12 Oct

Book Review: Baby Sleep Solutions, by Netmums with Hollie Smith

Baby Sleep Solutions is one of several problem-solving books produced by helpful parenting website Netmums. It is packed with information and suggestions, but is largely placed at the non-attachment end of the parenting spectrum, despite its claims to sit within the evidence base.

Its introduction decries the plethora of conflicting advice that new parents receive from friends and family, then introduces its own team of experts. The whole book tries hard to balance a parent-centred approach with some quite directive advice, generally followed by a proviso basically saying “if you don’t want to do it that way, that’s ok.” What I get from this is an understandable but still slightly confusing melange of approaches. Hopefully what a new parent gets is a range of options, and the possibility of picking and choosing the solutions that feel right to them.

Early chapters include a general explanation of sleep cycles and babies’ needs, then chapters for newborn, 6 weeks to 6 months, 6 months plus, older babies and toddlers. It starts from a very baby-centred point of view, with a straightforward and thorough discussion of where babies sleep, safety, and coping with the normal challenges. As the age ranges go up, the advice becomes more parent-centred, very focused on feeding (especially breastfeeding) being only for food, and other comfort needs now described as “wants” or “habits.” If I had read at 6 months “as long as she’s getting loads of love and cuddles from you in the daytime – she should also be emotionally secure enough to cope without you at bedtime and through the night too,” (p103) I would have felt horribly anxious about what terrible mistakes I was making, that my son clearly still needed me at night.

This, for me, is the difficulty in turning towards sleep training. If it doesn’t work, you’ll feel it’s your fault, you’ve done something wrong. If it works, you thank the expert who told you how to do it, and continue to doubt the effectiveness of your own instinctive parenting. We have to be so careful of the tone we use and the way we present “solutions” that try to find quick fixes for normal behaviours, rather than ways to understand, cope with, and support our babies’ needs.

So, from six months, the book advises you to “ditch” the night feeds, missing the point that breastfeeding is a relationship, not just a nutrient-providing process. It recommends cold turkey on the night feeds, and baby in his/her own room; and then goes on to suggest controlled crying, which it describes as “heart rending” but “gets results fast” (p109) What a dilemma.

Responding to your child is seen here as a “reward” – a concept understood by parents but probably not by a 6 month old baby. The book frequently (but inaccurately) refers to a lack of evidence that these levels of stress do harm, but let’s not forget that this does not equate to evidence that they do not harm. I might have been inclined to present the gentler solutions earlier in the chapter, with controlled crying coming as a last resort rather than the go-to plan.

For older babies and toddlers there is a range of behavioural strategies, and these chapters cover maturing sleep patterns, tips for moving the child out of the parents’ bedroom, cot-to-bed tips, sibling situations and separation anxiety. Finally, it looks at more specific problems including teething, illness, and the ubiquitous reflux; and then the typical parenting book dip into alternative therapy. Which, if it worked, would be called “therapy.”

Despite my detailed reservations, I quite liked parts of this book, where clear suggestions are made and there are matter of fact discussions of the challenges of coping with your baby’s sleep. The fact is that parents who are happy to “go with the flow” (p37) would probably not pick up this book in the first place. Parents who need help will find lots of options here, and may also be reassured by the many quotations pulled from the Netmums forums, from mothers experiencing or moving on from similar situations to their own. I would like to have seen more on coping, not just fixing; including gathering effective support, frontloading and daytime coping, and learning to maximise the sleep for as many members of the family as possible, without increasing levels of distress. It’s worth a read to get basic information about infant sleep, but I’d recommend ISIS as a better and more evidence-based source on this.

It’s available in kindle format from Amazon here, though I bought the paperback for a penny.