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When will your child start sleeping through the night?

Sleeping through the night is the ultimate goal for most parents, yet it´s often based on unrealistic expectations and false assumptions about sleep in the first few years of a child´s life. Keep reading for a deep dive to find out what´s realisitic and why the number of nightwakings isn´t the only thing we should look for when it comes to sleep.

What does sleeping through the night mean?

In sleep research studies that are published in scientific journals, nobody has done a study that defined sleeping through the night as 12 hours without waking.

Yep that´s right, all this information around 12 hour nights being crucial for a child´s development do not have any evidence base whatsoever. Most research also categorizes a child as sleeping through the night when they do longer stretches (whatever the definition in the study was they chose) occasionally or once even, not every night.

The term "sleeping through the night" is also used with lots of varying definitions amongst parents. So next time you hear another parent share their child slept through the night, take it with a grain of salt, because they might have a completely different definition than you do. For some parents sleeping through the night simply means, THEY can sleep through a wake by co-sleeping or breastsleeping or their toddler simply finds their way into the parent's bed and goes right back to sleep. Some parents might feel that their child sleeps through the night because they just wake for a feed or two. Sleep trained babies might seem like they are sleeping 12 hours over night, but we know from actigraphy that they still wake up just as much, they just stopped signaling to their parents.

It´s not only not necessary to sleep that long without having a need met to get quality sleep, it´s also very unreasonable to expect from an infant whose main calorie source is milk for the first year (for many longer), experience significant changes to their development and is fully dependent on their caregiver to get all their needs met.

For most children that still nap, 10-11 hours of sleep overnight are realistic (with wakings), not 12. Most children cannot achieve 12 hours of nighttime sleep because they meet their sleep needs overall in 24 hours through naps AND nighttime sleep.

Their sleep tank is full, more isn´t possible or needed.

The takeaway: Most professionals, researchers and parents have different definitions of what it means to sleep through the night. Sleep research does not even bother to use 12 hours of sleep without waking overnight and many babies and toddlers don´t need 12 hours of sleep overnight.

It´s not only not necessary to sleep that long without having a need met to get quality sleep, it´s also very unreasonable to expect from an infant whose main calorie source is milk for the first year plus. The thing is also that for most children that still nap, 10-11 hours of sleep overnight are realistic (with wakings) not 12. Most children cannot achieve this much nighttime sleep because they meet their sleep needs overall in 24 hours with naps and nighttime sleep. Their sleep tank is full, more isn´t possible.

When do most children sleep long stretches consistenly?

Pavoonen (2020) found by looking at 1000 healthy(!) children measuring sleep at 3,6,8,12,18 and 24 months that "nightwakings were common at all time points. The average number of nightwakings was 2.1-2.5 during the first year but it decreased to an average of 1.1 awakenings per night in 18 month olds and 0.9 in two year olds. Moreover, in two year olds 28,4% still woke up every night or almost every night and 14,9% had at least two night wakings for which they needed resettling."

Pennestri et al (2020) found by looking at 44 infants at 6 month old, that based on the mother´s report, the infants slept 6 h consecutively for about 5 nights out of 13. 20.5% never slept 6 h consecutively, three (6.8%) met the criterion every night, but most infants (n = 32; 72.7%) showed high variability between the nights. Mothers reported that their infant slept 8 h consecutively for about 3 nights out of 13. Half of the infants (50.0%) never slept 8 h consecutively, one infant (2.3%) slept 8 h consecutively every night, and twenty-one infants (47.7%) showed high variability.

As we can see there is high variability, especially within the first year. Galland et al. (2012) found that the older the child gets the more likely they are to sleep for long stretches at night, as their daytime sleep decreases.

Now very often what we´ll hear is if we remove the sleep association that babies might consolidate their sleep faster, often described as teaching a child to self-soothe.

Does your child need to learn to self-soothe to sleep through the night?

