“Is she sleeping through the night yet?” It’s the question new parents hear over and over again—from family members, friends, other parents, even perfect strangers—and it’s one that’s likely to cause a lot of anxiety for parents of kiddos who haven’t achieved that coveted milestone. Just by asking the question, the insinuation is that if the child is not sleeping through the night, something must be wrong.
So parents look for advice on how to teach their child to sleep. The baby sleep section of any library or bookstore offers dozens of titles with different sleep training methods—many of them contradictory. And if there’s one parenting issue that’s almost as controversial and charged as breastfeeding, it’s which sleep method to choose, which expert to follow.
In fact, much of the advice in the most popular books is anecdotal, not based in scientific research. Some of the best research being done today, at places like the Parent-Infant Research Group in Boulder, has uncovered that not only is some of the advice being offered up on bookstore shelves dubious, but that the very goal of getting infants to sleep through the night may be faulty.
Western culture has placed a lot more emphasis on sleeping through the night than is necessary—or healthy. And the first misconception that many parents have is that sleeping through the night will look the same for their infant as it does for them. Parents might assume that a baby will sleep eight or 12 hours at a time when they are “sleeping through the night,” but that just isn’t the case.
“Most experts consider ‘through the night’ to be six to seven hours,” says Patience Bleskan, a postpartum doula and child sleep expert. “And that long chunk is going to happen at the beginning part of the night and then they’ll be waking through the rest of the morning hours.”
Infants aren’t necessarily going to spend the entire night where you put them at bedtime, either.
“I have found that parents and health professionals both assume that babies will sleep in one place, when in reality, a baby might experience multiple sleep locations even on a single night,” says Dr. Lane Volpe, president of the Parent-Infant Research Group. “Infant sleep is much more flexible and sleeping arrangements are much more fluid than most people assume.”
Many parents feel like they are a failure, that they’re giving in or giving up when they bring their child to bed with them, put them in a swing to sleep, or move them to some other sleeping situation in the middle of the night. In fact, the very idea that a parent can put their infant in a crib, say “nighty-night!” and have the child sleep soundly until morning is setting everyone up for failure.
“A lot of the culture we have around infant sleep is left over from the early 1800s,” says Bleskan.
Doctors began recommending separating babies at this time, because they were beginning to understand about communicable diseases and were getting babies away from other sick family members to keep them from getting sick.
“That’s what started this idea of having babies sleep on their own in a separate space,” Bleskan says. “It’s not a natural thing biologically.”
Volpe agrees: “Babies are biologically designed to be near their caregivers. Research has shown that infants depend on mothers or other caregivers to regulate their body temperature, heart rate, breathing patterns and sleeping patterns.
But this is where things start to get a little muddy for some parents. Since the 1980s, parents have heard over and over again that putting their children to sleep anywhere but on a firm, flat mattress, in a crib without blankets or pillows, would increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. New research suggests there’s more of a gray area here than was previously understood.
Volpe says other than the “back to sleep” mandate—that all infants be put to sleep lying on their backs, rather than on their sides or stomachs—there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for sleep. Her research as part of the Parent Infant Research Group is primarily studying bedsharing, sometimes known as cosleeping, why it is a typical arrangement for most people around the world, and what the biological benefits are. In fact, she believes that “all babies should sleep in the same room as their parents, since the kinds of sensory exchanges that occur have been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.”
As it turns out, nearly any sleep environment can be made safe or unsafe for an infant. “For example,” Volpe says, “a perfectly safe crib can be made unsafe if parents add a pillow or other fluffy bedding to it.”
Similarly, while bedsharing can be practiced safely by sober mothers who are attuned to their infants’ safety (especially mothers who are breastfeeding), she says, people who smoke or are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or who are sleeping on a sofa or armchair, should never sleep on the same surface with their infants.”
“We talk about getting our babies to sleep all night by themselves,” Bleskan says, “but really, 60–80 percent of people cosleep at some point with their infants.”
In her experience, the goal of getting a very young child to sleep through the night, alone, in a separate room is not all that important, and the anecdotal success rate is hugely overblown.
