As a new mother I was shrouded in new baby bliss, with a tad of exhaustion added into the mix. One of the first questions I was asked was “how is she sleeping?” and not long after it became “is she sleeping through the night yet?”
My answer being “no, she breastfeeds so she wakes a few times a night” was often answered with an “oh”, a raised eyebrow, and “that must be hard.” When her first birthday came and she still wasn’t sleeping through the night people seemed surprised. And now that she is almost 2 and still wakes at least once per night I think people have finally given up on providing suggestions for how to get her to sleep through the night.
The questions “how are they sleeping?” and “are they sleeping through the night yet?” are not meant to strike up anxiety in exhausted parents, or to make them question what they are doing. It is often just a routine question proposed by genuinely caring and interested individuals. However these simple questions can indeed make a parent wonder if their child is “normal” when they are waking multiple times throughout the night.
Lack of knowledge about an infant’s sleep cycle is a common reason for parents questioning the normalcy of their infant’s nighttime routine. First it is important to recognize that the idea that babies sleep through the night is a myth and “cultural construct” which is perpetuated through Westernized cultures (Nicholson and Parker, 2013). Second, as a newborn their schedule is opposite of what ours typically is. During pregnancy an infant is rocked and swayed throughout the day by the movements of their mother and their awake period was mostly while she was sleeping because there was less motion to rock them to sleep. The cycle does not automatically change once they are born. It takes time for them to adjust to being awake during the day and asleep at night. In addition, the sleep patterns of babies are vastly different than those of adults. Dr. Sears explains how during the first few months of life infants sleep 14-18 hours per day without respect to the differences between day and night (Sears, 1999). They sleep in short bouts which range from 30 minutes to 4 hours thus making it completely normal for an infant to wake multiple times throughout the night.
Another way in which babies sleep cycles are different than adults can be found when examining REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Adults have fewer periods of REM sleep and more periods of deep sleep whereas infants have more REM sleep cycles and less frequent deep sleep periods. The more periods of REM sleep there are leads to increased chances for waking. Children do not adjust to adult sleeping patterns until around the age of two or three (Sears, 1999). In addition to REM sleep being different between adults and babies, the circadian rhythm (physiological changes that happen within a 24 hour period) that adults possess are nonexistent in infants. Prior to birth newborns rely on the internal clock of the mother which is passed on to the placenta through maternal melatonin. However after birth the baby is no longer getting that and must rely on their own internal clock which is not present because they do not yet produce their own melatonin (Kennaway, 1996). A baby takes at least 12 weeks to begin producing their own melatonin (Rivkees, 2003). A newborn who is breastfed can ingest melatonin in the mother’s nighttime breastmilk which helps to induce sleep, and is why it is easy for a mother to get in the habit of nursing their baby back to sleep even after the need for nourishment has been met.
From a biological perspective an infant is not concerned with sleep habits. A baby’s primary need is to satisfy hunger. Infants scheduled are based on how long it takes for them to eat, digest, and then become hungry again. This will vary depending on the baby and on the stage of development they are in. Some infants will go two or three hours between the time they started eating and the time they started eating again. Others will go 3o minutes. During periods of growth their feeding and sleep schedules will change. Once a child gets a little older and begins teething, this will also factor into the quality and amount of time spent sleeping.
The time a child spends sleeping is not the only thing a parent should be focusing on however. Because infants have not yet developed their own circadian rhythm they have needs that must be met at all hours of the day. As many parents are well aware of, they must be fed, changed, and loved even in the wee hours of the morning when mom and dad are exhausted and just want to be asleep. As stated by Nicholson and Parker in their book Attached at the Heart, “babies have needs at night just as they do during the day – to be fed, to be comforted, and to be protected. They may feel fear, loneliness, sadness, or too cold or too hot- and therefore they need the reassurance of a loving parent to help them feel secure during the night.” Parents should consider how to best meet the nighttime needs of their baby.
Some helpful suggestions are as follows:
- Sleep when baby sleeps. If you are able to nap during the day then you will have more energy for when your baby needs responding to throughout the night.