Self-soothing is the ability to calm oneself down from a state of stress to a state of calm without help.Self-soothing is not something you can teach, and it´s certainly not something a baby can "learn" with an immature brain. It is often used interchangably with the term self-settling, which describes the ability to fall asleep without support, which is often made out to be the key to get your child to sleep through the night, when the ability to go back to sleep actually largely comes down to the developmental stage your child is in and more importantly, their temperament. So when you read the term self-soothing online, what is actually meant by that is self settling.

In 1970 researcher Thomas Anders looked at babies and their behavior during wakings in the night, some were able to go back to sleep by looking around and sucking on their thumb while others where calling out immediately to their parents. He termed them "self soothers" and "signallers". Those that were able to go back to sleep without support are babies with an easy going and flexible temperament, while the "signallers" have a more sensitive temperament and need more regulation from their caregiver to go back to sleep. That said, easy going babies still call out for hunger or comfort, they still experience discomfort and development and rely on their caregiver to meet their needs, they just might not need as much support as the "signallers" require at night and for sleep in general. Temperament is something your child is born with, nothing you can teach or change, so your child´s ability or inability to go back to sleep without help is not something you caused or have control over.

There is no one size fits all answer to achieving longer stretches of sleep overnight. Even if your baby or toddler is easy going and needs little support for sleep, ther immaturity and dependence on you remains day and night. Just because they might go back to sleep without help, doesn´t mean they will do it for every wake in the first years of life.

All humans wake between sleep cycles and so in that sense no one "sleeps through the night"! It´s a survival mechanism that stuck with us since evolution to protect us from predators. The difference between us adults and our children is, that they are reliant on us to get their needs met, while we can get up to pee, cuddle our partner, adjust the pillow or grab a glass of water. Needing support to go back to sleep is a normal feature of infant sleep, that every child will naturally grow out of.

This is not meant to sound discouraging, all children will end up not needing us at night, I promise!

So should you bother working on self-settling with your baby or toddler if you struggle with their nightwaking pattern?

This is absolutely a personal choice and you CAN encourage your child to self settle without using sleep training, it is absolutely possible!

Is it going to require work and patience from you?

  • Yes

Does encouraging self settling at fitst usually result in less sleep for everyone?

  • Also yes to that unfortunately.

Working on promoting falling asleep independently is a personal choice and it depends very much on your child´s temperament and your sleep goals!

I like to focus on everything BUT the way we settle FIRST when I work with a family and do not promote the idea of self settling if a client isn´t keen to do it. Here is why:

Self settling is where all children eventually arrive and I focus on optimizing sleep holistically to reduce night wakings and maximize sleep for the whole family in the meantime. Most of the time it´s easier and more manageable for families to improve sleep in other ways and settling might become easier as a byproduct.

4 tips to support longer stretches of sleep overnight for the whole family

Now that we´ve learned that

#1 Optimize sleep pressure

Sleep pressure is the body´s driver to fall asleep and naps are solely driven by it! We want to make sure that sleep pressure at bedtime is optimal to support nighttime sleep, which is why we often need to address daytime sleep to improve nights. At night your child´s circadian rhythm will come into play and we want sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm to work together.

That might mean:

  • supporting a nap transitions

  • optimizing nap lentghs

  • optimizing timings of naps

  • bringing bedtime forward or pushing it back

  • extending or shortening awake periods before bed

Keep in mind that getting sleep pressure right is usually super individual to the child, their age and sleep needs, which is why I don´t recommend following sleep schedules for this. You could keep a sleep diary for a few days and identify which naps are easier/harder to achieve to get an idea of where your child is at. Also take a look at my free nap transitions guide HERE that will help you determine whether it´s time to drop a nap or not.

#2 Tweak the bedtime routine

#3 Work on nighttime parenting logistics

#4 Look at everything but sleep

Need more help with nightwakings and making sense of your child´s sleep holistically?

Book a free intro call with me today!

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