Preface to Sweet Sleep by Helen Ball

2 CommentsThursday, 24 July 2014  |  pinterandmartin

Sleep (or the lack of it) looms large for parents-in-waiting—and it is pointless to pretend that your sleep will not be disrupted by your new bundle of joy. His stomach is tiny, and he will need frequent feeds all around the clock—he cannot wait eight hours through the night to be fed just because you need to sleep. He doesn’t know that you will come back once you leave his sight. If he feels abandoned, he will cry frantically—it’s his only method to attract attention and bring himself to safety. If he cries frantically, it will take a long time for him to calm down and you will have to help him.

The experience of sleep, and of being left alone for sleep, is very different for babies than it is for adults. The quicker you can understand your baby’s needs—-for comfort, food, reassurance, contact, love—the less disruptive nighttime baby care will become, and the less anxious you will feel. Rigid guidance that insists the only place your baby should sleep is flat on his back in a cot with a firm mattress ignores the reality that most babies do not die unexpectedly during the night but that all babies need frequent feeding, tending, comforting, cuddling, and loving. How to strike a balance between risk avoidance and need fulfilment?

Baby care is about trade-offs—balancing your baby’s needs with your own needs, and adapting “official” recommendations to your own situation rather than following every guideline at all costs. This book takes issue with some of the sleep guidance currently given to parents by official organizations and “experts”. It explains why, whom that guidance is meant to influence, and what it is intended to accomplish. If you are not the mother and baby the guidance is directed towards, if compliance would carry a greater risk in another aspect of baby care than non-compliance, you should make your own informed choice about which guidance to follow. This book gives you the tools to do so.

The dramatic departure that this book offers is to approach sleep safety via the management of risks to infants in different sleep scenarios. It offers a packaged method (called the Safe Sleep Seven) to help parents identify risks they should avoid, and to reassure those parents whose babies fall into the “minuscule risk” category. And as one would expect from La Leche League, this book takes breastfeeding and safe sleep sharing as normal facets of baby care.

It makes no guarantees: it doesn’t guarantee that your baby will be a good sleeper (be wary of books that do) or that your baby will be absolutely safe. There are no guarantees in life, and tragic events sometimes happen even in the absence of observable risks. The authors do a great job of explaining the magnitude of different risks—those you take every day without thinking and those you agonize over unnecessarily. They also point out those instances where parents sometimes unwittingly increase their babies’ risk because the reasons behind key guidelines are not properly explained—and parents take a greater risk in trying to eliminate a lesser one!

This book is like having a wise grandmother in your pocket. It’s an antidote to new--parent sleep anxiety and the scary tales that you may have been told. It carefully guides you through your options; it unpacks the sensationalist headlines about SIDS and the old wives’ tales about spoiling. It puts you in control and encourages you to make decisions that suit your family after carefully considering your situation, your baby, and your needs. It gives you permission to trust your instincts (although the only permission you need is your own). It debunks many myths—some of which are held sacred in certain quarters. I have no doubt this book will cause controversy, and I know that its authors have therefore done their homework very carefully. They have consulted with numerous specialist researchers and read hundreds of research papers. The questions they have asked and the evidence they have amassed have caused them not only to challenge the one-size-fits-all approach to infant sleep safety recommendations but also to challenge the dominant cultural viewpoint about “normal infant care” in modern society. After many months of reading and discussing the issues with them, I feel a warm sense of satisfaction that they have reached conclusions very similar to my own, which are based on my training as an anthropologist, 18 years of first-hand research in this field, and my experience as a mother.

The fundamental fact embedded in this book is that breastfeeding mothers and babies bedshare, and do so whether they are advised against it or not. It is a baby care strategy that makes sense to breastfeeding mothers, and it works for reducing the disruption of frequent night feeds, maintaining breastfeeding, and meeting their babies’ emotional needs and their own sleep needs simultaneously. It’s what women and babies have done for millennia, though we now do it in sleep environments very different from those of our predecessors. This book gives guidance not only on whether to bedshare but also how to bedshare as safely as possible. It firmly brings discussion about bedsharing into the open and provides an important resource for breastfeeding mothers in the 21st century. I could not be more pleased to introduce it.

Professor Helen Ball, BSc, MA, PhD

The Pinter & Martin edition of Sweet Sleep is published on July 29th, 2014. See here for more details. In the US and Canada Sweet Sleep is published by Random House.

For more on Helen Ball see here and the Infant Sleep Information Source website is here.


Terri Hazen
Thursday, 24 July 2014  |  16:24

Beautifully written, Helen. I hope and pray that this book will be a game changer.

Felina Gallagher
Saturday, 26 July 2014  |  2:02

Can't wait to order copies for the NYC moms!