/ The Daisy Foundation with Lesley Doig

A baby in hindsight: Is my baby’s sleep normal?

Sleep is one of those conversations that seem to creep up on parents from the birth of their baby. Is it a ‘good’ sleeper?  How does is sleep? Are you getting much sleep? Sleep becomes this subject we fixate on and it can make the nights for some very dark indeed, as we question whether our babies are normal or somehow wrong.

So, let’s clarify one thing, it is normal for a baby to wake several times a night. It is normal. But this does not mean that a baby who doesn’t is bad or somehow wrong. There seems to be some confusion over what normal actually means.

So, let’s look at this scientifically. In maths what is normal. It’s an average. So, there is a mean (which is the most common area), a median (the very middle ground) and a range (this could be the range of most common numbers or the full range from highest to lowest) and we could use multiple of these to describe things. I believe that when we look at normal sleep, we are focusing on a range of hours that is a mean. So, what do most babies sleep like. This doesn’t mean that other babies outside this are wrong, it just means they don’t fall within the average range.

But what does this actually mean, why am I talking about it and how does it answer the question?

I want to honour every baby’s natural sleep patterns and for me to do this, we have to step outside of discussing things as normal, and instead look at what is natural. So, the question becomes is my babies sleep natural? Most likely, you would be asking the first question because your baby is up through the night frequently, and if this is the case, the answer is most likely, yes.

The vast majority of babies, especially within the first year, will have regular periods of waking throughout the night. This is natural. They wake, not only for nutrition as their tummies are very small and they are doing some of the most development they will ever do in their lives, but also for an inexhaustible list of other reasons. Maybe they are too hot, too cold, maybe they heard something, maybe they are alone and scared, maybe they woke and don’t know how to comfort themselves back to sleep. We as adults know. We might roll over to get comfier, maybe cuddle into a pillow, duvet or partner, maybe we put on some soothing music, or whatever else we use to comfort and calm ourselves back to sleep. Babies can not do this. They need help. And they will do perhaps for many years. THAT IS NORMAL! THAT IS NATURAL! THEY WILL DEVELOP THIS SKILL IN THEIR OWN TIME!

A baby is designed to signal you if something is not right. If they are awake and they need you. So, they do. Some babies by 6 months will sleep for extended periods of time. Some won’t and that’s ok. Some by 1 year will sleep for extended periods of time, some won’t and that too is ok. And some will still wake at 2 and beyond, and that is ok! We need to trust that our babies will learn to sleep in their own time, driven by their own biological instincts and drives.

Now, I am in no way, saying that this is easy for us parents. Even with all this knowledge, I too find myself on the darkest nights, researching why my baby is not sleeping and trying to find some quick fix. But there isn’t any. There are many theories and techniques that are used, but most are not supported by the research and some, such as the cry it out method, directly go against the current research and safety precautions. Responding to a crying baby, not only helps to develop a strong attachment to the primary caregiver, the precursor of all future attachments, but also helps to reduce the risk of SIDS.

I think that much of our anxiety about baby sleep, comes from the notion that babies should be sleeping 12 hours at night from very early on. But this is not what most babies will be doing, very few will. This does not mean that most babies are bad sleepers, it means that the perception of what good sleep is, is being dictated by the minority of babies. This does not honour the natural or normal sleep patterns of a baby. It may sound good for your baby to be sleeping through, and it may be easier for you, but it is not the norm.

So yes, you will most likely be getting up through the night to feed and comfort your baby for months, or even years. But perhaps, if we set our expectations to that being normal, natural and something we can prepare and plan for, maybe the nights don’t have to be so dark. Maybe, we could even enjoy this time of cuddling our little ones with the knowledge, that one day they won’t need us anymore. That they will reach for the pillow, or their partner, or put on their soothing music and drift back into sleep themselves. This is not forever. This is now. It can be hard. But it will change.

If you would like to learn more about normal sleep in babies, I would like to point you to BASIS. A fantastic, research driven site on how babies sleep.