THE REALITIES OF SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT
The lowdown on when and why
“Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?” has almost certainly got to be the number one asked question among new parents. Often well meant, and either stemming from genuine curiosity or just to make conversation, it’s none-the-less an annoying question and one that (if you’ve yet to achieve the perfect concoction of magic to make it happen) can spark anxiety, guilt and a feeling that you’re just not up to this parenting-malarky.
But what age do babies actually start to sleep through the night? And what does sleeping through the night even mean? Comparison is often natural, but when we don’t have accurate measures of what normal baby sleep looks like, how can we possibly tell when they are ready? Having listened to the expectations of hundreds of parents, I can tell you that not many are fully informed about the realities of sleeping through the night. So read on to hear my thoughts based on fact, not hearsay….
Reality check number 1
First up, you need to stop worrying about what other parents and their little ones are up to. Other parents aren’t always being completely honest when commenting on their own child’s sleep situation. A Netmums survey revealed that around half of parents actually lie about their child’s sleeping habits and arrangements! It’s unclear how many parents are doing to be intently deceitful, but in my experience of talking to parents it’s usually because they don’t want to be seen as a failure, don’t want to brag, don’t want to be a ‘moaner’ or simply just think it’s no one else’s business!
Reality check number 2
No one can even agree on what sleeping through the night actually means! Parents, and even researchers and health professionals, have varying opinions on what is actually classed as sleeping through the night.
According to research, many parents class their baby as sleeping through once they are getting an average of 9.6 hours of sleep each night. Definitely not the 7-7, 12 hours a night that’s often cited as the dream goal of sleeping through the night.
However, some researchers and professionals conducting sleep studies consider even less sleep to be normal. Much of the research carried out assumes the term sleeping through to be anything from 5 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. So if even they can’t agree, how can we compare?
What about my experience as a sleep consultant? The large proportion of babies I see never achieve the holy grail of 12 hours of uninterrupted overnight sleep. Yes of course some do, but these are the babies at the end of a very wide-ranging scale. Which of course means for every baby that sleeps for 12 hours, there’s one who only needs 9 hours before they’re feeling refreshed and ready for the day. The age most parents start thinking of sleep training to achieve sleeping-through-the-night status is between 6 and 12 months; average overnight sleep for this age range is 10-11 hours, and even that is likely to still be broken with night feeds much of the time.
Reality check number 3
Brief wakings are a completely normal component of natural sleep physiology! Juts take a look at the graph below that shows what normal sleep looks like beyond 4 months. Research shows that even newborn babies are capable of resettling themselves back to sleep at the end of each sleep cycle (the peaks) but only if their needs are met and they have been given the right tools from the beginning.
If something is up with your little one, it’s likely during these peaks into light sleep that your child will signal for your help. Yes, sleep associations are closely linked to these normal wakings, but so is being cold, hungry, anxious, unwell, afraid, constipated, uncomfortable, in pain from teething…the list goes on!
It’s also the reason why babies who have previously slept through the night suddenly start waking again. The babies who have lots of sleep bumps and disturbances throughout the early years are the ones who struggle the most to consistently sleep through.
Want to know more about the sleep science, sleep cycles and how to support your baby’s sleep from birth to allow the to sleep through when they are developmentally ready? Join our sleep courses which are packed full of information and handy tips on how to navigate through the early years to gain the best sleep you can at the earliest possibility!
Reality check number 4
Research shows that individual differences are HUGE during babies sleep needs, especially during the first year of life.
One of the best insights I can give you into the world of sleep is just how unique each baby, child, and parent is, and therefore each family are. And this is never more true than in the first year of a baby’s life. There are always variations in sleep needs as a baby grows into a toddler and child, especially with growing confidence in parenting styles and as personalities emerge which provide further differences. However, babies under 12 months vary even more greatly in their core sleep needs. Add these differences to contextual and environmental factors and it’s no wonder there’s so much contrast among babies.
Although we often look at averages, the reality is there are huge variations in the amount of sleep each baby needs, how they will scatter/cluster their naps, and when they are ready to sleep through the night. Whilst this makes it difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach, if we respect and understand our child’s individual differences, we can look out for their readiness signs and support them when they’re capable of achieving the next stage in sleep.
Reality check number 5
The pressure to get your baby to sleep through is immense. Whether it’s pressure from yourself (because you’re just so exhausted!), a partner, a family member or friend, it’s tough going. Being armed with the reality of what normal baby sleep looks like can ease the pressure, as well being able to confidently tell others that your baby is doing just fine, and what you actually need is some help and support!
Successful sleeping looks completely different from family to family too. Some parents want their babies to be able to be happy sleeping independently in their own sleep environment, whereas other parents just want some stretches of uninterrupted co-sleeping.
Ultimately, only you will know what you want to achieve, and what your baby is capable of, but having realistic expectations is a good place to start.
So how do you know when they are ready?
In reality, I find that whilst many children are ready to sleep through the night by their first birthday, there are also some that haven’t yet reached that developmental milestone. Each baby must be viewed as a unique individual with many factors taking into consideration to determine when they are ready.
When there are so many variables, how can you tell when they are ready? There are a few points I generally check against to see if they are anywhere near ready, as well as factors that can stop them even if they are:
- were they premature? being born early can often mean that they are still developmentally lagging within the first year, which includes the ability to consolidate sleep.
- are they a particularly hungry baby? check they are getting enough calories in during the day for their needs first
- on the other end of the scale, are they petite? smaller babies may not have big enough stomachs to sleep through the night as early on as bigger babies
- what is their personality like? babies who are quite easy going will often sleep through the night earlier than their spirited counterparts!
- how about your parenting style? your child’s attachment with you, how much you’ve interfered when they are sleeping, and how responsive you are can all affect their ability to sleep through the night
- do they have any sleep associations inhibiting their sleep? the ability to self settle is a small but often significant piece of the puzzle
- what’s their sleep pressure like? if your baby can only stay awake for short periods of time, they are likely not ready to consolidate sleep just yet, which includes that big chunk overnight
- how are you feeling? babies are amazingly intuitive and can pick up parental anxiety and stress
- are they well? teething and illness plays a huge role in disturbing your attempts at some longer stretches of sleep
- are they uncomfortable? their sleep environment is everything to them, so check their lighting, bedding, comforters, audio aids etc.
Still not sure if your baby is ready to sleep through the night yet? Get in touch for a free 15 minute assessment call to get a completely honest, educated view on if your baby is ready, or not.
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Blogged by Emma Osborne, Pediatric Sleep Specialist, founder of HushaBoo & Mum to one little boy who can sleep through the night, but doesn’t always!