Sleeping Through The Night, The Elusive Milestone

IMG_20140703_194548Simply put, our culture is obsessed with infant sleep. Whether it is the pediatrician or a random stranger on the street, if you have a baby in your arms the question, “how does she sleep?” almost ALWAYS comes up. The frequent questioning leads many new parents to worry constantly about how, when, and where their infant is sleeping. I am not really certain why it is any business of a stranger, or why we feel compelled to ask (I’m guilty of asking too!) its become a normal question, as normal as asking someone how they are. It has become common small talk, but unfortunately it causes deep worrying for many new parents. It also leads to lying or sugar coating because we are so worried about what others will think. One UK study found that a third of parents lie about how well their children sleep.1 Dr. Sears mentions in his one book2 an even higher number of parents lie about how well and where their infants sleep. Under pressure new parents lie which in turn causes even more new parents to worry why their child is not sleeping all through the night. Next time you cousin Suzy brags about her eight week old sleeping twelve hours a night, remember she just might be sugar coating the truth!

Rather than reinventing the wheel by explaining some normal newborn behavior I’ll just send you here: 3 DrJen4kids has some of the best information about biologically normal newborn behavior. Yes the article is about breast milk, but that is because that plays a role in normal newborn behavior because it is a biological norm, as normal as pregnancy. Even if you are not/did not breastfeed the information about general newborn behavior is relevant to all babies.

Now that we’ve covered the newborn phase, what now? Is baby ready to sleep through the night? Certainly a few babies will naturally fall into a pattern of sleeping much of the night without waking or having needs that need to be met, but this is more the exception rather than the rule. The reality is the majority of infants need night-time parenting and some up through preschool. Like any other milestone, sleeping through the night happens at different times. For example, most babies walk around 12 months but 9-18 months is normal. There is no set date as to when your baby will be ready to sleep through the night.

What are tired and confused parents to do? There are books, methods, etc designed to teach baby how to sleep, but personally I am not fond of anything that suggests ONE thing that will work for ALL babies. I often recommend first learning about NORMAL infant sleep. When you know the biological norms of infants it helps you to parent and make fully informed decisions. The article posted above, this article and the Baby Sleep Book by Dr.Sears I think are excellent resources for learning about normal infant sleep.  Next, I suggest figuring out your goals. You cannot MAKE another human sleep, it just is not possible but you can do your best to encourage healthy sleep behavior. Whether your goal is getting a good bedtime routine by the time you return to work or getting your 6 month old to sleep in her crib, when you understand the underlying biological norms you can better figure out a plan to reach your goals. Once you understand how your baby ticks and have goals in mind, understand you need to be flexible. A baby is a separate human being, you simply cannot control how they sleep, you can only encourage it. The No-Cry series by Elizabeth Pantley offers a variety of suggestions about how to encourage sleep and is not a one-size fits all approach.5

Once you understand normal infant behavior you will likely realize that it might be quite some time before your new little bundle gives you ten hours of uninterrupted rest.  Are you past the shock? Maybe you’re feeling a little relieved and realize you’re a great parent despite lack of sleep? Either way, the final step is coping, figuring out how you will get enough rest to function. The most important thing is SUPPORT, practical and emotional. Be sure you and your partner discuss night-time parenting and support each other through it. Ask for help, maybe grandma can bond with baby while you grab a morning nap or a friend can take your toddler for a play date while you and the new baby nap. Hire professional help, a night-time doula to help you develop a sleep routine, or a daytime doula to help you get some extra rest. It is no lie that it takes a village to raise a child. Our village may not be quite as easy to recognize as it once was, but find and create your village! Learn to let the little things go. The dishes in the sink until morning will be okay! The unfolded laundry will still be waiting tomorrow. Go to sleep, go take a nap, get some rest. Finally, create a routine and establish night vs day. It is good for you and it will help baby learn. From the very beginning make day bright and noisy and night time dark, boring and quiet. Meet all of baby’s night needs in the quiet with dim lighting. Meet their needs, but do not stimulate with extra conversation, playing, or noise.

The same night vs day pattern can later extend to nap time. I am a big fan of family nap. In my home, after lunch all the lights and noise stop and we all lay down to rest. Even if we do not all sleep it is a chance to rest and rejuvenate to make it through the rest of the day. Naps are a whole new thing to deal with and I will address another time, but I wanted to mention family nap as a potential tool for coping.

Whether you choose co-sleeping6, 7, strict scheduling or anything in between just be sure you are making a fully informed decision and following your intuition.  Remember that night waking is normal and you are a wonderful parent! The frustrating question, “how is she sleeping” is not more important or deep than a stranger asking how your day is going. It is only small talk, think nothing more about it.


Works Cited
1 “Third of Parents Lie over Children’s Sleep under Pressure to Be Perfect.” The Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

2  Sears, William, Robert Sears, and Martha Sears. The Baby Sleep Book: How to Help Your Baby Sleep and Have a Restful Night. London: Thorsons, 2005. Print.

3 “The Normal Newborn and Why Breastmilk Is Not Just Food.” The Normal Newborn and Why Breastmilk Is Not Just Food. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

4 “Sleeping through the Night.” Sleeping through the Night. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013. < box/sleep stuff.htm>.

5 “Elizabeth Pantley.” Elizabeth Pantley. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013. <>.

6 “Safe Co-sleeping Habits.” Ask Dr. Sears®. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013. <>.

7 “Safe Cosleeping Guidelines.” // Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory // University of Notre Dame. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013. <>.