretches of sleep.

Quite frankly, how a baby sleeps is nobody’s business apart from the child’s parents. We need to stop being nosy about it. If we must ask anything concerning sleep, it should be “how are you finding the normal frequent wakes? Do you feel you have enough support?”

We really need to lay off piling on the sleep guilt to new parents. It is no coincidence that ‘baby sleep problems’ (and associated ‘fixes’/consultants/gadgets) are so widespread in modern western culture. In many areas of the world they have no words for ‘sleep training’ and they don’t understand what is meant when asked how their baby sleeps. They report significantly less problems when coping with their baby’s sleep. There’s no coincidence there!

I’ve written before, with regard to the fourth trimester (the three months following birth), that it doesn’t matter if things are going ‘well’. It only matters if things are going better than expected.

As Sarah points out, every time we ask a parent if their new baby is ‘sleeping well’, we are creating an expectation that is making life harder for parents than it needs to be.

The conversations we’re having must change.

Firstly, as Sarah points out, a better question to ask is: ‘How are you coping with the frequent wakes?’ This makes it clear that frequent waking is the expected norm.

Secondly, I would like to propose the following mantra:

3 is the new 8

8 continuous hours of sleep a night is often quoted as the number most adults should aim for.

For parents of a newborn, one 3-hour block of unbroken sleep at night (plus one or two shorter blocks) is a more realistic goal. One that, when achieved, should be celebrated. And in being celebrated, will change the mindset of new parents from one of scarcity to one of abundance when it comes to sleep.

This simple mindset change can have an incredibly positive effect on the state of mind of new parents.

Many sleep experts encourage parents to ‘empower’ themselves by taking control of their baby’s sleep. I would instead like to encourage parents to empower themselves by understanding a bit more about the science of sleep and being able to tune in to their baby’s individual sleep needs.

More on that here.

A big thank you to Sarah Ockwell-Smith for giving me permission to reproduce her words above. You can read more of Sarah’s thoughts about infant sleep at her website:

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