By Neha Kirpal
“Indian children are among the most sleep-deprived in the world: on average, they barely clock eight hours of sleep a night instead of the prescribed 10–12 hours, besides naps for younger children.”
A recent ground-breaking book on the art of gentle baby sleep brings together a wealth of knowledge, facts and practical tips that cater to Indian parents coping with managing their child’s sleep. Blending traditional wisdom and modern sleep research, Sleeping Like a Baby (Penguin, Rs 299) aims to be a sleep bible for modern Indian parents struggling with their child’s bedtime needs and habits.
Authored by Himani Dalmia and Neha Bhatt, the co-founders of the pioneering Facebook group Gentle Baby Sleep India (founded in 2016), the book has been endorsed by some of the most eminent child sleep experts.
New Delhi-based Himani Dalmia is an Australian-certified infant and child sleep specialist and a leader of the La Leche League, the largest nonprofit for breastfeeding awareness globally. Gurugram-based Neha Bhatt is an award-winning journalist who reports on public health, human rights, gender and education for leading international and Indian publications.
The book’s authors spent over six years engaging with new parents and digging deep into the science behind why babies sleep the way they do, and found an enormous gap between parental expectations and biological norms.
While infants need 16-18 hours of sleep in a day, toddlers need about 13-14 hours, and five- to six-year-olds require 10-12 hours of sleep every night. This is primarily because the majority of brain development in children happens while they are asleep.
However, Indian families don’t prioritize the sleep needs of little children, who often follow their parents’ sleep and waking cycle, including late-night dinners, outings and festivities. Added to this are the pressures of joint families and unsolicited advice for new moms. Some parents don’t allow daytime naps assuming it will hamper nighttime sleep, but this is a mistake especially in the case of infants.
“Our modern lifestyles end up ruining our children’s natural sleep rhythms due to a lack of understanding on our part. As a result, Indian children are some of the most sleep-deprived in the world. This has a massive impact on their daytime emotional regulation and frustration tolerance,” says Nupur Dhingra Paiva, founder and lead child and adolescent psychotherapist at Family Tree: Child & Adolescent Mental Health Team.
While enumerating the many benefits of sleep (growth, heart health, attention span, cognitive ability, language development, impulse control, immunity building), backed with the help of real-life case studies and evidence-based research, the authors prove that sleep is children’s ultimate superpower, which helps them to do better in every aspect of life.
“It’s what allows them to grow, explore, play, make connections, build relationships, feel creative and express themselves while making them feel like a joyful part of a colourful world,” they write.
The authors detail all the various stages of an infant’s sleep and highlight all the crucial characteristics, milestones, sleep patterns, cycles, routines, cues, transitions and regressions in each. They also throw light on some particular situations that are common in contemporary times, such as managing sleep during travel, returning to work, nuclear and joint-family dilemmas, single parenting, moving abroad, and having a social life.
By providing real-life examples, the authors bust several common myths and beliefs about long-held practices, such as sleep training, co-sleeping and self-soothing. They explain that forcing independence on children leads to major behavioural issues later. “We believe independence comes in its own time as children grow, even if you do nothing to hurry it along,” they write.
“For too long, families have been told they should be pushing independence when it comes to sleep; and yet, what children need in order to feel safe and secure is to be close to a parent,” affirms Tracy Cassels, PhD, director of Evolutionary Parenting.
The authors also share a distinct formula that works to improve infant and toddler sleep: SHARED (Sharing a bed, Holding for naps, Avoiding overtiredness, Routine, Early bedtime, and Dark and quiet room). Along the way, they also emphasize the importance of the right sleep environment and sleep associations, such as nursing, cuddling, rocking and white noise; as well as offer pointers on related aspects such as the role of the father, bedtime reading, and managing sleep for siblings and twins.
Needless to say, the book is an invaluable resource for all new parents. “(This book) grants mothers the permission they so desperately need to hold their babies (well past toddlerhood), share sleep with them on the same bed, tune into the instincts they’re otherwise made to suppress, and know the joy and security and restfulness that such an arrangement brings,” says Dharini Bhaskar, mother and author of These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light.