Myth: Babies Can Sleep Through the Night if You Start Early
Total Myth. Nobody sleeps through the night. Adults have longer sleep cycles but still come out of REM sleep and into a conscious state for a second between sleep cycles (unless we fully wake up to pee!). The difference here is that adults have learned that we don’t need any help to get back to sleep. Our basic needs do not include eating, changing/peeing, and reassurance frequently in dark hours and we have learned to not need them at night. We also follow circadian rhythms (if we are lucky to have good sleep habits) and produce melatonin- something that doesn’t happen for babies until 3 or 4 months.
Myth: Babies Should Sleep Through The Night or They Will Be Sleep Deprived.
Nope. Small babies do not need many consecutive sleep cycles. A baby who “sleeps well” by our standards either organically over time or through parental conditioning, learn to not need help to get from one sleep cycle to another. But they still wake up between sleep cycles. Babies start out absolutely needing to wake and feed at night because babies have small tummies and a high suck need. They need to check in to make sure they are not alone in the world or too far from parents. To boot, prolactin (milk producing hormone) production is highest at night, so waking to feed at night is associated with adequate milk production. So in fact, one could say that new babies should not sleep through the night, at least when they are very tiny.
Even if a baby wakes up every hour, they have likely completed plenty of sleep cycles. REM sleep is restorative for cognition, memory and cell regeneration and creation. Babies have more REM than we do so no matter what, if they complete an hour over and over again, they are likely getting restorative sleep. We are the ones who feel sleep deprived because our sleep cycles are different than the baby’s. Some of us have more of a challenge than others in trying to co-exist at night with baby’s normal sleep patterns.
Myth: Formula-fed Babies Sleep Better
This is either true or false depending on what you think “better” means. Breastfed babies sleep normally, whether they wake frequently or are a unicorn all-night sleeper. There is a wide variation in normal infant sleep for breastfed babies. Formula-fed babies on the whole sleep a bit differently: they are more likely to be drowsy enough to go easily from one sleep cycle to the next without becoming conscious enough to ask for help. They also aren’t going to wake up as frequently from hunger as it takes the body much longer to process cow dairy. The dense caloric content and the fact that we almost always overfeed a baby with a bottle (stretching the stomach) create what you or I might experience if we took an Ambien. Dr. James McKenna states in a recent lecture for DONA International.:
“The legacy [that a baby should sleep long and deep] could only have occurred or arisen out of formula or of cow’s milk which actually kind of doped babies to sleep. The molecules are big with cow’s milk and/or formula, and essentially babies do sleep much longer and harder…but longer and harder at the particular age our babies are born and the developmental needs they have for the first 3-6 month – deep sleep is a detriment to the baby and puts the baby an a risk situation.” *
Sleeping lightly and waking up frequently to check in with parent regulates heart rate, breathing, hormones and feeding patterns. So what is “better” sleep for a baby? I hope we can change the language to simply “healthy sleep” “typical sleep” and “more solid sleep versus interrupted sleep” to finally accommodate the biological norm for early infancy and to remove the value judgments. And yet it is also important to not pass value judgments from exhausted parents who cannot function on waking every two hours for many months on end. In my work I am always helping baby and parents find a compromise.
Myth: Cry-It-Out Helps Babies Learn to “Self-Soothe”.
“Sleep training” (Cry-it-out extinction and Ferber-like graduated extinction) as most people know it is the process of letting a child know through your absence that you will not be helping them fall asleep in the usual ways you always have. Without a parent’s response, they learn that it is a waste of energy to continue to verbally call for the help they desire. The first nights of sleep training, children usually fall asleep out of exhaustion from crying. The body shuts down to conserve energy/ calories. The subsequent nights of training, they will find some self-soothing methods on their own out of very sudden necessity.
Organic self-soothing means giving an older baby or toddler a safe and secure opportunity to find and build the skills needed to help themselves fall asleep. I personally believe that parental presence is needed by most babies in order to feel most safe while they learn these new skills, so that the new skills and the bed itself is not ever associated with panicked feelings. It is more difficult to learn a new skill in a state of panic and that is why it may take babies from 3 days to two weeks to stop crying at bedtime and wake-ups during “sleep training” when a baby is alone.
Myth: “Sleep Training” Solves Your Sleep Challenges for Good
This is a Myth. When a child has a bout of pain or illness, or vacation and is held to sleep, nursed to sleep, rocked to sleep again, they naturally want to hang on to those comforts. We all would prefer these comforts as social beings. This is why you hear people saying they had to sleep train over again. When a child does not have sleep skills but rather learned to sleep simply because they were exhausted of asking for attention, they have not built actual sleep skills. When parents stop providing that sleep help once again, sleep training usually needs to begin again, though it usually will be shorter duration of crying because the child already has had some experience to call on of falling asleep on her own.
Even most children who are “sleep trained” or have unlearned sleep associations more gently with your presence, still wake up once a night at least some of the time. Then the toddler years bring new sleep fears and bedtime aversions, and the preschool years bring nightmares and wanting reassurance at night. Nighttime parenting is a long haul without one quick fix.
Myths: Babies need good sleep habits by 6 months or you are doomed!
Some babies develop into consistent sleepers who need less help very early into infancy, and some continue to wake up frequently but have parents who have the sleep temperament to mostly sleep right through it! Not everyone needs any sort of sleep intervention. But for those parents who do feel stressed by a lack of sleep, common challenges include having only one way your child must fall asleep, or on the other hand, having a long list of things you must do to help your child get to sleep. Try to vary these things early on to prevent really strong sleep associations that require a lot of your help at night for every wake-up.
Breastfeeding parents likely wind up with the nursing-to-sleep oral sleep association as a main cause of frequent night waking only because it is a remnant of our excellent facilitation of breastfeeding and because it helped us all get back to sleep most quickly! (Bottle-feeding families also fall into this pattern- yes you have to make a bottle but once those calories are in, the baby is down for the count!) If you have prioritized feeding at night over uninterrupted sleep and 6 months or more have passed, you needn’t worry!
Children are fast learners and all are able to truly self-soothe given a calm, secure and nurturing environment, and a bit of time and space. I have helped over 600 parents and children find these middle-ground compromises no matter if they started at 6 months or 9 months or 24 months. The parent has to be ready to make changes and plenty of parents choose to wait it out until the 2-year-old holy grail of more solid sleep.
Wait don’t most people need to sleep train?
Babies and toddlers don’t need to be “trained” to sleep “well”. They already sleep just fine; just differently. Some families never feel they have sleep challenges as it has quite a bit to do with a parent’s perception. But if sleep associations have developed into a challenge for you as parents, know that changing how you parent at night is no different than the other ways you will communicate with your child. As they grow, you will set boundaries in many areas and practice compassionately witnessing feelings about those boundaries and big changes, and coming to family compromises so that everyone can get their basic needs met. Sleep is often the first area we communicate with our babies in this new way.
I am available to support families with lactation and sleep education, sleep skill-building plans, gentle discipline and setting boundaries, and potty learning at SavvyParentingSupport.com
*2017 Lecture for DONA International: James McKenna “The Return of Breastsleeping: Humankind’s oldest and Most Successful (Safest) Feeding and Sleeping Arrangement.