"Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?" is often the first question people ask a new parent. The truth is that most babies do not sleep through the night, yet it is a myth that is perpetuated from generation to generation.
Babies sleep patterns will change many times over the first years of life. Disruptions and challenges often match developmental milestones, growth spurts and illnesses. Many babies do go through a phase where they sleep for longer periods of time only to begin waking at night during different developmental stages. They may wake occasionally during nightmares, teething, illness, growth spurts, or during times of transition in their lives.
As tired as we parents are, babies nighttime needs for us are just as important as their daytime needs for us. Babies need our consistent reassurance and responsiveness to help them grow. The challenge is to find the way to ensure the most needs are met most of the time in a consistent and loving way.
Parents can help their children learn that bedtime or naptime is a peaceful time; a time of quiet connection and snuggles. Even though young children may outgrow needing to eat during the night, they might still require comfort and reassurance.
Parents who are frustrated with frequent waking or who are sleep deprived may be tempted to try sleep training techniques that recommend letting a baby cry in an effort to "teach" him to "self-soothe".
Research shows us that an infant is not neurologically or developmentally capable of calming or soothing himself to sleep in a way that is healthy. The part of the brain that helps with self-soothing isn't well developed until the child is two and a half to three years of age. Until that time, a child depends on his parents to help him calm down and learn to regulate his intense feelings.
The Case Against Solitary Sleep
It's important to note that infant solitary sleep is a relatively new practice that has evolved in the western world only within the last 100 years. Recently, there have been efforts by various medical and professional organizations to discourage parents from sleeping with their children for fear that it contributes to an increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). However, new research demonstrates that co-sleeping, when practiced by informed parents, can be safe and beneficial. In fact, many cultures where parents routinely sleep with their children report some of the lowest SIDS rates. In some of these cultures SIDS is non-existent.
API encourages parents to respond to their children's needs at night just as they do during the day. Parents are also encouraged to explore the variety of different sleeping arrangements, and to choose the approach that best allows them to be responsive at night. Individual babies' sleep patterns and needs vary a great deal. Remain flexible and understand that it is developmentally appropriate and normal for babies to wake up during the night to feed and seek contact.
What is Co-Sleeping?
Many terms related to infant sleep are used interchangeably, which can create confusion. API uses the following definitions:
- Co-sleeping refers to sleeping in "close proximity," which means the child is on a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents. This includes the use of a cosleeping bassinet or "sidecar," which is a crib-like bed with only three walls, with the fourth side remaining open and pushed up against the parents' bed. For the older child, this can include sleeping in a separate bed in the same room as the parents, or two or more older siblings sleeping together in a separate room.
- Bed-sharing, also called the "family bed," describes a sleep arrangement where the family members sleep on the same sleep surface. This practice is recommended for only for breastfeeding families using API's Safe Sleep Guidelines.
- Regardless of sleeping arrangements, nighttime routines often help everyone unwind from a busy day and help establish healthier sleep habits
- Experiment to find the routine that works best for the child and remember that any bedtime routine may take 30 minutes or an hour or more
- Keep in mind that sleep routines change as the child grows and matures. Keep your sense of humor and remain flexible
- Help your child learn to trust her body when she is tired by recognizing the signs of tiredness, and not forcing her to sleep when she is not tired, or keeping her awake when she is tired, just for the sake of a routine
- When the time comes for a child to transition to her own bed, make sure that the transition is gentle and that parents respond to any feelings of fear or upset experienced by the child
- Young children who have their own bed often go to sleep more willingly when parents lie down with them in their bed until they are very drowsy or until they go to sleep. Children outgrow this need when they are developmentally ready and will happily go to sleep on their own
- Older children may still enjoy a brief snuggle time with parents before bed
- Neither parenthood nor co-sleeping needs to put a damper on intimacy; a little creativity, including timing and location, can ensure that intimacy is not unduly disrupted by a new baby