Alice Gregory is a highly respected expert on sleep throughout development. She has been researching sleep for almost two decades and has published more than 100 articles on this and associated topics. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford, her PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and is currently a Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Does a parent’s perspective determine whether they think their infant has a ‘sleep problem’?
In this extract Alice Gregory, author of ‘Nodding Off’ and sleep expert, explores various factors effecting a baby’s sleep.

While suffering the challenges of night waking, parents of young infants can be tormented further by the way their children’s sleep changes from one night to the next. Night-tonight variation can make the weather look like a paragon of stability. When a parent joyously declares that their young infant has started ‘sleeping through the night’, we have to wonder whether it will last.

One night of uninterrupted sleep doesn’t mean that disturbed nights are a thing of the past, just as a ray of sunshine in March doesn’t forecast a glorious summer.

Anything that can cause pain or discomfort can affect infant sleep. This translates to potentially problematic sleep for any child who has an upset stomach, headache, slight cold, earache, or arm ache from an injection, plus any kid with a wonky nappy, a Babygro that was washed with (or perhaps without) fabric conditioner, or who is placed in a room that’s a little too hot or cold for their liking.

Thinking about it in that way, it seems a miracle that babies ever sleep. Just as our eating habits change day-to-day depending on our activity, we shouldn’t necessarily expect our children’s sleep quality to remain identical each night.

Baby sleeping

We know that infants are likely to differ in terms of their sleep, which can lead to great parental smugness or to desperation. But when does an infant really have a sleep problem that needs to be addressed? Certainly, a large proportion of parents think their child has a sleep problem. Corroborating this, when parents of babies and toddlers were asked if their child had a sleep problem, a big proportion said yes. This ranged from 11 per cent of those asked in Thailand, to a whopping 76 per cent of those asked in China. But defining sleep problems in babies and toddlers is not always simple.

Imagine an infant who refuses to fall asleep unless they are being cuddled and who wakes up once during the night wanting a hug. Is that a problem? The answer will depend on whether parents want and expect to engage in this.

Some might accept or even like this approach to infant sleep. Ask them if this ritual is a problem and you’ll get a resounding ‘no!’. Others might hope and expect to put their children in a cot and not see them until the morning. They will find a child’s reluctance to settle alone frustrating. Those in the latter camp may find this experience torturous and flag this to friends and paediatricians as a significant problem. Yet the infant has the identical pre-sleep preferences in both scenarios.