THE REALITIES OF INFANT SLEEP
Correcting Common Sleep Myths
Us parents just want the best for our babies and we seem to always be on the lookout for things that aren’t working. But it’s hard to know what’s normal when it comes to your baby’s sleep patterns. After working with close to 200 sleepers and their parents I have come to find that the more knowledge a parent has about the science of sleep the more comfortable they are with the ups and downs of their infant’s sleeping habits. Let’s dive into the realities of infant sleep that can help you feel more confident with troubleshooting.
Your baby will wake up throughout the night.
Don’t worry. I’m not striking down your hopes that you and your baby will finally sleep all night. My clients’ babies generally sleep 6-8 hours overnight by 8-10 weeks old, and 11-12 hours by 3-5 months old, without withholding feedings or making a hungry infant wait to eat.
There’s a huge group advocating for “biologically normal infant sleep”, which encourages mothers to nurse/feed their baby frequently in the night, as it is “biologically normal” for a baby to wake and eat all throughout the night. They’re half right… every baby, and adult, wakes throughout the night. So while it’s true that it’s 100% biologically normal for a baby to wake up throughout the night, the difference between a waking that requires a feeding or parental support to get back to sleep and one that does not is mainly dependent on how the infant fell asleep to begin with. Infants who have fallen asleep independently in their own sleep space will emerge from a sleep cycle, reposition themselves and go right back to sleep. Generalities aren’t always helpful, so I will say that it is more likely that an infant who fell asleep while feeding or being rocked will emerge from a sleep cycle and immediately cry for whatever the infant associated sleep with (rocking and feeding for example). Sometimes adults and infants stay awake between sleep cycles longer than preferable, but in general this is not a problem. Your infant might practice a developmental skill overnight such as rolling or babbling, fuss a while due to how long it’s taking to get back to sleep, or just lay awake staring at the green dot on the baby monitor above (which by the way you can cover with black electrical tape). If a waking lasts longer than 15-20 minutes, and especially if your little one works herself up to a pretty upset state, recheck your infant’s schedule, as there could be something during the day that is causing your baby not to seamlessly connect cycles during the night.
What should you do if your baby goes through these natural wakings in the night? WAIT. Remind yourself that this is normal and does not necessarily mean your baby is hungry, distressed, or needs your help. Of course sometimes your baby is hungry or needs your help in some way. Here’s what you can ask yourself to determine whether your baby is ready to sleep through the night:
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Most likely you’ll see your baby start to self-soothe and go into the next sleep cycle without needing your support.
Active sleep is very active.
This goes along with the first reality. When a baby enters active sleep there is a lot of movement and noise. Grunting, cry-outs, smacking and sucking (not hunger related). Feet-kicking, rolling, head-shaking, and wiggling. Even eyes fluttering and opening/closing. Your baby isn't technically awake during this stage of sleep and your baby does not need any support. Your baby is NOT sleeping poorly. This is a normal and healthy stage of sleep. Each stage of sleep serves an important function and is just as important as deep sleep.
A newborn spends half of their sleep cycle in active sleep. An infant will spend 2 of the 4 stages in very light sleep with lots of movement and noise(1). This change happens around 3-4 months old, and goes along with what people call “the 4-month regression”. It may have been okay for you to swoop your newborn up and feed when it looked like your newborn was seemingly unsettled with crying out and sucking on their fist. But if you continue this past 3 months old (honestly, past 8ish weeks old!) you’re going to get a lot of habit wakings that start, and this leads to sleep going downhill. If your newborn or infant is too loud for you to sleep through you might want to turn the sound machine up, invest in ear plugs (don't worry, you'll still be able to hear your infant crying!) or even move your baby to his own room, as both baby and parents tend to sleep better this way.
Your baby’s schedule will change.
Don't get too comfortable with a particular schedule or amount of time awake before sleep, as your baby will need a shift in wake window lengths every 2-3 weeks. Sometimes less! By 12 weeks old it is helpful to increase wake windows by 15 minutes at a time, otherwise you will be continuously playing catch-up.
If you are trekking along on one schedule and your baby starts to protest falling asleep, shortening naps, or waking early in the morning then it’s probably time for a schedule change! Compare your baby’s wake windows with the below graphic outlining typical wake windows for each age range. If your baby’s wake windows are shorter than these, and sleep is not solid, then push the wake windows longer by 15 minutes at a time. It takes 3-5 days for your baby to adjust to longer wake windows, so don’t despair if your baby is extra cranky, or if sleep doesn’t magically get better the first day that you make the change.
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Your baby may need a big schedule adjustment around:
>8-10 weeks old (5 to 4 naps and longer wake windows than you’d think!),
>4 months old (4 to 3 naps),
>6 months old (3 to 2 naps and decreasing daytime sleep to 3 hours total),
>9 months old (stretching wake windows out to 3-3.25 hr before naps and 4 hours before bed to help with the physical developmental milestones that your baby will go through),
>12 months (2 to 1 nap),
>18 months (decreasing daytime sleep to 1.5 hours, lengthening wake time before nap and before bed),
>About 2.5-3 years old (10.5 hour night, rocky schedule for a while!)
Sleeping through the night isn’t always 12 hours.
Your baby's schedule will bounce between an 11-hour night and a 12-hour night based on your baby's sleep needs for his age and developmental stage. As your baby's wake windows increase and she gets closer to dropping a nap the bedtime will get later. Once the nap is dropped, the bedtime gets earlier. This pattern continues until a child no longer naps. If you have in your head that your baby isn’t doing the “normal” 12 hours so something is wrong, or if you are shooting for 12 hours at all times, you will be often disappointed. You will definitely be able to relish that beautiful 7-7 schedule at some point, assuming your baby knows how to fall asleep independently. But it’s more typical that your baby will need closer to an 11 or 11.5 hour night.
Discovering your baby’s sleep needs
This subject deserves a blog post of its own, so I won’t get too much into it! Picture your baby as having a “sleep tank” that is split up into daytime sleep and nighttime sleep. If you add these two amounts together it equals the total amount of sleep a baby needs, which is individual to each baby. If there is an imbalance in daytime sleep and night time sleep you will see a number of disruptions such as protesting falling asleep, waking early morning, or waking early from a nap. If your baby is getting too much daytime sleep, then that sleep tank will fill up on daytime sleep and there won’t be any room for night sleep. You will start to see the baby “take” hours elsewhere such as taking a while to fall asleep at bedtime, or waking early morning. If the baby is sleeping a wonderful 12 hours, but naps are very short, this shows that that sleep tank is being filled up with nighttime sleep, thus not leaving enough room for daytime sleep. Learning this troubleshooting trick years ago really helped me be able to attain both solid days and nights for any baby that I work with. Below you will find a graphic that will help you find your baby’s total sleep needs by adding the daytime sleep plus night time sleep. Of course every baby is different, so if you are within these ranges and sleep is much like a pendulum, swinging between good naps and bad nights then back the other way, then it could be that your baby needs something different, and now it’s time to put on your troubleshooting hat and determine what the balance is.
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