Is Your Baby’s Sleep Pattern a Problem?

My first daughter was a terrible sleeper – up every hour, all night, every night. She often didn’t sleep for more than 20-40 minutes between wakings. We tried everything to help her sleep a longer stretch – co-sleeping, sleeping in her own bassinet, her own crib, her own room, on our chest, in a swing… you name it. The sleep book advice was not doing a thing. Medically, she checked out fine.

Sleep Researchers Shed Light on Normal Baby Sleep

Normal Baby Sleep
Normal baby sleep patterns can include more interruptions than adult or children sleep patterns and still be restful.

There is a great white paper put out by sleep researchers that provides researched-based reassurance that many “sleep problems” are indeed widespread, but also entirely normal. The authors of this paper study mother-baby sleep behavior, infant neurobiology, psychology, safe sleep, and social surveys regarding actual sleep trends around the world as well as self-reports of parental fatigue. According to this paper all of the following patterns are common, and may be variations on normal baby sleep:

  • Waking every hour day and night.
  • Frequent waking following a period of weeks or months of “good sleep.”
  • Inability to nap unless being walked or carried.
  • Sleeping only in arms.
  • Falling asleep only at the breast.

Knowing that your baby’s sleep may indeed be normal might not help them sleep better, but it just may decrease your exhaustion and be a key component of a sleep “solution” for your family.

What infant sleep patterns work for you?

One night, I finally had a breakthrough with my daughter’s sleep. I hid all the clocks! I simply started to pay no attention what-so-ever to how often or how frequently she woke. I was pretty skilled at dozing through feedings and calming her without fully arousing myself. A safe co-sleeping environment was key for us. We moved our mattress to the floor and eliminated heavy blankets. I slept in a warm long sleeved shirt.

And it worked! She continued to be a very light sleeper until she was nearly two, and I felt energized and happy during the day. We came to enjoy our snugly nights. Around 22 months, she suddenly started sleeping solidly for about a 10 hour stretch. Two months later, we made her a special big girl bed in her own room and she transitioned easily with no problems.

For me, acceptance was our sleep solution. Without the worry about normalcy and the anger or disbelief I often felt when the clock revealed the short time that had passed since her last waking, her waking really didn’t exhaust me. It had been my concern for her and my frustration that was sapping more energy than the actual care I needed to provide her throughout the night.

Figuring out when sleep patterns aren’t working for you is easy – you know your exhaustion level and you can perceive the effects of sleep deprivation on your productivity, relationships, and happiness. Figuring out when sleep patterns are a problem for your baby is trickier. Sleep experts publish many warnings that regular waking is causing babies to be unrested – and may grow into a chronic condition leading to attention problems, irritability, behavior challenges, and even adult sleep disorders. If this is true, acceptance as a solution would be irresponsible. But is it?

Sleep “Experts” may be unfamiliar with actual sleep research

Ironically, many “sleep experts,” who define some variations of normal baby sleep as problems, are health professionals but not sleep researchers. Medical training emphasizes the pathology of disease and medical intervention. Typically, there is not an in-depth study of normal healthy function and all of its variations. It is important to pause for a moment and consider if medical training is actually a suitable foundation for understanding normal baby sleep. It certainly may be, and likely has valuable perspectives to offer, but sleep research is equally important and may turn up new understandings. Published books on how to make a baby sleep longer stretches profit from parent’s earnest drive to correct sleep problems. Parents need to look for evidence that their baby’s sleep is truly a problem before assuming it is worrisome.

I have read two studies where babies’ sleep was intentionally disrupted in order to evaluate signs of sleep deprivation in infants. These studies suggest that longer periods of time in deep sleep, and more difficulty arousing babies, are indications of sleep deprivation in infants. Difficultly with emotional regulation was also observed, although that was a study of 14 month old toddlers.

If your baby might be experiencing any sleep problems, your doctor is an important resource. However, if you and your doctor agree that your baby is happy and developing appropriately, acceptance of your baby’s normal sleep pattern may be a real part of the sleep solutions for your family. Normalization can be balm for the worried soul, and you’ll be amazed at how much more rested you might feel! Parenting is the ultimate exercise in both investigation and flexibility. Sometimes solutions don’t look like you had imagined, but are wonderful all the same.

I affirm that every family needs support in finding sleep strategies that work for them during the challenging early years. If your sleep needs are suffering, I encourage you to work with a consultant who can understand your lifestyle and your baby’s temperament and help you find sleep strategies that work for your family. Methods of encouraging longer sleep may be the best for you – and may work for your baby. But if not, rest assured, living with the natural sleep patterns of your baby is as valid as other sleep solutions.

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