There are few topics which cause so much worry for parents as their child’s sleep and the ideal conditions for sleeping. The way your baby or child sleeps—whether for an extended or short period, and whether they are an “owl” or a “lark”—is essentially predetermined. We cannot teach babies to sleep because, in many respects, it is part of the process of maturing, which takes place at different speeds in all children. However, by providing suitable conditions, we are able to create a relaxing atmosphere in which the child can be peaceful and learn to recognise sleep as positive and refreshing—rather than as something that is forced upon them, with which they are pressured to comply, and against which they rebel.
The right sleeping space for your baby must first of all fulfil their basic needs. Fundamental in this is fulfilling their need for security: unlike adults, babies do not know that they are lying in a home that is safe from wild animals and unpredictable environmental factors. Babies still operate under a “stone-age program” which tells them that they are only safe from all kinds of threats when they are in the protective proximity of their caregivers. Therefore, they find sleeping close to their parents (in their bed or in a cot beside them) especially soothing. They wake up frequently in the night in order to check whether this protection is still there, and also because they need food for their rapidly growing brains. Waking up like this prevents them from falling into sleep phases that are too deep and out of which it is more difficult to awake because they are not yet fully developed. The fact that babies wake up in the night is therefore normal and practical. If a sleeping place near the parents is chosen, it has the advantage for us parents that we can wake up faster and also get back to sleep again quicker. For this reason, physical proximity is an important criterion for a good sleeping space.
Recommendations for preventing sudden infant death syndrome also suggest allowing babies to sleep in their parents’ rooms. In addition, data suggests that breastfeeding provides a protective function, as does parents abstaining from nicotine, alcohol, other drugs or sleeping pills. Unsuitable sleeping places into which a baby could sink, such as water beds or sofas, should be avoided and babies should also not sleep on their stomach. The bedroom should generally speaking not be too hot and should be well ventilated, which is also beneficial for sleep in adults.
The design of the sleeping place determines the baby’s sleep
Besides deciding conditions for a good sleeping space on the grounds of the baby’s health, there are also other considerations for a sensible design: the child should recognise right from the start that a bed is a relaxing place to sleep, where rest rather than play takes place. We can exert an influence on this with its design: the sleeping place is somewhere with tranquil colours, with no excitement and no playing. The eyes and hands can relax here. Songs may be sung to the baby, they may be told stories and stroked, but there is no more tussling, tickling or romping. Particularly in the early years, toys should be used carefully here, and a single cuddly toy or comforter is enough for small children. Later on it may make sense to place other toys by the bed after the child has fallen asleep, so they have something to occupy them in the morning if they wake up early and look for something to keep themselves busy.
Our own attitudes as parents also influence the sleeping space: are we peaceful and relaxed, or do we breath frenziedly and rapidly because we want to get up again in a hurry? Are we harsh and dismissive to the child because they should be going to sleep, or do we lull them to sleep with gentle words and positive feelings? The emotional atmosphere which we create is no less important than the spatial arrangement. It all goes together to create a good sleeping space for the baby.
This is an article by our guest writer Susanne Mierau. She is a mother of three children, trained educationalist (specialising in infant pedagogics), aamily counsellor, and the editor of online parenting magazine geborgen-wachsen.de, as well as author of guides on the topic of living with babies and small children.