Sleep — it’s the one thing (other than the contents of our baby’s diapers, of course) that we, as parents, are obsessed with. Probably because we don’t often get enough of it!
“Are they sleeping through the night?” is likely the question you will be asked most frequently when your baby is small, even when they are just a few weeks old. This question can be somewhat counter-productive; of course, the asker is only concerned about whether you are getting enough rest, but hearing this question repeatedly starts to make you wonder “Well, should they be?”
Let’s start by talking about what “sleeping through the night” actually means. The real definition of this statement is sleeping for a 5 hour solid stretch at some point during the night. However, sleeping through the night can mean different things to different parents. To some, it’s going from late evening to the early hours of the morning without waking. To others, it’s sleeping for 12 hours straight without supervision or attention.
You will likely be regaled with stories from… well, everybody you know who has ever had/has known someone with a baby, about how well or how terribly that particular infant slept. This can make you feel very inadequate as a parent. There seems to be a cultural expectation that the parents (usually the mother) is doing something wrong in order for the baby not to be sleeping like an adult. The fact remains, though, that babies aren’t supposed to sleep like adults do.
Babies are born completely helpless. They rely on us for absolutely everything — food, comfort, warmth, safety and everything else they need for their survival. It is a rather big ask to expect your little baby, who still believes that they are a part of you, to sleep alone and unaided for long periods of time. Human babies are programmed to sleep lightly; this is a survival instinct in its purest and most basic form. Plus, they have teeny tiny little tummies that require filling on a very regular basis. Although many “sleep experts” will have us believe that a 4 month old baby is capable of sleeping through the night from 7pm until 7am, this is simply not true. The world is a big, scary place when you have only been a part of it for four short months.
Every baby is different. We’ve all heard the urban legends of Wonder Babies that slept for 10 hours straight every night since they were 6 weeks old. I’m sure these babies exist somewhere, but we must remember that they are the exception rather than the rule. I, personally, would be quite concerned if my tiny newborn slept for such long periods at night (well, concerned but simultaneously well-rested!). I think that the most dangerous piece of advice that we hear as parents is that our babies will never learn how to sleep properly if we don’t force them to do so when they are little. My son was not a fantastic sleeper when he was a baby; he awoke frequently in the night until he was around 11-12 months old when suddenly, without much warning, he began to sleep from 8pm until around 8am consistently every night. We never bowed to the pressure to leave him to cry it out. We stuck to our guns, somehow managed to retain our sanity (just!) and we were rewarded (eventually) not only with a child that slept, but a child that was (and still is) secure, confident, trusting and happy.
Of course, not all children are like my son, and we must all do what is right for our families. Obviously I am not an advocate for sleep training but I do understand the depths of despair one can sink to when sleep deprived, and the lengths you will go to just to get some rest. I’ve been there, and it’s not pleasant. I just want mothers to stop feeling guilty if their babies aren’t sleeping like a grown up — #1, it’s not your fault, no matter what anybody says. #2, they aren’t capable of sleeping like adults because, well, they’re babies, and #3, you will sleep again!