You’ve probably asked yourself, “Why doesn’t my baby sleep? Is there something wrong with my baby’s sleep?” Firstly, Babies DO sleep; they just don’t sleep the way we wish they would. They have different sleeping patterns than older children and adults. So what do we mean when we say “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?”
We probably mean, “I exhausted and I need to fix this. help!” I am always here to help you make a sleep plan when you are ready, but understanding why your baby may have a hard time sleeping or why they wake frequently is the first step! Watch the video below where I answer “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?” and there you can also see me in action coaching some families with sleep challenges!
5 Reasons Babies “Don’t Sleep”
(1) Babies NEED to wake frequently, in the beginning of life– because young babies have tiny stomachs and they need to grow very rapidly. Babies are created to drink breastmilk which is highly digestible and metabolized very quickly. Newborns are therefore created to wake parents often to keep bellies full and also to check in to make sure their caregiver is attentive as well as to encourage that caregiver to connect and bond with them. When we no longer have a newborn and our older babies who eat solids are waking frequently, we may jump through a million mental hoops to figure out if our baby is really hungry or not and to decide if we should be still feeding them every 1-2hrs when they wake and this is where the oral sleep association topic I address below comes into play.
(2) Babies have short sleep cycles. Infant sleep cycles feel very challenging for us because we are used to having longer sleep cycles. Younger babies have 30min-90min sleep cycles depending on the age and individual. Parent sleep cycles were 70-120min before baby. Our adult sleep cycles are interrupted by baby’s waking, our sleep cycles are often not completed and this makes us feel even more tired than if we only had a 4-5hrs of consecutive sleep.
(3) Babies develop strong sleep associations. The way they fell asleep is how they expect to wake up. If they wake from a short sleep cycle and they are not still bouncing or don’t have a nipple in the mouth, they will often not just take a breath and roll over like we do at the end of our sleep cycle; they will instead call on you to re-create the sleep association for them. That’s why you’re asking “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?” Babies do sleep, but babies develop strong sleep associations. And it turns out that babies usually do find with this frequent waking and most don’t show signs of sleep depravation. But before I was a gentle sleep consultant, I was a mom with a baby who woke every hour and I know it doesn’t FEEL ok or normal.
A) Oral Sleep Association. Because babies suck so much (hah!), and eat frequently, it is easy for babies to always fall asleep on the breast / chest or bottle rather than in some other way- this is normal and natural but not sustainable for some families because it can cause frequent waking. Also normal and natural is developing a sleep association of always having to fall asleep with a nipple in the mouth (breast / chest or bottle). When we are doing this very natural thing for our baby that has always helped them fall asleep but now baby isn’t sleeping the way we hoped, of course we are asking “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?”
B) Movement Sleep Associations. Our culture (and Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s) have told us that we need to get into the exhausting pattern of doing many active things in order to fall asleep. Bouncing, Rocking, Walking, Car ride, Swing, etc. As the child gets older, these become more strenuous. Or lack of movement in swaddling can become a sleep association. While the 5 S’s of Harvey Karp are excellent for helping an unhappy newborn adjust to the new world, but they are not sustainable into the future and can set up some strong sleep associations and cause more frequent waking later on. When we are still providing this movement, swaddle or shushing that always worked before to help baby fall asleep but now baby isn’t sleeping how we hoped, of course parents are asking “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?” It is important to note that non-western cultures may have babies who wake to eat at night frequently but having to move a lot to calm a baby for sleep is not part part of the nighttime routine in most cultures.
(4) Your baby may be overtired or not sleepy enough to sleep well. Younger babies under 3 months may be over-stimulated and over-tired and therefore may have a hard time calming down enough to focus on going to sleep. Older babies and toddlers may be getting too much nap time during the day or having nap time fall too late in the day for their individual constitution- making them have a harder time falling asleep, making them wake up too early in the morning, be up for a period of time in the middle of the night or just wake more frequently.
5) Your baby is out of alignment with circadian rhythms of the planet. While I do not believe in timed and set schedules for infants, I do know that the science around better sleep by aligning with circadian rhythms is very concrete. We are meant to be awake when it is light out and asleep when it is dark. Because of our own schedules, all of the screens and lights we use after dark hours, our unwillingness to get out early into the sun, and our desire to stay in the house on an imperfect day- adults are often already out of alignment. This has negative consequences for our mental, physical and sleep health and we often bring our babies with us on this. Help with circadian rhythms is here where I am talking about colic but the suggestions work for sleep for all humans!
Having your sleep cycles interrupted effects basic functioning, daytime mood and increases the risk of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. If you now know the answer to “Why doesn’t my baby sleep?” and you are ready to get more info or to create a sleep plan to gently help baby end some sleep associations or to create a better 24hr rhythm without Cry It Out check out my online programs and consulting package on this page or write to me below and tell me about your challenges! For younger babies there are things we can to together to improve sleep without having to change much about feedings.
The following video takes these concepts in depth and was recorded on Facebook LIVE.
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