When you have a non-sleeping baby, it often feels as if you are alone in a world where all the other babies ‘sleep through’. Naturally this leaves you questioning your methods and parenting style and wondering what on earth you did wrong to create such a ‘sleep problem’. I often get emails from parents telling me “I know I’ve created bad sleep habits, so I know it’s my fault”, or “I know I shouldn’t feed him to sleep, that’s why he doesn’t sleep when other babies his age do”. In fact, neither of these beliefs are true. Having a non-sleeping baby is not the fault of the parents, just as those who claim to have babies who ‘sleep all night’ are not wonder parents. In truth, most of the difference is down to luck, terminology and parental beliefs and opinions.
There are five main reasons why all of your friends’ and family’s babies sleep better than yours:
1. The parents are lucky In infancy, a lot of sleep ‘success’ is down to sheer luck. Simple luck of the draw and/or luck of genetics (sleep has a strong genetic factor). Some babies are just easier than others. By that I mean that they don’t need as much physical comfort, or as much night-feeding. Some just find sleep easier than others. I had one of these freaky easy babies, my second born, he slept through the night entirely of his own doing every night before he was twelve weeks old and he went to sleep better if you put him down in a cot awake. I did nothing to achieve this (in fact I was a little sad at the loss of cuddles). My daughter, my fourth born, in sharp contrast was a nightmare sleeper. She did not sleep through the night properly until she was four years old. I always said if she’d come first I would have stopped at only one child. I did nothing differently. It was just the luck of the draw. Individual babies, same parents, same methods and routines. Perhaps your friends and family have the equivalent of my second born, while you have my fourth born. Perhaps they will be in for a nasty shock if their second born is like my fourth, and perhaps you’re in for a nice surprise if the sleep of my second born comes next. It really is sheer luck. One thing is for sure though - those ‘easy babies’ aren’t self-soothing! They haven’t learned how to do something that your baby hasn’t!
2. The parents aren’t aware that their baby is waking Here’s the thing. No baby sleeps through the night, never have, never will. Some babies immediately start a new sleep cycle once one ends without adult help. Some wake, but remain quiet in their cot, while others wake and cry for parental help to start a new cycle. None of them sleep solidly all night. Those babies who ‘sleep through’ still wake at the end of sleep cycles, they just sit and play quietly in their cot while their parents are unaware that they’re awake, but they are.
3. The parents have unknowingly sleep trained A lot of parents do elements of sleep training without realising. Often they will work hard to put the baby down awake and avoid feeding or rocking to sleep from a very, very early age. Sometimes they will say that they “let her grizzle for a little bit”, saying that they “don’t rush in to a little whimper, but wait until it’s a proper cry”. That ‘grizzle’ and ‘whimper’ is often proper crying. What they mean is that they don’t go in until the baby is crying hard, sustained cries. That’s sleep training, even if the parents don’t know that they’re doing it.
4. The parents have sleep trained but lie about it Some parents lie about sleep training because they feel uncomfortable admitting that they did it, others lie about it in the presence of friends with non-sleeping babies in order to save their friend’s feelings. If your friend sees that you’re exhausted and knows that you’re not a fan of sleep training, it’s unlikely that he or she is going to extol its virtues to you.
5. The parents are using different terminology to you The term ‘sleeping through’ means different things to different people. To some it means sleeping for 12 hours straight, to others a stretch of 8 hours, akin to adult sleep. To others it may be a stretch of five or six hours (in fact that’s the scientific definition). To some they consider that their baby has ‘slept through’ if they have only woken briefly for a quick night feed, even if that happened five times overnight. The thing is, the term is vague. It has so many definitions. Often when people discuss ‘sleeping through’, they aren’t coming from the same meaning.
Here’s a statistic that I use a lot, to end with. At 9 months of age only 16% of babies are reliably sleeping through the night. Under half of toddlers do too. Night waking is not only normal, it’s common - the majority. The next time you feel like the only one in the world with a non-sleeper, remind yourself that things aren’t quite so black and white as they first appear.
To learn more about the norms of infant sleep and feel a little less alone, check out the Gentle Sleep Book.