Why your baby’s poor sleep is not your fault

posted in: Baby, Sleep | 0

Some lucky people find that their baby’s sleep starts off pretty well, and then gets better and better, until their baby is sleeping through the night at a few months, or even weeks, old. Hooray!

However, for many of us this is not the case. Your baby doesn’t seem to have any discernible pattern, or they do, but it means hourly or two hourly wakings, every night. Many of us worry that there is something “wrong” with our baby, perhaps it’s a dairy intolerance, or I have made a rod for my own back by rocking or feeding them when they wake?

The short answer is, in the vast majority of cases, that your baby is completely normal! I’m sorry to have to break the news to you that your baby’s sleep may even get worse before it gets better. Why would I tell you this? Because having realistic expectations is key to getting through it, and finding ways that will help you as a parent to get enough sleep. It’s also reassuring to know that your baby is normal and there is nothing actually wrong.

There is an article here by Sarah Ockwell Smith, which goes into greater detail: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2017/07/24/the-rollercoaster-of-real-baby-sleep/

For an overview of what you might expect, have a look at Sarah’s chart:

This may not exactly cheer you up, but at least you know that your baby’s broken sleep is NOT YOUR FAULT. It is normal and healthy for babies to wake at night.

You can also see that times when you might have been led to believe that your baby’s sleep will improve, such as around the time of starting solids at 6 months or so, have no beneficial effect on a baby’s sleep. So there is little point in rushing them into having more solids or weaning onto formula in the hope that it will improve their sleep. In most cases it won’t, so don’t feel pressured into doing something you/your baby are not ready for.

It’s also worth noting that any chart or description of how babies sleep is made up of averages. Your baby will be better or worse than the average at different times – babies certainly don’t follow the charts or read the books!

While you are going through this rollercoaster it feels never ending and utterly exhausting. I know, I’ve been there. But it WILL get better! Do what you can in the meantime to find ways to rest when you can.

Please don’t blame yourself if your baby sleeps worse than all your friends’ babies, or if your Health Visitor tells you your baby should be sleeping through by now. There is a big genetic component to how well your baby sleeps – did you and your partner sleep well as babies?

Some babies are more laid back than others – some (like mine) are far too busy to sleep! I’m sure I will find it highly ironic when I’m dragging them out of bed in the morning as teenagers…


So why do babies sleep so badly? What is it that stops them sleeping through the night? There are several factors which I will list briefly below:

1. Hormones and the Body Clock
As adults we have a body clock that very strongly tells us that when it gets dark we need to sleep and when the sun comes up, it’s time to get up for the day. This is why night shifts are so hard and it explains the success of those alarm clocks that wake you up with “sunlight”. Light hitting the back of the eye triggers the production of the hormone melatonin, which is what tells the brain it’s time to wake up.

Newborn babies don’t produce their own melatonin yet, and so they don’t have a functioning body clock. To them, night and day are no different, and their body doesn’t tell them that night is for sleeping. This is why newborns can have such a chaotic schedule. From around 12 weeks melatonin starts to be produced, but it can take years for your baby’s body clock to be fully mature.

2. Sleep Cycles
You are probably already aware of sleep cycles: how we pass from light sleep into deep sleep and then back into light sleep again. As an adult this whole cycle takes around an hour and a half. When you have completed a sleep cycle, you may wake up naturally for a drink or trip to the toilet, or you may just roll over and go back to sleep, without realising that you woke up. Nobody actually “sleeps through the night.” We all wake up every so often, but if we aren’t disturbed we can pass between sleep cycles without really realising it.

Babies however, are different! Their sleep cycles are much shorter, around 45 minutes, and they spend much more time in active (light) sleep that we do. In active sleep they are very easy to wake up. If you have ever tried to lay down a sleeping baby and discovered they wake up straight away, you’ll be familiar with this! In a deep sleep, when their arms are floppy, you can lay them down. Why do babies spend more time in light sleep? Well one of the main reasons is safety. If you are very small and vulnerable, and new to being “on the outside”, it’s really important that you can wake up quickly and alert your parent if something goes wrong. This can be something that goes wrong internally, e.g. difficulty breathing, or something external like a lion coming into your cave. If you sleep through it all you might find you get into serious trouble. Babies haven’t evolved to know that they live in the relative safety of the 21st Century!

Over time, babies’ sleep cycles lengthen, and by toddlerhood their sleep cycles are of a similar length to an adult’s.

3. Development
You baby is going through a period of the most incredibly rapid growth and development. The newborn baby’s brain makes new neural connections at an astonishing rate: at some stages of development the brain is gaining 250,000-500,000 neuron connections a MINUTE. By the age of 3 years, the child will have approximately 1 Trillion neural connections. Their body is growing too: they have to learn to digest food, to control their limbs, to walk and talk. They are also being bombarded by any germs going around and their immune systems are working hard. Lots of babies have very busy lives, with lots of stimulation, which can make them more unsettled at night too.

With all this going on, it’s no wonder their sleep can be unsettled! Following a period of lots of night waking, you might find that they can do something new, like sit unaided, or start to crawl. When separation anxiety kicks in at around 9 months, this is another major cause of nightwaking. Even for toddlers and preschoolers, they are still growing rapidly physically and mentally, and they start to have emotional issues to deal with too.

Your baby isn’t average!
The lie we are all fed that babies should sleep from 7pm till 7am is complete nonsense for many babies. As I mentioned in the previous newsletter, never assume that your baby is going to be “average”! As adults we all go to bed at different times, and seem to need different amounts of sleep, and babies are just the same. My son has NEVER in his 7 years of life slept for 12 hours. He’s perfectly happy on around 10 hours, and always has been. Thankfully, now he can entertain himself when he gets up at silly o’clock in the morning!

When babies wake at night some need more parental help than others to get back to sleep. Some will just go back to sleep by themselves, others might grizzle for a bit then re-settle, others will be wailing the house down if you try and leave them more than a couple of minutes. This is just how your baby works. You know your baby better than anyone else, and over time you will learn what works best for your baby. If feeding them back to sleep is quick and effective, do that!

The part of your baby’s brain that forms habits is not well developed until at least two years of age. Your baby also cannot manipulate you as they cannot put themselves in your shoes – tiny babies aren’t even aware that mum is a separate being to themselves. So PLEASE don’t worry about making a rod for your own back, or feel you are getting into “bad” habits if you comfort your baby at night. You are giving them what they need, and helping them feel loved and secure.

I hope that this gives you some reassurance that your baby or toddler waking at night is normal, healthy and natural. It is what they are designed to do, and they can’t help it, despite what Sleep Trainers would have you believe. I can promise you it does get better, and coffee is a wonderful thing!

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