What you need to know about baby sleep

This is appropriately called, “No sleep for the mommy.” (Photo credit: Jason Lander via Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m going to let you in on a big secret: Babies don’t sleep well, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There are people who will tell you that it’s possible, that you just need to use this gadget or that one; that you just need to sleep train or swaddle; that you shouldn’t have your baby in your bed whatever you do or that the only answer is bedsharing; that you’ve created bad habits you need to break; that you just need to give more food/feed your baby rice cereal/switch to formula. As is the case with parenting, everyone else seems to be the expert on your baby.

Funnily enough, most people seem to totally believe that babies don’t sleep well, at least up until the moment we have one. When a friend announces a pregnancy, we’re quick to joke, “Haha, enjoy sleep while you can!” Sleep-deprived parents are the butt of many a joke. When we are holding our own sleepless bundles of joy—maybe because we’re just so sleep deprived—we begin to imagine that babies, in fact, are supposed to sleep. We start hallucinating the image of an angelic baby sleeping peacefully in a bassinet, light filtering through gently billowing, gauzy curtains. This is our ideal, this blissfully conked out cherub. But it is all a lie, and believing in the lie will drive you crazy.

What is true about how babies sleep?

  • They prefer to sleep near/beside/on a warm body.
  • Tiny newborns wake frequently—every two hours or more is not uncommon—and this may gradually lead to longer stretches of sleep over time, but it doesn’t always.
  • It is normal for an older baby to wake, often several times, during the night at least through the first year. Babies have a physiologic need to consume calories at night and, sometimes, the individual dynamics of a breastfeeding dyad will influence whether or not a baby needs to wake to eat at night.
  • A baby’s (and toddler’s and preschooler’s and so on) sleep may be (often temporarily) disrupted by teething, illness, developmental or growth spurts, adjustments in routine (like starting daycare), and so on. These little people have brains that have to do big work, and working brains are restless brains. Besides, everyone has poor nights of sleep sometimes, even when they are not caring for/living as a newborn. These disruptions are sometimes called sleep regressions and, to some extent, occur at predictable times. Warning: Whatever changes you may attempt to make during these times may be futile.
  • There is a very wide range of normal. Some babies will sleep long stretches and some babies will not. Some babies will be more affected by teething, illness, and developmental/growth spurts than others.
  • One person’s “habit that needs to be broken” is another person’s “routine.” Nursing to sleep is not a habit that needs to be broken. Neither is rocking, or or babywearing, or holding, or snuggling, or anything else unless it is a problem for you. It might be a problem for your mother-in-law or a random stranger at the grocery store, but if it’s not a problem for you, who cares? There’s a reason why parents sigh wistfully, “It all goes by so fast”—because, in the grand scheme of things, it does. Don’t be afraid to parent in whatever way is working for you.

There’s also a wide range of normal when it comes to the sleep of children and adults, as well. We all go through periods where it’s hard for us to turn off our brains or we’re not feeling well or uncomfortable. Some adults love to be snuggled while they sleep; why would it be different for children? I think it’s appropriate to set the expectation that we will be snuggling our children to sleep—or at least tucking them in—for several years or more.

For my thoughts on how to deal with baby sleep, visit “Three steps for dealing with sleep (or the lack thereof).”