The truth about sleeping through the night
When we become parents, we expect some form sleep deprivation, it comes with the territory. But at some level we are all waiting to post that milestone card on social media. The one that says our baby slept through the night for 10-12 hours (yes, that’s what sleeping through the night should really look like for a child).
But the truth about sleeping through the night is a little different from what is commonly thought.
Sleeping through the night doesn’t happen
The term “sleeping through the night” is really a misnomer. It doesn’t happen. No-one, adults or babies alike, really “sleep through” the night. The truth is, we all wake frequently. Honestly!
However, if we wake for less than a few minutes, we simply don’t remember it, there’s not enough time for memory consolidation.
I remember a newsreader on local radio told a story once about how she hated her night brace but was always astounded that she’d wake up in the morning without it. Indeed, on most mornings she’d find it on the floor across the room. It turned out that during the night she was getting upset with her brace plate, taking it out and throwing it across the room. She was fully awake at the time (her husband can vouch for this). But in the morning, she had no recollection of it, and this freaked her out a bit.
What was happening here was perfectly normal; instead of sleeping through the night continuously, this newsreader, like all adults, was waking in between sleep cycles.
Sleep cycles for most humans are made up of five sleep stages. Newborns under 12-weeks of age are the exception, with only two stages of sleep. Their sleep is a little different, and I’m not going to focus on that here. But once they are past that point, say by the 3- or 4-month mark, their sleep cycles resemble those of adults.
We sleep in cycles, waking frequently
During sleep cycles, humans’ transition through five different stages of sleep. These range from light sleep to deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Moving through the five stages of sleep makes up one sleep cycle. And at the end of each sleep cycle we either come to the surface of sleep briefly or wake fully.
Prior to late toddlerhood, these sleep cycles are relatively short. They only last around 40-45 minutes for babies. Compared to around 90 minutes for adults. So, it makes sense that babies wake more frequently at night (even if they don’t need a feed). Indeed, truly “sleeping like a baby” can mean more wakes than an adult, not less.
If you have a child waking every 1 to 2 sleep cycles, rest assured that it’s perfectly normal. It is natural for them to stir and resettle, or to wake fully around that point. But note that waking fully doesn’t mean they’ve had enough sleep. And it won’t be as refreshing for them.
The trick to better sleep is linking sleep cycles
The trick to better sleep is linking these sleep cycles and happily returning to sleep.
Ideally children who still nap during the day link a minimum of 2 sleep cycles each nap. It is worth trying to resettle them if they need more sleep.
Indeed, the trick to what is commonly referred to as “sleeping through the night” is being able to seamlessly transition or settle between these sleep cycles. Linking one cycle after the other with little effort.
This linking is ideally what you see when a baby is ready to give up a night feed, the stretches of consolidated sleep – the hours where they seamlessly drift back into another sleep cycle – increase until they can sleep 10-12 hours at night, uninterrupted. Yes, that can and does happen! But it also means that baby needs to learn how to do this, and that learning often starts at bedtime.
It’s the uninterrupted sleep that helps us feel refreshed the next morning, so consolidating those sleep hours is an important part of healthy sleep. Adding up the hours of broken sleep still won’t feel as refreshing as if they were nicely linked together. If you feel tired after a broken night, chances are your child feels it too.
It makes sense
Sleep cycles make perfect sense when you think about it. The simple act of sleeping makes us vulnerable. After all we’re lying down with our eyes shut, unaware of our surroundings for a solid portion of the night. If we really did this in solid blocks for 8 hours as adults and 10-12 hours as children, humanity may not have survived so long.
It makes good survival sense to check out your environment, make sure everything is OK and then (ideally) peacefully drift back into cherished sleep.
++ After 3-4 months of age babies have 5 stages of sleep just like adults.
++ Moving through these 5 stages makes up one sleep cycle.
++ Sleep cycles for children are much shorter than for adults, they stir or wake after 45 minutes (give or take).
++ For a child, one sleep cycle is typically not an adequate amount of time for a decent daytime nap (there are exceptions).
++ If your child is waking frequently at night (every few sleep cycles) then they won’t feel as refreshed as if they slipped seamlessly between the cycles. Broken sleep takes its toll, especially after the 6-month mark.
++ Good healthy sleep, being able to consolidate more hours overnight and have long day sleeps, depends on a baby’s ability to transition between sleep cycles.
Healthy sleep is not about changing the fact that your child really does wake multiple times a night –they likely still will for a brief period. This is a lifelong thing. The real aim is for a child (whatever their age) to become comfortable in their environment and confident about seamlessly slipping into the next sleep cycle, without the need for something or someone to intervene and help (again and again and again).
Whoever coined the term sleeping like a baby, may have cottoned onto the fact that young babies are inherently sleepy, that much is true, but the science behind sleep in the early days was a bit hit and miss. Sleep cycles are here to stay, and it really may be true to say we’d much rather be sleeping like a husband than a baby these days.
This article was previously published in the July/August version of the Great Health Guide.
If your older baby is having issues slipping seamlessly between sleep cycles and you’d like some help, please book in a free initial call and mini sleep evaluation to learn more. Because the investment in sleep is well worth it!