Is your baby sleeping through the night yet? This is the proverbial refrain too often heard by parents from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers upon learning that there’s a new baby in the family. If your infant seems to be taking a while to conform to a schedule, this can be frustrating and even frightening for new parents. You might find yourself wondering Is there something wrong with my baby? Am I a bad parent?
The truth is, sleeping through the night is a relatively recent expectation for infants, unique to Western society, and completely detached from a human infant’s true needs.
The culturally-pervasive phrase “sleep like a baby” is typically used to describe an adult—or anyone who isn’t a baby—getting six to eight hours of deep, consolidated sleep during the night, but this phrase isn’t accurate to the way that babies actually sleep. The concept of a baby sleeping solidly through the night is not just unrealistic but, perhaps most importantly, creates unnecessary parental disappointment and stress.
When it comes to sleep, what you hear about how infants should be cared for frequently reflects social ideologies rather than a baby’s biological requirements.
In a study published in Pediatrics in 2018 (1), researchers discovered that the normal development of a sleep-wake cycle occurs late in the first year of life for most infants, therefore not sleeping through the night is appropriate and normal.
The research team investigated the proportion of infants who slept through the night in six- to eight-hour blocks between six and twelve months of age. The results showed that 27% to 57% of six-to-twelve-month-olds did not sleep through the night, but their lack of consolidated sleep did not have any negative effect on mental development, pyscho-motor development, or maternal mood. Waking periodically throughout the night did, however, increase the rate of breastfeeding, which is a very good thing!
Consolidated sleep, or the undisturbed hours of sleep that adults get, may be convenient for a parent at night, but is generally detrimental for an infant.
Night wakings are usually influenced by a baby’s unique internal needs. Needs may include finding reassurance, terminating apneas (dangerous pauses in breathing), or being fed. Associated factors include their metabolism, growth rate, and body morphology, as well feeding method, individual need for calories, and the infant’s comfort levels.
Breastfed babies in particular will likely awaken to feed many times throughout the night. Their chief job is to keep themselves nourished. While breastmilk is the ideal food for babies, it is easier to metabolize than formula or cow’s milk, meaning breastfeeding intervals can sometimes be less than fifteen minutes. Compare this to infants fed with formula or cow’s milk who can sleep for more hours at a stretch before getting hungry. These additional nightly arousals by breastfed infants are actually one of the many reasons breastfed babies are less likely to succumb to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
A human infant’s neurobiology isn’t meant to sustain lengthy, deep stages of sleep just yet. It’s more physiologically appropriate for them to remain in a lighter sleep with frequent, brief awakenings. Shorter durations of deep sleep can even help protect infants born with arousal deficiencies or other congenital conditions that are suspected to increase risk of SIDS.
In fact, the expectation that babies sleep through the night is not only distressing to parents who cannot get their children to comply, but also to the infant. Conditioning them to sleep in a way that their emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological systems are unprepared for creates higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the infant’s body. According to a study by Professor Wendy Middlemiss (2), this increased level of cortisol stays with the baby even after it looks, from the outside, like everything is fine and the baby has accepted the enforced sleeping condition.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a child who does naturally keep quiet through the night. Every child grows differently, and some may develop the ability to sleep through the night—or at least to self-soothe—more quickly than others.
Dr. Tom Anders, a remarkable infant sleep researcher, was the first to describe the different ways infants respond to their own awakenings. He set up an infrared, light-sensitive camera to observe a variety of participating infants as they slept. In this experiment, he found that there were two basic types of infants: those he called “signalers” (infants that, upon waking up, required parental intervention summoned by crying) and the “self–soothers” (those babies that looked around for a while and went back to sleep on their own).
Dr. Anders did not rank or judge one response as better than the other. Rather, his results support the idea that different children develop differently. Given his observations, he did not conclude that self-soothing represents an important developmental milestone that all infants need to be trained to achieve, though this is what parents often hear. It is noteworthy that none of the infants in his study truly slept through the night; rather, those “self-soothers” simply did not wake their parents when they awoke. (3)
It’s important to remember that, just as infants grow and put on weight at different rates, so will each infant develop their physiological systems and their ability to self-regulate emotions at different rates. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume that all babies must self-soothe or sleep through the night at the same age.
Regardless of what other people in your life try to tell you, there is absolutely no reason to stress about your baby sleeping through the night. It is completely normal—and beneficial—for babies to wake often. Infants will mature their sleep patterns when they are biologically ready, and will eventually adjust themselves to their family’s routine.
Of course, the drawback is that you, as a parent, will have frequent awakenings along with your baby. Many parents find that the solution to this problem is choosing to cosleep in some form. If you are breastfeeding your infant, bedsharing with proper safety precautions (4) can allow you to feed or soothe your baby without getting up or even fully waking yourself. You can also use a sidecar to keep your baby within arm’s reach, so you don’t have to get out of bed to meet his or her needs. Even simply roomsharing, with your baby in a crib or cot beside your bed, can make it easier for you to attend to your infant’s needs more efficiently, minimize fussing or crying time, and save you many precious minutes of sleep.
Overall, the idea that babies should display consolidated sleep needs to be—pardon the pun—put entirely to bed.
Dr. James McKenna is the nation’s leading infant sleep researcher. His forthcoming book Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions will share his most recent research on the topic, counter common misconceptions with hard science, and help parents identify and avoid the hazards of any sleeping arrangement. Find it online and on shelves in January 2020.