My first son took forever to fall asleep each night—it took about 45 minutes of bouncing and nursing and rocking to get him to fall asleep. Once asleep, he was up a lot. He still woke up in the middle of the night until he was four years old.
My second son was a dream when it came to falling sleep, but this kid had the fun habit of being up for hours at a time in the middle of the night. He’d be sitting up at 3 a.m., staring into space for no apparent reason. Like his brother, he didn’t start sleeping through the night until he was four or so.
At first, I kept my kids’ shit sleeping habits a bit of a secret. I knew they were healthy and growing well, so I wasn’t worried about that. It was more that I didn’t want to be judged by other parents who thought I was setting up “bad sleeping habits,” or who would blame me for somehow raising sleep-deficient children.
The thing is, when I finally confided in other parents about the way that my kids slept, I found that I actually wasn’t alone. It was amazing—the majority of other parents I spoke to had shit sleepers too. I realized, little by little, that there wasn’t anything wrong with my kids or me. Some babies and toddlers just don’t sleep. And maybe that was normal.
Since then, I’ve come across bits of research here and there that backed up those claims. But most of those studies were small and didn’t really zero in on the sometimes-extreme shit sleepers that me and many of my friends seemed to have.
That’s why I was pretty excited when I came across a new study the other day that looked at a whole bunch of kiddos and found that crappy sleep is totally and completely common and normal for the first two years of life.
The study, published in Sleep Medicine, looked at a whopping 5,700 Finnish kids and what their sleep habits were like. Basically, the study found that it’s very normal for babies and toddlers to take a while to fall asleep, and to wake up in the middle of the night.
For example, on average, six-month-olds take about 20 minutes to fall asleep. In addition, most toddlers are still waking up at least once per night till about two years old…so the idea that a baby should be sleeping through the night by six months or a year or whatever is total bullshit.
The researchers contend that there is a lot of variation here, with some kids sleeping better than others. But most sleep patterns, even the most annoying ones, are normal.
“Now we know that the individual differences are very large, and that patterns relating to falling asleep, waking up, staying awake at night and sleeping rhythms often develop at different rates,” lead author Dr. Juulia Paavonen told Reuters.
At the same time, one of the things most common among parents was a prevailing worry that they were doing something wrong in terms of sleep, or that there was something wrong with their child is they weren’t sleeping well.
The study found that among parents of eight-month-olds, up to 40% were concerned about their baby’s sleep habits. Totally relatable, right?
The study researchers contend that if you are concerned that there is something wrong with your baby, you should reach out to your pediatrician. But in most cases, if your baby is growing well and meeting milestones, there’s nothing much to worry about when it comes to your baby’s sleep.
“It is important to follow a baby’s growth to know if they are healthy,” Dr. Joanna MacLean, sleep specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, explained to Reuters.
“Given a baby’s job is to eat, sleep, and grow, growth is a useful indicator of health problems,” she said, adding that when growth and development is normal, what looks like a “sleep problem” just may be how your baby is programmed to sleep.
Of course, even if the idea that your kid’s sleep is normal is a relief to you (and it should be!) that doesn’t exactly help with the fact that having itty bitty shit sleepers is exhausting AF. I think everyone is going to manage that differently. My solution was to adjust my expectations of what I could get done as a sleep deprived person, ask for help whenever I could, and basically live on coffee.
The struggle is real and there is no sense in diminishing that. I suggest every parent do what they need to do to get through if they are blessed with a particularly shit sleeper. No judgments.
But I think that simply knowing your sleeper is normal, that you aren’t to blame for their crap sleeping – and that it really, truly does get better eventually – can really help you through the season of life when your kids just don’t sleep.