Is it normal that my baby is waking at night?
Most parents are prepared for wake-ups in the newborn phase, but society’s support of night waking starts to ebb sometime after the first few months. There is a large gap between cultural expectations and biological realities when it comes to waking over the first year and beyond. Babies and toddlers wake at night, and this is normal, common, and protective. Short sleep cycles, more time in REM sleep, the need for frequent feeds, and the need for touch and connection are some of the many reasons little ones wake at night. Sleeping lightly is protective for babies, especially in the first 6 months. Both deep sleep and REM (lighter, dreaming sleep) are important for growth and development. In fact, REM sleep is when a baby’s brain is busy creating new neural connections and consolidating all the many things they are learning. It’s protective for young babies to have high amounts of REM sleep and sleeping too long and deep is thought to raise the risk of SIDS.
When will my baby sleep through the night?
Sleeping through the night is a huge focus of new parents and our culture. Maybe you’ve heard some of these comments. “Is baby sleeping through”? “Are they a good sleeper?” “Your baby should be sleeping through by 6 months (or some other arbitrary point).” From friends to family to pediatricians the questions and messages are the same. Good babies sleep through. Good parents have good babies who sleep through. If your baby doesn’t sleep for long stretches, then you are doing something wrong, hurting their development, and undermining their ability to sleep for basically forever!
The problem is that this focus on sleeping through is more about how we want babies to sleep rather than their biological sleep norms. Waking at night is normal and healthy. Most babies do so throughout the first year and into toddlerhood. Sleeping for longer stretches comes when a baby is ready to do so, no matter what a parent does. It is based on temperament and development. In fact, sleeping through is often defined in the research literature as sleeping for 5 consecutive hours, not the 10-12 that most parents are aiming for when they use the term.
Even when a baby sleeps for longer stretches, it doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. Sleep maturity is not a linear process, but ebbs and flows in relationship to other aspects of development. No matter how you manage sleep, it is often two steps forward one step back. Expect changing patterns to be the norm over the early years. We cannot control sleep, only support it in a healthy way.
Should I put my baby down drowsy but awake?
Many parents are warned against soothing their baby to sleep in favor of teaching them to fall asleep independently. You may have heard comments along these lines. “Never nurse or rock your baby to sleep.” “Nursing to sleep is a bad habit and contributes to waking.” “Your baby needs to fall asleep independently.” The problem is that babies don’t often cooperate, and many parents struggle. Parents are made to feel guilty for nursing or rocking to sleep, for holding and connecting with their babies. They feel it’s their fault their baby wakes rather than recognizing the strong biological drive behind connection and improved sleep.
Considering drowsy but awake a healthy sleep habit for a baby is a completely cultural view with no evidence behind it. Supporting your baby to fall asleep is biologically normal. Little ones are hard wired to need touch, closeness, and connection to feel safe and secure enough to sleep well. Feeding, motion, and holding to support sleep are developmentally appropriate tools. In fact, nursing helps many babies relax into sleep. Babies are hardwired to want this contact around sleep so it’s not a habit you are creating. Some very laid-back babies will be able to be put down drowsy but awake, but they are the exception not the norm. Many babies will grow out of the need for feeding or motion naturally, or you can change how you parent to sleep when it’s no longer working for you. There’s no need to avoid helpful tools because down the road they may possibly be a problem.
Should I teach my baby to self-sooth?
Parents are often told to leave a baby to cry to teach them to self-soothe. So much of the sleep and parenting advice misses the very real neuroscience that disproves this as well as the important role of responsiveness in development.
Decades of research on attachment and brain development tells us that consistent, loving, and responsive parenting promotes optimal development. When we respond, we build trust. We show our child that that their needs are valid, someone cares, and the world is a safe place. This message is literally being wired into their brain and will affect their physical, mental, and emotional health throughout their life.
To self-soothe, you need to be able to regulate or control your emotions. You need the rational part of your brain to communicate with the emotional and survival parts of your brain. Babies do not have the necessary brain development to regulate their emotional state. Young children need a calm adult to calm down which helps their brain build the pathways for regulation when they are older. You help a baby build this foundation for self-regulation through co-regulation, responding, and modeling. Emotional self-regulation begins during the late preschool years when the rational and reasoning part of the brain begins to be the focus of development and continues developing throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Supporting real, lifelong emotion regulation skills is very important. It’s vital that we recognize that leaving a baby to cry does not support this skill, and if anything, undermines it.
Why am I so tired?
Our culture teaches us that all our exhaustion as new parents is due to our baby waking. While it’s certainly a factor, it is not the only (or sometimes even the biggest) factor. So many other factors affect parental sleep such as mental health, stress, expectations, attitudes and beliefs around sleep, mindset, overcommitment, support (or lack of), sleep hygiene for parents, nutrition, exercise, and time outdoors. Many of these factors are easier to change than baby’s sleep. In fact, when these holistic factors are overlooked, many parents will still feel exhausted even when baby is sleeping for longer stretches.
Additionally, the single-minded focus on baby sleep puts the burden of change on baby, the most vulnerable member of the family. Nine times out of ten baby’s sleep is normal. It’s not a sleep problem; it’s a societal problem. Recognizing that you cannot control your baby’s sleep frees your mental energy to think more holistically. Sleep is not under your voluntary control. You cannot force someone else to fall asleep any more than you can force yourself to go to sleep. You can, however,
set up good sleep conditions and a lifestyle that supports healthy sleep. There are many ways to gently improve sleep, but there are many more ways that parents can support their own quality of sleep, wellness, and feelings of confidence.
Are there any tricks for sorting through all the conflicting information on sleep?
Sleep and parenting are about relationship and connection, and these essential tools should always be in the forefront of your mind. Sleep is part of parenting and humans have needs day and night. How a family balances baby’s needs with parent needs is going to be unique to the individual family. There is not one right way! Ask yourself these questions when evaluating sleep advice:
1. Does this align with my parenting values?
2. Would this be a kind way to treat someone if they weren’t a baby (your spouse, a friend, an older relative)?
3. What does your heart/intuition say?
Respect your baby’s experience and emotional needs, listen to your intuition, and remember to look beyond simple sleep behavioral fixes to the complex influences on sleep, and you will find the right path for your family.
Kim Hawley, MA, MPH is a Holistic Sleep Consultant, Lactation Counselor, and the owner of Intuitive Parenting. Her specialty is virtual, gentle, attachment-based sleep support for nursing families. Kim is passionate about helping parents confidently navigate nighttime parenting and family sleep using evidenced-based information and parental intuition.
Kim lives in Capitol Hill, Washington DC with her husband and two children. She loves to run, read a good book, eat delicious food, and enjoy a glass of wine or cup of coffee.