Ask anybody who has ever had a baby how they found the early months and the word “tiring” is guaranteed to feature strongly. Babies don’t sleep like adults and they certainly don’t sleep as adults would like them to. The quest for a magic fix to get babies ‘sleeping through the night’ is ever-present and constantly sought. This quest is however completely in vain, because there is no such cure. There is absolutely nothing tired parents can do to get their babies sleeping through the night, because they never will!
“Wow, that’s pessimistic” you may be thinking….others may say “but, my baby DOES sleep through the night, you’re wrong!”
It is however a simple matter of fact. No baby sleeps through the night, they never have and never will. Ever. Similarly, no adult has ever, or will ever, slept through the night either. Why then is so much time and money spent on trying to achieve something that is totally impossible?
First, we need to consider why it is impossible to make a baby (or adult for that matter) sleep through the night. The answer is two little words: sleep cycles. We all, no matter our age, sleep in cycles. These cycles take us from being awake, to a light, medium and deep sleep and back again. Adults have between four and six of these cycles per night (depending on how long they sleep for). In adults a sleep cycle totals around ninety minutes. Babies on the other hand have around twelve to sixteen sleep cycles on an average night. The length of a baby sleep cycle is around half that of an adult’s. That means that it is normal for babies to wake fifteen times per night, every night! At the end of every sleep cycle, whether we are speaking adults of babies, one of two things may happen:
1. The individual will immediately begin a new sleep cycle, giving the illusion that they have ‘slept soundly’ for a long chunk of time (two connected sleep cycles would mean sleep of around three hours in adults and an hour and a half in babies). Sometimes the individual connects all of their sleep cycles that night, or what we believe to be ‘sleeping through’.
2. The individual wakes at the end of a sleep cycle. This can be due to an infinite amount of causes, but the most common are thirst (or hunger in babies), being too hot or too cold, being uncomfortable, needing the toilet, hearing a noise, anxiety, worry or stress, fear – perhaps after a bad dream, light pollution, pain, over-stimulation and not being tired anymore. Sometimes we have no idea why we have woken as an adult, the same is then surely true of babies!
If an adult encounters any of the problems in point two, i.e. they have been disturbed by something and have not connected sleep cycles for some reason, they are able to ‘fix’ the problem in most cases. They have the mental and physical capabilities to independently connect sleep cycles. Babies on the other hand are rather helpless to ‘fix’ any of the problems causing them to wake at the end of a sleep cycle. They need their parents’ help for this. Perhaps they need a parent to feed them, sort their bedding or clothing, change their nappy/diaper, adjust light or noise levels, give them medicine or give them comfort (i.e. pick them up and cuddle them, note I said they *need* a cuddle, not *want* a cuddle!). These night-time parenting needs are all equally valid, babies don’t conspire and manipulate to create problems that stop them from connecting sleep cycles. They just aren’t anywhere near as developed as adults, in brain or body, and so need our help. Or, in other words, babies are neurologically and physiologically incapable of ‘self soothing’ or ‘self settling’ any problems they do have in the night.
Sadly, there is nothing parents can do to lengthen their baby’s sleep cycles, they lengthen as the baby grows, it’s simple development. This talk of ‘sleeping through the night’ must end, it is factually inaccurate. This myth and misinformation pathologises normal infant sleep (i.e.: many short cycles with frequent wakings and need for parental intervention) and turns it into something problematic that needs fixing. The more unethical the person or organisation offering this intervention, the more they spread fear among parents that their baby will not grow to be strong and healthy in body and in mind unless they sleep for longer and deeper at night. The fact is, the baby achieves nothing from being taught to be quiet while they transition between sleep cycles, the benefit here is solely for the parents.
Does this mean parents can’t do anything? Should they accept they will be up every hour every night? Not necessarily. Here we need to think about the babies who seem to be able to connect sleep cycles without adult help (those babies people mistakenly say are “self soothing”). Some babies will have been trained to be quiet, despite experiencing problems between sleep cycles, by behaviourist sleep training (which teaches them that there is no point in continuing to cry to express their needs, as the parent does not respond), other babies however will be able to naturally connect sleep cycles. It is these babies that should be the most interesting to us. Why can they connect sleep cycles? The answer here is a usually good dose of luck, mixed with being present in an environment where nothing is ‘wrong’. This is what parents should focus on to improve sleep, the blips between sleep cycles that can inhibit a quick and independent transition to another cycle. What do we need to consider here? Our aim should be to create an optimum sleep environment, where the baby’s surroundings are as ‘sleep friendly’ as possible both internally (physically) and externally, this includes considering the following:
- Comfort (bedding and internal comfort e.g: no pain or digestive issues)
- The right time for sleep for that individual baby (and their bedtime routine)
- No hunger or thirst
Next we need to consider the more psychological causes of not transitioning between cycles:
- Presence, or sensing presence of parents
- Need for physical touch, or comfort met
- Reduce anxiety, stress, over-stimulation, or fear as much as possible
Unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ here (beware of any ‘experts’ or methods who claim there is!). All babies are different, the key is in finding what your individual baby needs. All sleep solutions are unique. The most important ‘solution’ I haven’t mentioned yet however is simply: time. Baby sleep will not stay this way forever, as the baby ages so their sleep cycles will lengthen and they will be able to resolve more physical and emotional causes of not being able to transition between sleep cycles independently. In the meantime, parents need to stop worrying about ‘bad habits’, ‘creating a rod for their own back’ and forcing independence too quickly. Ironically, the more the parents nurture their baby in the early months, the more likely the child is to develop the emotion regulation skills necessary to connect sleep cycles independently when they age.
We must understand that there is no such thing as ‘sleeping through the night’. There never was and there never will be. For many parents, just knowing this simple fact, is enough to make a huge change to their state of mind and thus their family, even if their baby’s sleep doesn’t change.
If you’re interested in some more in-depth ways to connect your baby’s sleep cycles (without behaviourist, superficial, sleep training, or causing your baby to cry), The Gentle Sleep Book covers several elements in detail.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four and parenting author. She blogs at www.sarahockwell-smith.com
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