Here’s something else from the anticipated baby sleep book I’m writing. Something that when I researched it, blew me away. It’s HUGE.
Gender and effects on sleep.
This may surprise parents and when I had my light bulb moment it shocked me too! A chance comment my partner Steve said, “Do you only see boy babies and children, Karen?”
I replied, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “No, you do, you only see boys?!” I had a good think. Often when you’re helping families day in day out you’re so engrossed in the pure intensity of the situation. You don’t see the patterns and trends that are evolving.
Wow it stunned me. He was totally correct. Steve is a building manager so knows nothing of my work. Apart from what he sees from the outside. There must have been more boys names being mentioned than girls! I had to research this further. Anyone who has met me will know I have an insatiable thirst for having to know everything about an issue.
Approximately 6 out of 7 babies I help for sleep disturbances are boys
Does that surprise you?
This chance comment of ‘Do I only see boys?”, was so profound it made me look at how many of each gender I was seeing. And what were the key ages of the boy babies. The majority of babies are around the classic wonder week ages of 4 months, 6-8 months and 18 months. When a baby approaches a growth spurt their brain turns on like a light-bulb. They may have a few wakeful nights and parents respond with new ways to try and settle them. And voila you have a new sleep association the baby cannot repeat themselves. It happens so often. Parents try and go back to what they were doing before. Baby protests because they’ve got a taste of the new treatment and they’re actually quite preferring it! I’m sure many of you have been there!
Why do baby boys cope less well with developmental leaps?
I had finally decided to read the book by Tasmanian Psychologist, Steve Biddulph, Raising Boys  and voila I had my light-bulb moment!
I can even see the difference in my nieces and nephew as babies. The 3 girls were less needy, more independent, liked to be cuddled less and more settled. My nephew was like a little koala and always in his mums’ arms, rarely in his cot. Yet he’s grown up to be a well-adjusted young man with normal emotional health. As a midwife and nurse I notice boys do, on the whole, need more love and cuddles. They handle sleep training much better if it’s done in a kind way, often using parental presence and plenty of cuddles. So why is this need for more love and comfort common in baby boys and what does it do?
As a generalization we as a society treat boys more harshly, we expect them to be not be so needy and sooky, yet if we gave more to them, in terms of love and cuddles we’d actually get a much better adjusted boy and later man. Boys have a 50% greater mortality rate when born premature, than baby girls. That for me was huge when I read this. I remember working as a midwife in NICU and if a premature baby girl was admitted we’d comment, “Oh it’s a girl, she’ll do well.” We never ever said that about a premature baby boy. Those stats are huge, 50%. So what is it about the boy thing and survival and coping with stress you’re probably wondering by now?
The boy vs. the girl brain
A baby boys’ brain is known to develop much more slowly than a girls’ and the 2 hemispheres are less connected via the corpus callosum than a baby girls brain. Aha so that’s why they cope less well with stress. A fully communicating brain copes with a lot more stress. This ability occurs fully by the time they are several years old. Another aha moment from me. I see lots of boys up until 3 years old.
Boys read faces less well so cope less well with large crowds. They handle separation anxiety and the 6-8 month wonder week less well than a girl baby does.
I can see when I do sleep training on the boys at 7.5-8 months old in particular, they don’t cope as well. If you add to the mix bed sharing (permanently), a dummy, always held, rocked, nursed to sleep and never allowed to cry at all, ever. And I’ve met a few of these babies. The contrast between these boys and a girl (with the same sleep associations) at the same age is HUGE. The boys are very sensitive and cry so much more. They handle stress incredibly badly. Whereas a girl with all these factors rarely sounds as distressed.
Sleep training should be of the kind variety.
There are lots of gender studies on all things baby and development. As a result we know from research (Murray, L., et al, 1992) that baby boys with mums with PND performed worse on object concept tasks, were more insecurely attached to their mothers and showed more mild behavioural difficulties. Postnatal depression had no effect on general cognitive and language development, but appeared to make infants more vulnerable to adverse effects of lower social class and male gender. When Murray studied attachment and gender in relation to PND she found that the odds of insecurity are 3.6 times greater for boys than for girls.
There are also hearing issues that help explain the delayed speech that is so common with boys.
Boys have more hearing issues than girls claims Leonard Sax in his book, Why Gender Matters . Dr Sax claims that girl babies have a 80% greater brain response to sounds than baby boys do. Australian audiologists, Pollard and Rowe found this wasn’t actually a hearing issue it was an auditory processing issue. So the way we communicate with boys needs to be taken into account.
At birth a boys brain is only partially formed and only a third of its’ eventual size. The language part of the brain is not fully formed until aged 13 years, I’m sure some mums would argue that was even later with all the grunting teenage boys do, rather than speaking! This is why reading to baby boys and singing repetitive nursery rhymes and songs from an early age (6 weeks) to encourage language is so important. This love of reading must be encouraged and fostered right through babyhood, primary school until teenage years (Hardman,M. & Jones, L., 1999).
SIDS and boys
When we look at SIDS, boys are 60% more likely to be affected. At 2-4 weeks old a boy has a higher brain arousal rate than a girl. This all settles down by 2-3 months when the 2 genders are similar in relation to sleep.
When we look at crying, again boys score higher. In a Dutch study with 1826 babies, Van der Wal et al (1998) found that problematic crying occurred less frequently among girls, second and later born children, Surinamese infants, and breast fed infants.
Historically research has disputed a gender bias in neonatal and baby sleep and the jury is still out on this. Whilst Bach et al (2000) found that boys slept less, with more wakefulness after sleep onset, more active sleep and less quiet sleep than girls. And interestingly “In contrast to sleep architecture, most of the sleep continuity parameters exhibited greater variability in boys than in girls”.
However I’m not disputing the bias. I think it’s fact and 17 years of baby whispering can be classed as qualitative research. It’s not to say that I don’t meet girls with sleep problems because I do. I just see much less of the girls compared to the boys.
Treat boys with sensitivity
As a result of all these research findings I think it’s so important to treat boys sensitively. I’m not saying that girls can cope with harsh sleep training or we should be less kind to girls. Both genders deserve kindness and compassion however we just need to be aware that we are not crushing those developing sensitive boy brains with harsh controlled crying. As I mentioned previously there is never a one size fits all for sleep training. I’m OK with a checking method for 6-8 month olds, which some might define as controlled crying or controlled comforting, as long as we respond frequently and sensitively to escalation of crying and offer cuddles when they sound distressed.
Findings are reversed with adults
Interestingly these gender differences are reversed as adults. Recent research has found (using 7500 subjects in twin studies) that females are 1.4 times more likely to suffer from insomnia compared to their male counterparts. Taking into account disturbed sleep caused by children, work etc. they discovered that this insomnia was inherited and mainly genetic. This is the first and largest study of its’ kind. So while boys may struggle with self settling and sleep training it’s actually the females who have long standing sleep issues (Lind et al., 2015).
This makes me an even more determined baby whisperer to help mums with helping their babies and children sleep.
Some further reading below on boys’ diet and sleep