- Keep baby close to you. Co-sleeping (which is defined as keeping the baby in the same room as the parents) as recommended by the APA during the first six months, and beyond, can help parents more readily respond to the nighttime needs of their baby.
- Avoid stimuli when putting baby to bed. Examples may be making sure the room is dark, that there are no electronic devices on such as a TV, and that there is minimal outside noise.
- Establish a nighttime routine. As baby matures this routine will help ease them into bedtime, making it simpler for them to fall asleep.
- Rock your baby and sing to them. Hearing parents voices, especially mother’s, has an immediate calming effect on baby. There are more benefits as well; the rocking motion is important for the vestibular system which is responsible for balance, motor coordination, and spatial perception. Singing to baby is good for their language and early communication skills. Also, singing to babies has been shown to relax mothers and can help alleviate some feelings of post-natal depression (Nicholson and Parker, 2013)
- Avoid sleep training methods which encourage parents to not respond to the nighttime needs of their baby. For example, the cry-it-out method, which tells parents to leave babies as young as 6 months alone in their crib to cry themselves to sleep. It is important to point out that infants are not neurologically or developmentally capable of calming or soothing themselves to sleep in a healthy way. When a baby’s cries are left unattended they eventually shift into using their primitive brain (fight, flight, freeze mode). What parents see is that the baby has stopped crying. However research shows that although the crying has stopped, there remains irregularity in breathing and heart rate as well as elevated levels of cortisol production in the brain which over an extended period of time can lead to damaged synapses in the brain (Sunderland, 2006). The process of learning to regulate emotions and self-soothe is not well developed until the age of about two and a half or three (Nicholson and Parker, 2013).
- Be empathetic to your child and try to understand what is happening with them physically and developmentally. Often sleep schedules will be disturbed when the child is sick, teething, or when they are making developmental advancements. For example, when my daughter was learning how to crawl I had a terrible time trying to get her down to sleep (about two and a half weeks of her staying up late, being overtired, and just not giving in to sleep). This lasted until she was able to master that task. What happens is the baby’s mind is so focused on learning this new task that they have a hard time unwinding. It is like when an adult has something on their mind and they can’t fall asleep because it is like their mind just won’t turn off. Well, that happens with our babies too, they just can’t communicate that to us.
- Understand that each baby’s sleep patterns will be different. Your baby will not sleep like your friend’s baby, who will not sleep like your neighbor’s baby. Each child is unique and will have their own sleep needs. Those patterns and sleep needs will also likely change as your baby continues to grow. Be flexible with your baby and do your best to meet their needs on a day-to-day basis.
- If what you are trying is not working, try something else. Rock your baby in another room or in another way, sing softer or louder, give them an infant massage, give them a warm bath, use lavender scented things, use skin-to-skin contact (where bare-chested baby is laying on a bare-chested parent), or whatever else may work for your baby that day. Babies needs change so what they needed to fall asleep last week may be slightly different tonight.
- And lastly, take care of your own needs throughout the day. We can only give to our children what we have. If what we have is a very small amount of energy then that is all our children will get. So take care of your own needs so that you can better respond to and meet the needs of your sweet baby.
Let us hear your questions and comments in our Facebook group. We’d love to hear from you!
Victoria Steiner is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor specializing in child and family therapy, is a professional affiliate of API, and is a Parent Educator at Nashville Birth and Babies in Brentwood where she teaches an Attachment Parenting Through Infancy class. She has used Attachment Theory and AP principles in her work with clients as well as with her one-year-old daughter. Visit Nashville Birth and Babies for a class schedule and more information.
Kennaway DJ, Goble FC, Stamp GE (1996) Factors influencing the development of melatonin rhythmicity in humans. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Vol 81, 1525-1532
Nicholson, B, Parker, L. (2013) Attached at the Heart: Eight proven principles for raising connected and compassionate children. Deer Beach FL: HCI
Rivkees, SA (2003) Developing circadian rhythmicity in infants. Pediatrics. Vol 112, 373-81
Sears, W, Sears M. (1999) Nighttime Parenting. Chicago: La Leche League International.
Sunderland,M (2006) The Science of Parenting. New York, NY: DK