When I was a new mom, I wanted what every parent craves. I was desperate for my infant to sleep through the night. She did, just shy of three months old. I smugly thought it was because I was a mom who gave my baby plenty of nurturing, but also structure. We followed the eat-sleep-play routine, and it seemed to be working beautifully. I congratulated myself on having a “good” baby. (I also was worried that my baby would stop breathing at night. New motherhood is great for anxiety.) It was all bliss until my subsequent three children arrived and not one of them were as predictable as our first.
The reality is, sleep deprivation is a real struggle for almost all parents. We’ve got to stop assuming that babies should be sleeping through the night, and if they aren’t, something is wrong with either the kid or our parenting. Need proof? A new study confirms that it’s perfectly normal for babies to not sleep the whole night through.
McGill University tracked 44 infants over the course of two weeks. They concluded, “New parents often expect their baby to start sleeping through the night around the time they reach six months of age.” Okay, we’re listening. They continued, “But according to a new study parents should view sleep consolidation as a process, instead of a milestone to be achieved at a specific age.”
Get this. They also found that of the babies studied, sleep “patterns vary greatly—not only for different babies, but also night to night for the same baby.” Yes, I hate to tell you that just because your baby sleeps through the night once, it sure doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily keep happening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics confirms, “Babies do not have regular sleep cycles until about 6 months of age. While newborns sleep about 16 to 17 hours per day, they may only sleep 1 or 2 hours at a time.” As the infant gets older, they don’t need as much sleep, generally speaking. However, every baby is different. And here’s the kicker. “It is normal for a 6-month-old to wake up during the night.”
Why can’t they just get some shut-eye, so we can get our own rest? Any experienced parent can tell you that there are dozens of reasons a baby isn’t going to blissfully head to bed at 8 p.m. and awake twelve hours later, refreshed and ready to rock their baby day.
The Guardian reported that a baby’s “need to feed” is all-consuming and therefore, is also all-consuming for the parents. They explain that eating is hard work and make a child exhausted. In turn the child sleeps (the recovery period from working so hard to eat). Of course, four hours later (or sooner—dang growth spurts) the baby wants to eat again.
The other issue? Babies don’t have a twenty-four hour day cycle like adults do. Basically, the baby is running the show while the parents are literally running around meeting the baby’s every whim. In addition, babies don’t understand day and night. How many times have you heard a parent say their infant has their days and nights confused? What they found is that until a baby is between two and six months old, they “won’t function consistently.” Adding, “Babies don’t sleep through the night because they can’t.”
The McGill University researchers observed that “some parental practices were related to variability in sleep patterns” which included breastfeeding and co-sleeping. These two practices showed “more variability in sleep patterns night to night.” This doesn’t mean that if you’re breastfeeding your baby, you need to immediately switch to bottles and formula–unless you want to. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that breastfeeding does reduce a baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
There are plenty of books out there to try to convince you that there’s some sort of magical ten-step-program to get your little angel to rest all night so you can get your Netflix on. Don’t fall for it. Also, don’t do anything like add rice cereal to your baby’s bottle, leave them screaming in their crib for hours on end, or try to stretch their feedings. Always put your baby to bed safely, on their back, on a solid and safe surface, and without anything nearby that can pose a strangulation or suffocation hazard.
Yes, there are tried-and-true helps that work for some babies. Some parents swear by swaddling, white noise machines, rocking, or infant massage. As long as it’s safe for the baby, hey, you do you. But if these things fail, it doesn’t make you a failure. Source after source emphasizes that six months of age tends to be the norm when parents can expect their baby to maybe, just maybe, begin to regulate their sleep cycle.
If your baby has reached the six-month mark and is not sleeping through the night, take your concerns to your pediatrician and brainstorm with experienced parents. Just keep in mind that every child is different, and almost every parent I know is exhausted.
I hate to break it to you, but we’re often really tired well past the infant and toddler years. I thought this nightmare (pun intended) would end when all my kids’ teeth came in and I no longer had to place them to sleep in a crib. It turns out, every childhood stage brings about new sleep disruptors for both the kiddo and the parent.
If you glean anything from all of my research, let it be this. It’s normal for your infant who is younger than six months of age to not sleep through the night. I know parents, especially those of infants, are exhausted. But please, don’t take the approach of “desperate times call for desperate measures” and do something unsafe or just plain ridiculous in order to try to get your baby to sleep through the night.