If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
When children are not sleeping well, the cause might be the father, the mother, the baby or any combination. Even if the root cause or trigger might occur within the father, or the mother, or the baby, as time passes, interactive effects develop between all three. In order to help solve sleep problems, without judgement, it is important to consider all possible causes (Blog Posts 17 and 18).
Parents may have symptoms of anxiety or depression or habitual thoughts and beliefs that might, or might not, contribute to or cause sleep difficulties in their child. This topic is confusing because some studies look only at the father’s role and others look only at the mother’s role. Some research suggests that a colicky baby (Blog Post 20) might trigger these symptoms in the parents. Interactions between each parent and the baby are important. Therefore, it is difficult to make firm conclusions about the direction of effect. Blog Posts 39–42 share studies that describe how parent’s issues might contribute to or cause sleep difficulties in their child.
I studied 141 infants between 4- 8 months of age and showed that the history of colic was associated with the parents’ judgment that night waking was a current problem. Other studies also reported more night waking at 8-12 months and at age 14–18 months in post-colic children compared with babies who did not have colic. Also, among those post-colic infants, the total sleep duration was less (13.5 versus 14.3 hours). So post-colic infants tend to have, for several months, brief sleep durations and more frequent or longer night awakenings (signaling).
One possibility is that biological features within the child contribute to post-colic sleep problems after the fussiness and crying end. However, two separate and well-designed studies agree with Dr. Ian St. James-Roberts that “high amounts of early crying do not make it highly probable that an infant will have sleeping problems at nine months of age.” Since infant crying, alone, is not a prediction of later sleep problems, the possibility that persisting biologic factors causing post-colic sleep problems is unlikely.
Another possibility is, from the perspective of a parent-driven path, that most post-colic sleep problems are not caused primarily by a biological disturbance of sleep/wake regulation; rather, the problem is the parents’ failure to allow their baby to learn self-soothing between 2 and 4 months or to establish regular sleep patterns when the colic dissipates.
Two or more months of crying sometimes adversely and permanently shapes parenting styles. An inconsolable infant might trigger in some parents a perception that their baby’s behavior is out of their control. They observe no obvious benefit to their young colicky infant when they try to be regular according to clock times or to be consistent in bedtime routines. Naturally, but falsely, they then assume that this handling will not help their post-colic child, either. Unfortunately, they do not observe the transition, at around 2–4 months, from colicky crying to fatigue-driven (sleep-deprivation) crying.
Alternatively, some parents may unintentionally and permanently become inconsistent and irregular in their responses to their infant simply because of their own sleep-deprivation. The constant, complex, and prolonged efforts they had used to soothe or calm their colicky baby are continued. But these efforts ultimately lead to an overindulgent, oversolicitous approach to sleep scheduling when the colic has passed. Their nurturing at night, for example, becomes stimulating overattentiveness. In responding to their child’s every cry, the parents inadvertently deprive her of the opportunity to learn how to fall asleep unassisted. She then fails to learn the important skill of self-soothing, which she will need her entire life.
Some mothers, with anxiety, have difficulty separating from their child, especially at night, and their own developing sleep deprivation or insomnia might lead to depression. If a child fails to learn to fall asleep unassisted, the result is sleep fragmentation or sleep deprivation driven by intermittent positive parental reinforcement. This causes fatigue-driven fussiness long after the colic has resolved, which ultimately creates an overtired family. Fathers’ behavior may contribute to or cause anxiety or depression in the mother (Blog Post 39).
Support for this view comes from research on infants at 5 months of age who were followed to 56 months of age. Dr. Dieter Wolke, in agreement with Dr. Ian St. James-Roberts above, showed that infant crying alone was not the problem: “Sleep problems are likely to be due to a failure of the parents to establish and maintain regular sleep schedules. This conclusion does not blame parents for sleep difficulties. Rather, it recognizes why many parents adopt strategies to deal with night waking in the least conflictual manner by night feeding or co-sleeping. This may be especially true of parents who are dealing with a temperamentally more difficult infant (Blog Post 46).”