Sleep, Sweet Sleep: Seven truths about nightwaking from a dad who’s been through it

by John Hoffman

Sleep is one of those uber loaded parenting topics. When you’ve got a baby or toddler who is a persistent nightwaker, sleep can be a precious and scare commodity, and the source of parental angst and conflict.

yawn-2073293_1280Believe me, I do not have the answer to how to make a baby or toddler sleep through the night. None of our kids slept through regularly until past age three. We were definitely a muddle through, “whatever gets you through the night”, household. However, along with my lived experience, I’ve done a ton of research and writing about sleep over the years. I’ve interviewed sleep experts of all stripes – from hard-core “teach ‘em to sleep through the night” types to those who promote the family bed. So, while I can’t offer you quick solutions, I can tell you some facts and truths that I’ve learned along they way. I offer them in hopes that they might help you think more clearly about how to manage what ever sleep issues your family might be dealing with.

1. Nightwaking is normal. It is not a behaviour problem, as some sleep “experts” claim, nor is it reasonable to expect that every baby can or will sleep through the night at age six months (as they also claim). Having said that, some babies do sleep through the night by six months, even earlier. But research clearly shows that so many babies do not sleep through at six months that it is clearly one kind of normal.

2. Nightwaking, when it becomes a problem, is at least as much, if not more, your problem than your child’s problem. I don’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. I just mean that the biggest problem is often the stress that nightwaking causes for parents. Although nightwaking babies are pretty unhappy when they awake, they are almost always fine on the whole. And, speaking personally, at least half of the nightwaking stress my wife and I experienced came from kicking ourselves because we couldn’t control this thing (how our baby slept) that sleep experts were telling us we should be able to control.

3. The idea that babies who sleep through the night are “self-soothers” is a total fabrication. Yes, some babies do wake up and go back to sleep without crying. But there is not a shred of evidence that they go back to sleep because they soothed themselves. They just wake up and go back to sleep without their parents realizing it. I know this because I corresponded with the guy who made up the term “self-soother.” He told me it’s just a research term coined by a research team back in the 1970s to distinguish babies who woke up and cried (they were called signallers) and those who went back to sleep on their own.

4. Sleep training techniques that are supposed to teach babies to “self-soothe” (go back to sleep on their own) don’t work as well as some sleep experts would have you believe. Studies show that they work sometimes, but definitely not always. And sometimes they work at first, and then there’s a relapse. The baby gets a cold, a vacation disrupts the usual routine, or whatever, and you’re back to square one again.

5. Parents and babies sharing sleeping places is normal, and it can be (and is often) done safely. In western countries parents and babies sleeping together was considered weird 30 years ago, but it has always been the norm in many parts of the world. And, by the way, some of the countries where co-sleeping is the norm also have some of the lowest rates of sudden infant death in the world. Most of the “risk” of bedsharing, that some experts warn parents about has been found mostly in impoverished, socially deprived families or families where the parents smoke around the baby.

Co-sleeping has steadily caught on in the last 20 years, and I’d don’t see it going away any time soon – despite the “war” that some (mostly American) sleep experts have tried to wage against it. Bottom line: If you are going to tell moms to breastfeed their babies, a fair number of them are going to co-sleep. It’s a biological reality.

6. In spite of the many sleep methods that are out there, many families just muddle through (and that’s OK.)  They play musical beds. Baby starts in the crib, comes to bed with Mom, Dad bails to a mattress on the floor in the baby’s room and then gets up with the baby in the morning so Mom can sleep in. Or they all sleep together. Or (with older babies, whose mom with a hair-trigger wake-up alarm) the baby sleeps down the hall with the door closed so mom only hears the big cries, not every little peep. I’m not recommending any of these. I just saying they are all versions of normal these days. So if your family is playing some version of musical beds, you’re definitely not the only ones, and there is nothing wrong with you.

7. Virtually all kids sleep through the night eventually, regardless of what their parents do. I’m not saying that I think you should just grin and bear it like a good soldier. But I am saying don’t be swayed by those who say you must instill good “sleep habits” in little babies. If we paraded a random sample of 100 six-year-olds before a bunch of “sleep experts,” they would not be able to tell us which ones were good sleepers and which one were crappy.

So, if you’re baby is in the crappy category, I’m not going to tell you how I think you should handle it. We tried a bunch of things (including sleep training). So do what you think you have to do. And if it doesn’t work, don’t stick with it doggedly because you think it’s supposed to work. Try something else. But, whatever you do, try your best to support (and be on the same page with) your partner.  Because if you can reduce the parent stress that is such a big part of the nightwaking issue, you’ve licked half the problem.


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