I have twins. Enough said, right? We've definitely had our sleep challenges and yes, it has been amplified by the fact that we had 2 babies and now have 2 toddlers. If one gets sick and is up all night, the other is bound to get it. So 2 days of lost sleep turns into 4. Or, another more regular scenario, I crawl into bed exhausted from chasing these active children around all day. What do I hear? Peep...squeak, one wants to nurse, so they do, and they fall back asleep. Oh, and now of course, here's the second one, peep...squeak...And here's my mind whirling:
Will I ever sleep again? I'm so tired. I should've gone to bed earlier. They're almost 2 and still nursing in the night? Should something be DONE about this? I'm envious of all those people out there who sleep straight through the night...I feel like I am I the only one doing this.
This is an internal, and external, dialogue that many, many parents have. I’ve had it with myself, and with others, often. The peak for me was around 4 or 5 months. This is one of the most common age ranges that clients request support with. Support is needed for a multitude of reasons, including:
- This is the age where a lot of professionals and family expect that babies should be sleeping through the night or sleeping for long periods of time.
- This is a period of time where “experts” suggest it is ok to begin sleep training and "cry it out" is said to be "safe".
- Around 4 or 5 months babies are going through a great mental leap. They are beginning to understand the distance between things. The world has now become a “very big place in which he is but a tiny, if very vocal, speck (The Wonder Weeks, Online Resources).” This means that while baby may have begun sleeping for longer stretches of time, they are now waking up more.
- This time is often known as the 4 month sleep regression. I'm almost positive, if you are parent, that you've heard of this. Really, though it truly is a PROGRESSION. The leaps and positive growth that babies are making are immense.
- Babies and children have genuine NEEDs at night and wake to appease these needs. They could be nutritional and hunger needs, comfort (physical contact, diaper needs etc.) and so on. Wake ups are a survival tactic!
- Because of the above factors, there is so much pressure directed at parents, forcing them to question their parenting skills and to DO SOMETHING (and most of these actions are disrespectful and non-gentle methods). They are also, most likely exhausted and need some support, positive validation and encouragement.
The above factors do continue to happen again at different ages, in slightly different variations. Parents want the best for their babies and the fear that is abounding around sleep does not help them trust their own, very wise and intuitive, judgement.
So, here is THE BIG QUESTION: when do babies sleep through the night? And importantly, when will YOUR baby sleep through the night? Well, first of all, "sleeping through the night" is not what most people think - about 5 hours is technically sleeping through the night. Added to this, is that the majority of children won't start "sleeping like adults," for longer than 5 hour blocks, until they are around the age 4. Yes, you did read all of that correctly. Interestingly, this correlates to the time when major brain development tapers off. Between the ages of 0-4, our brains go through the most rapid development and this of course will affect sleep. This of course is a range and EVERY baby and child is different. It is also very common (and normal) for older children to wake up and seek comfort (think stress at school, nightmares etc.).
I really love to suggest to parents (and always remind myself) to put themselves in their children’s shoes. Think about a day where you’ve had a lot going on. Maybe you’ve been busy all day, running around, interacting with new people, taking in new sights, smells, and/ora tastes and it’s exhausting. Are you able to fall asleep easily? What are your dreams like? Do you wake up in the night? Are you confused by your surroundings? Do you start craving your comforts? Now magnify that significantly.
As adults we have DEVELOPED the ability to comfort ourselves to sleep, to comfort ourselves when we wake up in the night, to recognize our own signs of tiredness, and so on over an entire lifetime. Our babies and small children still need our support and that is ok. It's beautiful, even. As convenient as it might seem, night time parenting does not end at 7 p.m. and pick up again in the morning. Of course, knowing all of this, does not make it easy to night time parent. It might make it easier, but not easy. It also does not mean there is nothing to do. However, it does mean that we need to have realistic expectations of ourselves and our children.
Losing sleep is not fun, to put it simply. Sleep is so important for anyone's health. Even with the multitude of studies that have been conducted on sleep, scientists still don't really know WHY we sleep. However, they do know that sleep has major benefits on our bodies. What happens when we don't get enough sleep?
- We have cognitive problems. We may lose focus, have raised anxiety levels and increased levels of irritability.
- The 'garbage' in our brains literally does not get filtered.
- Internal and external health problems.
- And so much more.
We all know this, because surely we've all felt it before. But realistically, what are we all doing about it? Ipads, phones and lights at bedtime. Staying up too late and waking up too early. We go back to work when our babies are still young and waking in the night. Some of this is definitely societal, family, financial and other pressures. And some of this is definitely due to our own choices.
So if our babies aren't sleeping through the night and we're exhausted, doubting ourselves, losing our patience, feeling pressure to 'sleep train', what do we do? There are a range of things, some more general and most, specific to your own situation. Generally, you will want to look at the following areas:
- What is my/children's sleep environment like? Is it safe? Is it healthy?
- What/whose ideals am I adhering to? What feels right to me? Am I trusting my gut or someone else's concerns/advice?
- What are my sleep needs? How can I meet those needs? How can I take naps/rest/me time during the day?
- Are there other areas of my life that I need to attend to? Will this help my overall satisfaction as a parent and as a person?
- Do I get enough fresh air and exercise? What is my diet like?
- What social/personal supports do I have to help me out?
Here's just one flaw with many sleep training programs - they do not take into consideration the uniqueness of each family. Many are quick fix, cookie cutter and prescriptive plans. They are not long lasting because they do not respect the nature of infant and children's sleep needs or the complexity of family life. This is where a compassionate, well trained Sleep Educator steps in.
As a Sleep Educator, here's what I WILL help you with:
- Providing a gentle and respectful approach to sleep
- Analyzing and optimizing your sleep environment.
- Understanding and developing sleep routines.
- Understanding infant and adult sleep needs.
- Modifying and optimizing other areas of your life.
- Recognizing your short term and long term goals.
- Offers of referrals for sleep and other wellness needs.
- Offers of reassurance and support.
And here is what I will NOT do:
- Make your children sleep through the night.
- Offer any methods of Cry It Out or traditional sleep training, that refuses love and touch.
- Offer any medical diagnosis or treatment.
- Push you in any direction that does not feel right.
A friend of mine once commented that eating a lot at one meal is like a reserve for later, and it would negate the need to eat another meal in the day. Another friend responded by saying that, "we are not food camels. We do not store our food for later." Well, the same goes for sleep. I often catch myself thinking, “If only we were sleep camels and we could bank our sleep.” Unfortunately, we can't and we need to have it daily. So until we learn how to store our sleep, we need to find ways to optimize our time and spaces, so that our entire families can get the most optimal sleep possible.
And with that, good night. I am off to bed.
Brandie Hadfield with bebo mia. Infant Sleep Educator Training, Summer 2016.
Dr Sears et al. The Baby Sleep Book: The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Rest for the Whole Family. (New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2005).
Dr Sears. Blog entry, “Teaching Empathy to Children.” Available at <http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/teaching-empathy>
Jon Hamilton. "Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep." Available at <http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/10/18/236211811/brains-sweep-themselves-clean-of-toxins-during-sleep>
Meredith F. Small. Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. (New York: Anchor, 1999) p.109-137
The Urban Child Institute. "Why 0-3?" Available at <http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/why-0-3/baby-and-brain>
The Wonder Weeks Milestone Guide: Your Baby's Sleep and Crying Explained, online resources. "Mental Leap 5 - Week 26" Available at <https://www.thewonderweeks.com/mental-leap-5/>