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First Years Oct 5, 2021
4 Minutes

Are our expectations for baby sleep wrong?

Many of us assume that after around six months, a baby will start to sleep through the night. Consistently. A sort-of developmental milestone to be hit. The reality however is that science suggests this may be an unrealistic expectation (sorry!) and that as parents, we need to adjust this expectation. Here’s why…. 

Why is my baby not sleeping through the night?! 

One survey of parents revealed that the majority expected their children to start sleeping ’through the night’ around 6 months old (give or take). 

Unfortunately, several other studies show that when your baby starts to sleep through the night is highly variable and baby specific. Rather than a developmental milestone achieved at a certain age. 

What counts as “sleeping through the night”?

We’d all love the 7pm-7am nirvana, and for some it is a fortunate reality. However, in research terms, “sleeping through the night” tends to be defined as uninterrupted sleep between six to eight hours. 

Even then, at six months old 62% of infants were achieving six hours a night but only 43% were achieving eight hours. 

Bottom line: long periods of uninterrupted sleep by six months is not unfortunately ‘the norm’. 

Sleep is highly baby dependent: 

We tend to think that after a certain age that a baby’s sleep pattern will be set. However, what we also learn from the research is that this is highly dependent on the individual baby. Some may achieve this at four months, others could take a lot longer. According to the research there is no ‘normal’. 

In fact, the same research showed that between eight and fourteen months old the variability between babies sleeping was very high. So, it isn’t always a case of the older the baby the better. Some babies were waking more even at twelve months than at six months.  

Sleep: It’s a process…

The research clearly showed that learning to sleep through is a continuous and dynamic process rather than one to be achieved by a specific point in time. On that note…. 

Doing it once doesn’t necessarily make a pattern when it comes to sleeping through the night: 

If this wasn’t bad enough news to parents hoping for a good night sleep by six months (!) we also know that just because a baby sleeps one night through does not necessarily make a pattern.

The research also shows that there is often a lot of change in a baby’s individual sleep routine over time. So, even if a baby manages a couple of nights good sleep it does not mean that the next will be the same. That is in fact normal.

For example, data showed that looking at each baby over a two week period the vast majority showed big variability i.e. one night ‘sleeping through’ and other nights waking several times. 

We know about the major sleep regressions (which tend to coincide with big developmental leaps). These typically happen at around four months, eight to ten months and then eighteen months (but specific timing is baby dependent). However, that aside, this research clearly shows that even on a week by week basis, most babies will have a variable pattern when it comes to sleep. Sigh. 

Factors that influence? 

Breastfeeding and co-sleeping have been linked to more disrupted sleep. However, that could also be because a breastfeeding mother with a baby close by notices wakings more so that is not conclusive. 

That being said, as parents we can encourage good sleep as best as possible. We spoke to the baby sleep guru Rosey Davidson for her need to know on promoting baby sleep. A few key points: 

  • A good sleep environment: a dark room (for melatonin production) and the right temperature. 
  • Listening to a baby’s cues: there is no point putting a top down prescriptive routine without being sensitive to your child’s individual cues. If it is taking 40 mins to get a baby to sleep every time then perhaps it is the wrong time. 
  • A newborn can be only awake 1-1.5hrs before needing to sleep again. Each baby (as this research shows) is different and this will happen at different times depending on the baby so look for your baby’s own individual ’sleepy cues’ 
  • Waking too early? This may be a sign of an overtired child and might be worth putting them to bed earlier. An overtired child = more of the stress hormone cortisol. 

Click here for much more detail. 

The bottom line when it comes to baby sleep: 

For some reason there tends to be a bit of parental ‘shame’ around a baby not sleeping through the night. As if it is something we are doing ‘wrong’. The reality (and science) suggests this is not the case. What we know from this research is that age does not necessarily equal when a baby will sleep. Secondly, this is not necessarily a long term pattern. As parents the best we can do is to establish good ‘sleep hygiene’ and a routine that fits our baby and hope for the best! 

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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.

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