“A lot of parents seem to think a child needing help to go to sleep is a bad thing,” Bleskan says. Many parents ask her how their child will ever learn to go to sleep on their own if the parent has to keep intervening.
“That’s like saying an infant will never learn to walk if you carry them everywhere,” she laughs.
Many parents and health professionals also operate under the assumption that sleep is a behavior that needs to be “taught,” Volpe says. When studies show that infants naturally know how to organize their sleep.
“There are a huge number of parenting strategies that people advocate to try to get babies to change their sleep habits as soon as possible,” Volpe says, “but in fact, trying to force them to do so earlier in their development than they are ready for can actually cause harm.”
According to Bleskan, who has worked with dozens of families to help overcome sleep issues, there are two main questions you need to ask when considering if you even need to try to change your child’s sleep patterns.
First, where is your child developmentally? A child under 5 months of age will almost certainly not be able to fall asleep on her own and stay asleep all night. She will need to have her biological needs met—for food, for comfort and to help regulate her internal systems.
“This is the continuous dance of parenthood,” Bleskan says. “How you balance it all depends on the age of the baby. Under 3 months, baby trumps parents; if you’re really having a problem, you may need to bring in outside help. After 3 months, it’s important to put your own desires and needs in there and find that
Second, are you really unhappy with the situation or are people just telling you it should be different? Why do you want it to change? “Sleep can look a gazillion different ways and be healthy,” Bleskan says. “The total number of hours of sleep within a 24-hour period is what determines healthy sleep.”
“The first suggestion I would make for all new parents is to keep your babies near you,” Volpe says. And since babies are likely to sleep in a whole host of different situations in their first year of life, her second suggestion is to know how to make sure any given environment is safe.
“Taking care of a baby at night is complicated,” Volpe says, “and parents often find they have to care for their infants differently at different times based on what they and their babies need on any given night.”
The Parent Infant Research Group in Boulder offers a variety of classes on current research in infant sleep, bedsharing, birth, breastfeeding, child development, and attachment and bonding.
“It’s all about figuring out what you’re comfortable with,” says Bleskan. “As soon as you get the gut feeling that this isn’t working, that’s when you need to change it. Don’t do it before or after. We are instinctual beings.”
“My most important advice to new parents is to be informed but to trust their instincts,” she says. “Parents’ instincts are the best guide for knowing how to provide what their babies need and for knowing how to keep their babies safe.”
And don’t let anyone—well meaning or otherwise—convince you that you should be doing something different.
“In Western culture, there is an unspoken assumption that ‘good babies’ are the ones who sleep through the night as soon as possible,” Volpe says. But “babies who wake up frequently, who nurse often during the night, and who let their parents know that they want to be near them are doing exactly what they are biologically supposed to do. The more that mothers can relax and know that infant sleep habits naturally change over time, the more they can enjoy their infants, even at night!”
Patience Bleskan’s Guidelines for Sleep Interventions:
If and when you decide you do need to help your child make a change in his sleep patterns, Patience has some rules she always gives her clients to follow.
Don’t do anything spur of the moment in the middle of the night. If something isn’t working, don’t switch it up all of the sudden; make note that it isn’t working and say out loud to your child, “This isn’t working.” Making a decision at 2 a.m. is when you’re going to end up doing something that will be difficult to undo.
For children over 4 months old, tell them what is going to be changing and give them 24 hours notice. If you’re doing a lot of changing things up, that can make them very nervous because they don’t know why or what’s happening next. When you tell them, they don’t have to worry, they know ahead of time and can make different choices. At 8 months, a child has 95 percent comprehension. We’re more than half way there at 4 months; they understand intonation, inflection, expression. Voicing what the issues are out loud to your child can make a huge difference.
Always go where you’re going to end up first. If you’re going to end up picking them up or nursing them, start there. Make sure that the choice you’re making to do is one you can stick to. If you can’t stick to it, don’t start it.
Do as much as you need to do, but never more than that. Do only as much as you absolutely have to do, but not more. Take a couple of nights to start with the minimum and work back from there.