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Your Baby is NOT a “Bad” Sleeper: Common Sense Thinking About Infant Sleep

babywearing; mei tai; infant sleep; toddler sleep
12 month old Eleanor napping peacefully.

Let me let you in on an important secret that society doesn’t seem to want us to know about sleep.  Babies wake up.  Sometimes a lot.  Older babies wake up too.  So do toddlers.  Even school aged kids wake up.  And you know what?  Adults often wake in the night too!

So why is it that we so often hear “my baby is a BAD sleeper” from parents struggling to deal with night wakings if waking is a normal part of sleep?

I’ve written before about the problem with the labels “bad” and “good” when it comes to children.  I think the language we use to describe our children and their behaviors matters.  In the case of sleep, labeling a child a “bad” sleeper sets parents up for a lot more stress and anguish over their child’s sleep patterns than is healthy or necessary.  And when what we are calling “bad” is in fact NORMAL, it is doubly frustrating – we are setting parents up to feel like failures when their children behave in a perfectly typical and developmentally appropriate fashion.

For whatever reason, Americans have pathologized normal infant sleep.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the parent of an infant who is waking at night ask “what am I doing wrong?” – Nothing.  I mean I suppose if you are blasting death metal at 2 a.m. or taking your kids out late night partying, you are doing something wrong as far as helping your child develop healthy sleep habits.  But if your 2 month old, or 4 month old, or 10 month old, or 16 month old wakes in the night and needs you, you are not doing anything wrong!

All healthy humans sleep in cycles – we go through periods of lighter and deeper sleep throughout the night.  And many of us actually wake up enough to be aware of our waking – I know I do every night.  We wake up long enough to roll over, maybe fluff our pillow, or even grab a drink of water.  That’s not “bad” sleep; that’s normal sleep.

Infants and children do the same thing.  But there’s an important difference.  Like pretty much everything else an infant does, they need our help with sleep – they need help getting to sleep, sometimes staying asleep, and help getting through those periods of light sleep.  As they get older, they naturally develop the ability to do these things on their own – just like adults do.  But that’s a gradual process just like any other developmental task.  Our babies aren’t born walking, talking, or eating independently – we help them learn those skills over time.  Why is sleep different?  Why do we expect magically independent sleep overnight?   Why the obsession with “sleeping through the night” at an early age when we don’t expect them to do any of those other things so quickly after birth?

Think about language development – first babies babble.  Then maybe we get some words, followed by short sentences.  As a child grows older, her language becomes increasingly sophisticated.  She experiments.  Maybe stumbles sometimes.  But all the while she becomes more able to use language.  And these milestones occur at different times for different children.  Some children start talking in sentences by 1.  Others don’t have a single word at 2.  And both might be very fluent speakers at 2.5.  Kids develop in different patterns; normal covers a large range.

Sleep is no different.  Some babies start sleeping in long stretches right off the bat and never stop.  Some sleep long stretches and suddenly start waking again.  Some babies never do long stretches until they are toddlers.  Some babies need lots of rocking; some babies don’t.  Some babies love to nurse/suck to sleep; some don’t.  And it is all NORMAL!

If you are like me and are persuaded by hard science, head over to Evolutionary Parenting and check out her excellent series on normal infant sleep – peer reviewed research folks – it’s good stuff!

But even without the science, common sense tells us that babies just aren’t hard wired to sleep 12 or 8 or even 4 hour stretches just because they’ve reached X age or Y weight.  Think of how many adults struggle to get to sleep.  Why should a tiny baby have some magic way to do it on her own?  Consider how many adults dislike sleeping alone.  Should your child be any different?

So, no, your baby is NOT a “bad” sleeper – stop telling yourself that!  And stop listening to all those who are not in your house and not the parent of your child on what you SHOULD do.  And, yes, that includes your pediatrician who may be well intentioned in her advice but is NOT the parent of your child (nor most likely an expert in infant sleep!).  Follow your gut and trust in the fact that sleep takes learning and gentle nurturing – not training, or “cry-it-out.”

Instead of “bad” sleep, think of “wakeful periods.”  All babies have them.  Some last longer than others.  The “4-month wakeful” is particularly notorious.   Teething, developmental milestones, illness, separation anxiety, just wanting a snuggle – they all cause babies to be wakeful.  And they are all a normal part of infancy and toddlerhood.

Parents often worry that night waking means their child just isn’t getting enough sleep.  Certainly true sleep deprivation isn’t good for anyone (and yes, baby’s wakings may cause you to have some – remember, you are awake longer than baby!).  But waking doesn’t automatically equal sleep deprived.  If your baby is happy and well-rested acting, he is getting enough sleep.

And if baby isn’t acting well-rested or if baby is not just waking but WAKING and wanting to party at 3 a.m., there are things you can do.  My favorite approach is that outlined in The No-Cry Sleep Solution.  But even if your baby is having trouble in the night or trouble napping (there’s The No-Cry Nap Solution too), he isn’t a “bad” sleeper anymore than a baby who is struggling with speech would be labeled a “bad” talker.  We don’t leave kids who are struggling to master a developmental skill on their own to figure it out.  We give them support.  We should do the same as far as helping our babies to learn to sleep.

I know it’s tough dealing with frequent wakings – I have two kids who were pretty darn wakeful and no delusions #3 will be any different.  Bed-sharing helped me stay rested; I recognize it’s not the solution for everyone, but it is worth considering if you are  I also found it very helpful to constantly remind myself of two important facts:

  • What I’m experiencing is normal.
  • All children learn to sleep independently eventually.

So consider a change in perspective:  You don’t have a “bad” sleeper; you have a normal infant who is perhaps experiencing a wakeful stage.  With your responsive nurturing, your baby really truly will learn to sleep independently – promise.


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Published in Popular Sleep