Babies and Sleep. One More Time.

by John Hoffman

Over the course of my long career writing for and about parents, one of my ongoing pet topics has been baby and toddler sleep issues. That’s because, IMO, parents have been fed years of misleading information about babies and sleep. Much of the misinformation has focused on that crucialized and highly loaded “milestone” we call “sleeping through the night.”

One of my pet peeves in this area is the concept of “self-soothing,” the suggestion that babies who are left alone crying, in order to teach them to go to sleep on their own, are learning to “self-soothe.” That’s a lot of malarkey, as my dad use to say, and as I once showed in a series of blogs. But, that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Recently I came across a Canadian study that debunked two other wrong and harmful ideas about babies and sleep, specifically that:

  1. nightwaking is abnormal and that all babies should be sleeping through the night between six months and a year
  2. nightwaking is a sign of (or causes) bad things to come – behaviour problems and emotional problems

It’s hard enough to cope when your baby wakes up a lot and is hard to soothe. Scaring parents by telling them their babies are abnormal or headed for behaviour problems just increases the stress. Parents start second-guessing themselves. Dads and moms can start second-guessing each other and fighting over conflicting ideas about how to handle nightwaking. Not helpful.

So I was very pleased to read about this new study that trashed both of those ideas. This study followed several hundred babies and found that almost half were still not sleeping through the night (defined as 8 hours) by age 12 months. (i.e., nightwaking is one kind of normal). They also found that the nightwakers did not have more problems with “psychomotor and mental development” than their sleepier counterparts. (i.e., nightwaking is not harmful to babies’ development.)

One interesting thing they did find was that breastfed babies were less likely than formula-fed babies to sleep 6 or 8 hours at a time. You need to know that the idea that babies should be sleeping through the night at or not long after six months of age was developed more than 50 years ago, when few babies were breastfed for more than a month or so. And breastfed babies do wake up more often. But breastfeeding is the way babies were designed to be fed. Therefore nightwaking is normal, both biologically and evolutionarily. It’s not a sleep disorder or a missed milestone.

So if your baby is a nightwaker, I hope this helps you feel a little bit better. Sure, it doesn’t take away the challenges of interrupted nights, something my family experienced with all three of our kids. But at least there is no need to stress over the idea that something is “wrong” with your kid, or that you and/or your partner have done something wrong, or that nightwaking is somehow going to harm your child.

It will go away eventually—perhaps not as quickly as you’d like—but it does get better.

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One thought on “Babies and Sleep. One More Time.

  1. Thank you John, for clarifying both the biological and developmental needs of our tiniest beings and hopefully helping parents to feel less stress (which also affects everyone’s sleep) and trust that they know their children best. Happy New year!

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