The Truth About Sleeping Through The Night
Over the last week or so, I’ve been reminded of the delicate nature of infant sleep and how one should never take a good night’s rest for granted!
Now I don’t tend to consider myself an expert in any area of parenting, but if I was to pick something I’ve gained a fair bit of knowledge and experience about, sleep would be it. Perhaps more accurately, I know a lot about not getting any.
Our son had colic for the first few weeks of his life and sleep was not something we had fond memories of back then. However, at six weeks old, he started sleeping through the night.
Before I go any further, let me explain exactly what “sleeping through the night” actually means. It is not, as one would expect, a twelve hour period of blissful peace and quiet. It actually means that your child goes a whopping five hours without waking. Yes, you read that right. Five WHOLE hours. Clearly whoever created that definition didn’t require normal human levels of sleep!
So, it turns out that we were very lucky indeed to have a six week old sleeping for such a loooong period. I proudly boasted to friends and family and felt very smug indeed. I should have kept my mouth firmly shut.
If you do any reading on infant sleep, you’ll soon come across an interesting phenomenon known as “sleep regression”. During certain periods of growth and mental development, babies and children suddenly become difficult sleepers. Around four months of age is the first time this happens noticeably, with the next two prominent ages being thirteen and eighteen months.
Our son hit his regression a little late at around five months of age. I was active on a parenting forum and had done plenty of reading on the subject, so I considered myself prepared for a few weeks of rough nights, followed by resumption of his previous 5+hrs sleep. Many parents even reported that sleep was even better than before!
I can only assume that my son did not read the “What Babies Are Supposed To Do” manual, preferring to make up the rules as he went along. Weeks of poor sleep turned into months. We were lucky to see the occasional three hours of downtime, but frequently it was every 40 minutes. At the worst point, he was waking nearly ten times each night. My partner and I were exhausted, stressed and snappy. Even the boy himself was showing signs of grouchiness because of his broken sleep.
Part of the problem boiled down to him never being able to self-settle. The only time he fell asleep was whilst on the breast. Being that only Mummy could do this, my partner and I couldn’t even take shifts. Our son co-slept with us, which probably saved me from going completely insane.
Babies generally have shorter sleep cycles than adults, around 45 minutes in the first year of life. This increases to around an hour in toddlerhood. They move through the various stages of sleep more quickly and for shorter periods, and they spend more time in light sleep. As adults, we have 90 minute sleep cycles, but sleep more deeply and thus aren’t properly roused in between them. This is how we can go an entire night without waking and having to re-settle. Young children don’t have this luxury and if they don’t know how to go back to sleep on their own, an adult has to help them.
Our son’s first birthday came and went. Something had to be done, but we were strongly opposed to leaving him to cry it out. By a stroke of luck, a friend of mine posted an article on her blog about a gentle method of helping young children learn to sleep. I was sceptical at first, I didn’t like the idea of any kind of sleep “training” or for my son to shed any tears at bedtime, even if we were right there by his side. But I was trying to achieve an impossible goal and we were at our wits’ end.
The concept was simple. At bedtime, or whenever he woke in the night, we were to keep him in his cot. We could give him cuddles, hold his hand, talk reassuringly, basically do anything to comfort him as long as he remained in the cot. It was not an easy process and sometimes he wouldn’t go to sleep for over an hour. But he was never left alone.
Daddy did most of this as he only wanted to nurse when he saw me, settling quicker when I wasn’t present. I didn’t night-wean him though and I had no desire to, the breast was still offered a couple of times during the night.
In addition, we adjusted his pre-bedtime routine substantially. We had given him a bath and a bit of quiet playtime in the evening since he was tiny, but after reading about how certain foods encourage sleep, we gave him a proper supper of porridge and a banana. As he moved about a lot in his cot, we also stopped using a sleeping bag. We had been flexible about putting him down for the night, sometimes as late as 11pm if he wasn’t showing signs of tiredness, now bedtime was set for 8pm with a leeway of no more than 15 minutes either side.
After only three days of doing this, he slept an incredible ten hours straight. Daddy and I didn’t of course, it has taken our bodies months to re-learn how to sleep for more than an hour at a time. I also expected it to be a fluke and that things would go back to how they were the next night. How wrong we were! He has slept well consistently ever since and there have been no more tears at bedtime. He no longer nurses to sleep and self-settles quite happily, despite continuing to wake several times a night. For a month or so, he would come into bed with me around 6am and doze for another couple of hours, but he now prefers to stay in his cot all night.
Obviously there are times when he doesn’t sleep well, teething in particular gives him trouble. Once any discomfort or ill health has passed though, everything goes back to normal. As a family, we are much better rested and less stressed now.
We missed the thirteen month sleep regression as this was the time we implemented the changes. However, a week or so ago (at almost twenty months) he began having broken sleep again. It’s nowhere near as bad as the early days, he just needs a cuddle and sometimes a nursing two or three times a night. He is also rising a little earlier in the day, sleeping around 10-11 hours in total instead of 12.
We take it all in our stride these days. I know the difficult nights will pass and don’t stress over his sleep patterns any more. Nearly two years after giving birth, I think I have finally adapted to this tough element of being a parent!