No baby sleeps all night. Not one. Neither do adults. Surprised? A normal sleep cycle bring us into a foggy awake stage and only then do we return to sleep. This happens many times throughout the night, but good sleepers send themselves right back into a deeper sleep without being held, an extra feeding (excluding that magic dream feed), or a midnight sandwich run. Developing the ability to send yourself back to sleep is learned, not acquired with time. Babies that have learned this skill appear to stay asleep all night long. They are actually settling themselves down repeatedly in the middle of the night, just like there rest of the family. How babies learn to send themselves back to sleep depends on the mindset of the adults doing the teaching.
I believe that good sleep skills after those first few months of life depend on the parent’s perceived role as sleep coach. Gradually sleeping through the night after the first 6 months is a skill, not an innate instinct. Here is what you need to know to build those skills in the littlest learners. New parents aren’t often aware that children all the way to about age 4 have shorter sleep cycles than adults (60 minutes versus 90 for adults) and can begin to be able to shift to a day-and-night awareness late in the second month of life. Yes, that early. Good sleep for the smallest babies up to 12 weeks is largely a matter of respecting their need to have the womb experience replicated. All of the 5 S’s in Happiest Baby on the Block do that really well, which is why I teach classes and provide personal consultations. Providing the physical experiences that newborns need is essentially your job in those first couple of months. Being able to fall asleep quickly and without hours of crying right from the start sets babies up to have good sleep habits. It also gives parents a confidence boost and a sense that healthy sleep patterns are possible. Teething, growth spurts, runny noses and all manner of things will happen in that first year to derail good sleep and shake that confidence.
After about 12 weeks babies’ brains are more mature, and need the social support of a routine and an adult that can “read” them well. Sleep becomes more of a dance between habits, needs, and expectations. You use the white noise, transition objects and shush-pat to help a baby quiet themselves down, put tired babies to sleep before they get too tired, and treat your sleep routine just like a dietary guideline for good health. It is. Communicating your confidence in their ability to calm and being aware of accidentally creating bad sleep habits is key. “The Baby Whisperer” is my favorite reference for turning around bad sleep habits in a kind but firm way. No one else does as good a job of advocating for children to be independent sleepers who do not feel abandoned.
In the terrific book “Bringing Up Bebe”, the characteristic French approach that is described is not cold and callous, but rather respectful, as parents wait to see if a whimpering baby can self-calm, and allow the baby to settle herself down much of the time. Assistance is brief and while warm, it is understood that the baby is being taught to “do her nights”, as they say. It certainly helps that maternity leave and good daycare in France is generous, so that parents are less stressed and fatigued. But it is more than that. Their culture also values developing independence in very young children throughout the day, not just around sleep training. If your belief is that your job as a parent over time is to teach your child to NOT need you for sleeping, for feeding themselves, and for entertaining themselves, then this will seem like second nature. You will start with fostering them to settle themselves, and quickly move along with holding a spoon, playing alone, and even cooking dinner at 10. If you believe that your job is to protect your child from every frustration that you can, then it will seem like cruelty not to go to her when she gently whimpers. It all depends on how you see your role. For parents that decide to take this approach, they may have two hurdles here in America. Friends and family that do not agree will erode your confidence, and our overall culture doesn’t support this attitude right now. My family had this more traditional European approach to parenting, and many of our friends were also from this culture. You may have to work to find a like-minded community if you want face-to-face support. The internet can support parents who do not have direct encouragement.
One of the first considerations when thinking about how you will address infant sleep issues is to determine how you see your role, and what you believe is possible for your child. Then you can see your path to a good nights sleep more clearly.