Why you shouldn’t expect your child to sleep through the night
Yes, I’m putting it out there. You shouldn’t expect your baby, and even your older child, to ever sleep straight through the night until morning. They never will. And neither will you, if we’re being honest about it.
The truth is that everyone (young and old) can expect to wake multiple times during the night; unless they’re heavily sedated before going to bed that is.
Indeed, this waking phenomenon isn’t due to caffeine, lack of exercise, stress, or any other factors that often contribute to a lousy night’s sleep. It’s a normal, natural part of the human sleep cycle. Yes, really.
How sleep works – the basics
Whether you’ve previously thought about it or not, you’ll already be familiar with the various stages of sleep from your own experience. You might not be able to put a name to those stages, but you’ve certainly felt the difference between waking from a deep sleep compared to a light one.
To put it simply, when we fall asleep, we start in a light stage of sleep and gradually progress into deeper stages. We stay in deep sleep for a while and then gradually re-emerge into the lighter stage, and when we do that, there’s a good chance that we’ll wake up. It’s light sleep after all.
So, how does it go for adults? You fall asleep at ten or eleven at night (if you’re lucky), hit that deep stage by midnight, hang out there for six hours or so, and then start to come back to the surface around 6:00 or 7:00am, gradually waking up refreshed and ready to face the day. Does that sound about right to you?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. The whole process from light to deep sleep to waking, only takes about an hour and a half for adults. That’s right. From start to finish, going from light sleep to deep sleep and back again takes between 90 – 110 minutes.[i]
Luckily for us (and for everyone who has to interact with us) the process repeats itself pretty easily. Either we’ll wake up for a minute or two and fall right back to sleep, or we might not even really break the surface of sleep at all. On a good night that is.
Ideally, this repetition happens five or six times in a row. We get a restful, restorative snooze in the night, and we reap the benefits of it throughout the day (you remember those days, the ones where you’re not tired).
But that’s enough about your own grown-up sleep. What about your little ones?
Sleeping like a baby – really?
Infants despite their increased need for sleep, have a much shorter sleep cycle than adults. On average, an infant goes from light sleep to deep sleep and back again in an astounding 45 – 50 minutes.[ii] So whoever coined the term, “Sleep like a baby” was clearly misinformed. Babies wake even more frequently than adults.
This is where the essential element of teaching good sleep habits and, yes I’ll say it, sleep training, comes into play. Teaching your child to sleep well DOESN’T mean your child will stay asleep, it won’t affect their natural wake ups, and it doesn’t mean they spend more time in any one stage of the sleep cycle than they otherwise would.
What learning sleep skills does do…
What it DOES do is teach your baby to fall asleep independently at the beginning of the sleep cycle, and again each time they wake up.
That’s it! That really is the heart of what we’ll be doing when we work together to promote better sleep. We’ll be helping your baby to accept these wake-ups as a non-event. And we’ll do it as gently as possible.
Once your child has learned the skills he or she need to fall back to sleep on their own, he’ll wake up after a sleep cycle, his brain will signal him to go back to sleep, and that’s exactly what he’ll do.
Why you need to know this
There are a few reasons why I feel it’s so important for parents to understand this. First of all, I want you to know that I’m not doing anything that actually influences or alters your baby’s natural sleep. Together we’re just nurturing that natural state and giving them the skills to fall asleep independently after they wake up, which, as you probably know by now, they’re going to do multiple times a night.
Second, one of the biggest arguments you might hear from critics of sleep training is, “Babies are supposed to wake up at night!” And that’s absolutely, 100 per cent correct. Babies, just like adults, are supposed to wake up at night. In fact, it would take some powerful sedatives to prevent it.
What we’ll be doing together is teaching your little one to stay calm and content when they do wake up, and giving them the ability to get back to sleep without any help from Mum or Dad, or the dummy, or any other exterior source that might not be readily available in the middle of the night.
Will it harm your child?
If you’re wondering whether teaching good sleep skills is going to put your child at an increased risk for SIDS, or if it will somehow alter their natural sleep patterns, or make them nocturnal, or damage them in any way, I can assure you with the full support of the American Academy of Pediatrics (the big authority), that it will not.[iii]
What it will do is keep them calm and assured when they wake up in the night, and help to ensure that they get the sleep they need to be happy and healthy. Because that’s really what we all want for our children, that they are happy and healthy, right?
So although your little one is going to wake up numerous times a night, every night, they can quickly and easily learn the skills to get back to sleep on their own. It will only seem as though they’re sleeping straight through the night if they have great sleep skills.
Surely that is something we can all get behind.
[i] US National Library of Medicine – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072506/
[ii] US National Library of Medicine – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439810/
[iii] American Academy of Pediatrics – https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Infant-Sleep-Training-is-Effective-and-Safe-Study-Finds.aspx