Professor Sarah Blunden sees it all the time.
At her Paediatric Sleep Clinic in Adelaide, mums come in feeling terrible about their parenting skills, because their babies aren’t sleeping through. But their babies don’t actually have a problem.
“If someone comes in to me and their baby is maybe waking once, twice a night, and they’re under one, that’s very, very normal,” she tells Mamamia. “In fact, that’s really good sleep for a baby under one.”
Professor Blunden says in one day this week, she saw four mums in this same situation.
“We told them what was going on. We said, ‘Do you want us to do something?’ They said, ‘No, no. I’m fine. I just wanted to know that I was doing the right thing.’”
So why are so many mothers convinced that their babies have sleep problems when they don’t? New research by Professor Blunden and Rebecca Sharkey has shown that women are often turning to friends for advice about babies and sleep – and what they’re being told isn’t always right.
Professor Blunden says the talk in mothers’ groups often centres on whether babies sleep through the night. Women who have babies that sleep through are seen as “terrific” mums, and they wear it as a “badge of honour”. But it’s usually nothing to do with their parenting skills.
“They got a lucky draw,” Professor Blunden explains.
She says when babies do sleep well, it’s due to their temperament.
“Separating from parents makes babies cry. Some babies just cope better with that than other babies.”
Nowadays, Professor Blunden says, so many parents are judged by other parents.
“When my children were small, I don’t remember that judgement. I don’t remember those feelings that I get from the mothers that I see, who are feeling very judged.
“We are a very competitive society.”
She says women who are very anxious can find mothers’ groups “destructive”. But she doesn’t think that the groups, overall, are a bad thing.
“I think that the advantages probably far outweigh the disadvantages.”
So how can we stop so many mums feeling like failures when it comes to babies and sleep?
LISTEN: Christie Hayes couldn't bare to sit through a single session of her Mothers' Group. She explains why, on our podcast for new parents.
Professor Blunden says parents need to get their information from paediatricians or evidence-based websites, such as the National Sleep Foundation or the Raising Children Network.
She says some beliefs that are common among parents aren’t actually based on evidence.
“Many parents think that babies should sleep through from 7pm till 7am. That’s completely made up.”
She says parents also need to understand that it’s okay to respond to their babies when they cry out during the night, and it’s okay to cuddle them to sleep. It doesn’t mean they’ll be doing that forever, because babies develop.
“If your baby’s upset, you can go to them, you can take care of them. It’s something that astounds me, that I have to give parents permission to do that, because the narrative in the community is so strong.”