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Sleeping Through the Night

Written by Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D.   
Monday, 01 March 2004 00:00
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This essay was originally directed to one person. It has been edited slightly to make it less specific.

Someone from parent-l passed along a post about children sleeping through the night on to me and asked me to respond. I was one of the original parent-l folks, but haven’t been on for a long time. I am an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nutrition at Texas A&M University, and I do research on infant/child feeding beliefs/practices both cross-culturally and from an evolutionary perspective, as well as research on children’s health and growth. I know from firsthand experience that being a new parent is a difficult time of adjustment, especially when expectations don’t match reality, especially when our culture has taught us that children should have certain needs / wants / behaviors and then our children don’t seem to fit that mold. This problem of a mismatch between expectations and reality can be very difficult for new parents to accept and adjust to. Sometimes, some children can be encouraged / convinced / forced to fit the mold of cultural expectations, and they do fine.

Sleeping Through the NightOther times, though they do eventually fit the mold, it is at the expense of their sense of who they are, their self-confidence, their view of the world as a safe and trusting place, sometimes, even, at the expense of their health or life. Probably nowhere do cultural expectations and the reality of children’s needs conflict more than in the two areas of breastfeeding frequency and sleeping behaviors. Human children are designed (whether you believe by millions of years of evolution, or by God, it doesn’t matter)—to nurse very frequently, based on the composition of the milk of the species, the fact that all higher primates (Primates are the zoological Order to which humans belong, higher primates include monkeys and apes) keep their offspring in the mother’s arms or on her back for several years, the size of the young child’s stomach, the rapidity with which breast milk is digested, the need for an almost constant source of nutrients to grow that huge brain (in humans, especially), and so on. By very frequently, I mean 3-4 times per hour, for a few minutes each time. The way in which some young infants are fed in our culture—trying to get them to shift to a 3-4 hour schedule, with feedings of 15-20 minutes at a time, goes against our basic physiology

But humans are very adaptable, and some mothers will be able to make sufficient milk with this very infrequent stimulation and draining of the breasts, and some children will be able to adapt to large meals spaced far apart. Unfortunately, some mothers don’t make enough milk with this little nursing, and some babies can’t adjust, and so are fussy, cry a lot, seem to want to nurse “before it is time” and fail to grow and thrive. Of course, usually the mother’s body is blamed—“You can’t make enough milk”—rather than the culturally imposed expectation that feeding every 3-4 hours should be sufficient, and the mother begins supplementing with formula, which leads to a steady spiral downward to complete weaning from the breast. Human children are also designed to have breast milk be a part of their diet for a minimum of 2.5 years, with many indicators pointing to 6-7 years as the true physiological duration of breastfeeding—regardless of what your cultural beliefs may be. I can provide you with references to my research on this topic if you wish to read more.