When I posted on Facebook a link to an article on research surrounding the effects of the cry-it-out (CIO) method of sleep training, quite a few people responded. But, it wasn’t to debate, point fingers or insist that the findings were incorrect. Instead, most of the comments that came in were from exhausted mothers who, after hearing the story of my first son’s sleep (or lack there of), felt encouraged to know that they aren’t alone if their baby isn’t sleeping through the night. And therein lies the problem. The conversation wasn’t necessarily centered around CIO. The conversation (or confusion) was about what realistic expectations are for infant sleep.
To give you a bit of background, my first son came out of the womb refusing to sleep. This came as a shock to me, since my pregnant self had purchased a cute bassinet that I assumed would be placed in my office where my son would snooze as I typed away at deadlines. Reality hit when I first tried to lay him in the hospital bassinet for his first night’s sleep. What I didn’t realize was that the fourth trimester is a very real thing.
What I needed to learn was what Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. and professor at the University of Notre Dame, discussed in her Psychology Today article “Dangers of Crying it Out”:
Babies are built to expect the equivalent of an “external womb” after birth. What is the external womb? –being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs met quickly. These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body development. When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems.
My son slept great when he was in my arms, but he seemed to have a censor that went off as soon as we’d place him in the bassinet or crib to sleep. It got to the point where I began to wonder why we’d even purchased a crib because it was clearly getting no use other than holding stuffed animals. What he needed was that “external womb after birth.” The thing that article doesn’t say is for how long after birth he would need that womb. When it came to my son, let’s just say it was longer than just a few days. Or months.
And now for that ever-annoying question: When did he finally sleep through the night? We got so tired of hearing that question. It started at a few weeks of age and continued until, drum roll, please, he finally slept through the entire night at 13 months. Yes, 13 months. Now, I know you may hear stories of babies who sleep through the night from birth (I still question the reality of that or the accuracy of those parents’ memories). Or, maybe it happened at two months, six months…. The point is, sleeping through the night is often a source of competition or judgment when it comes to parenting. Your 9-month-old still isn’t sleeping through the night? Have you tried….
What I’d like to offer today isn’t a list of tried-and-true methods. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to parenting. I’m not here to debate sleep training either. I’m here to set the record straight on what to expect when it comes to infant sleep. And I’ve got some research to back me up.
“Sleeping like a baby” is bogus.
“The ‘sleep like a baby’ or ‘shhhhh the baby is sleeping’ model, while some kind of western ideal is NOT what babies are designed to do nor experience, and it is definitely not in their own biological or emotional or social best interest,” said Dr. James J. McKenna, the world’s leading authority on mother-infant co-sleeping. “The whole notion of sleeping through the night is scientifically bogus and a misrepresentation of what ‘sleep like a baby’ really means, which is, waking up all night to breastfeed and receive the proper nutritional input that maximizes brain growth and cellular proliferation, and the kind of ‘lighter sleep’ for which babies are designed.”
Sleeping through the night isn’t what you think.
One of the biggest misunderstandings for new parents is what it means for a newborn to sleep through the night. I remember when I sat in the doctor’s office and he explained that we weren’t looking for an 8-or-more-hour sleep cycle. Instead sleeping through the night for an infant is a five-hour stretch. So, that means if you put your baby to bed at 10:00 p.m. and she wakes at 3:00 a.m. to feed, she has technically slept through the night according to most pediatricians’ standards. Of course most parents’ standards are a bit different.
Babies have shorter sleep cycles.
According to Dr. Sears, “Adult sleep cycles (going from light to deep sleep, and then back to light sleep) lasts an average of 90 minutes. Infant sleep cycles are shorter, lasting 50 to 60 minutes, so they experience a vulnerable period for nightwaking around every hour or even less.”
Babies have tiny tummies.
Sounds pretty obvious, right? As Dr. Sears said, “Tiny babies have tiny tummies, and mother’s milk is digested very rapidly.” So, if you are breastfeeding your baby, that milk is being absorbed efficiently, which also can mean rapidly. Since baby’s stomach is so small, frequent meals are necessary, even in the middle of the night.
Looking back on the early months and sleep patterns of my three kids, I can now see how much temperament and personality played a role in their sleep. While many people questioned what we were doing “wrong” if our babies weren’t sleeping through the night immediately after birth, I now understand that sleep isn’t always a parenting issue. As Dr. Sears said, “An important fact for you to remember is that your infant’s sleep habits are more a reflection of your baby’s temperament rather than your style of nighttime parenting. And keep in mind that other parents usually exaggerate how long their baby sleeps, as if this were a badge of good parenting, which it isn’t. It’s not your fault baby wakes up.”
Milestones mess things up.
So, let’s say you’ve reached the point where your baby is sleeping through the night, and perhaps for even longer than the standard 5 hours. Don’t get too giddy just yet. Nightwakings could be around the corner—again—thanks to milestones. “Major developmental milestones, such as sitting, crawling, and walking, drive babies to ‘practice’ their new developmental skills in their sleep,” said Dr. Sears. “Then between one and two years of age, when baby begins to sleep through the above-mentioned wake-up stimuli, other causes of nightwaking occur, such as separation anxiety and nightmares.”
The baby isn’t the one with the sleep problem.
As Dr. McKenna said, “As regards how many infants have what is considered a ‘sleep problem’ in western society that, too, is hard to ascertain exactly as it depends on how one defines an ‘infant sleep problem’ and who is doing the defining; but roughly speaking somewhere between 40-60% of western babies are ‘said’ to have sleep problems to solve. My contention is that there is nothing wrong with the babies at all but the sleep model that is being culturally imposed on them which is the cause of the ‘problem’ and not the biology of the infant that suffers through that imposed cultural model and set of expectations it produces.
“From a biological point of view, one question begs answering: why or how could 40-60% of otherwise healthy infants have sleep problems to solve and if this percentage is anything near the truth then the cultural and or scientific models of normal healthy sleep that underlie our cultural ideologies must reflect far more about adults than they do about babies. It also suggests that models of sleep, and our expectations and goals for parents, might actually prove to be the cause of the very sleep problems parents must try to solve!”
So, if your little one isn’t sleeping as long as you (or others) would like, rest assured that he probably isn’t the one with a sleep problem. And, also rest assured in knowing that he will sleep through the night at some point…and hopefully before college.