Published Date: 09/27/19
Real talk: I spent the first year of my son’s life agonizing over his sleep. I was so certain something was wrong. Why did he resist a schedule? Why did he wake so damn much? Why would he go through phases where he’d only sleep on me? Why did I always have to pee during contact naps?!?! In fact, my biggest parenting – honestly, life - regret to date is the hours and hours of our baby-mama time I wasted crying and filled with anxiety when I could have been enjoying those delicious baby cuddles.
How much time have I spent like this over the last 29 months? Days? Weeks? MONTHS?
Where did this paralyzing anxiety come from? Google. I cannot stress this enough: Google is parent kryptonite. Indiscriminate searches display results based on what tired, desperate parents are likely to click on. Gadgets, schedules, rules & tips (I swear if I hear “put him down drowsy but awake” one more time I will snap. SNAP, I TELL YOU!), swaddles, nightlights, noise machines and nearly all without one iota of developmental, biological evidence to back them up. Every search presented me with sleep “experts” that declared clear deadlines for being able to sleep through the night, distinct nap schedules, necessary amounts of sleep by age, and list after list of things parents do wrong around infant sleep. I was tired, I was stressed, and I fell for it. And I felt like I failure when none of it worked, even when I knew better.
Say it with me again, parents!
I’m sure if you’re here, you’ve done the searches. You know what people say about sleep. Maybe it was Google, maybe it’s your mother, or your in-laws, or your well-meaning mama friends. Maybe it was even your pediatrician who, almost certainly, didn’t receive any training on infant sleep.
You know what people say, but what do we know? It may seem hard to parse out what we know about normal, biological infant sleep when so much of our experience revolves around sleep-trained infants (see how we got here, well, here).
Buckle up, parents, this is gonna be a wild ride. Infants younger than 12 months were reported to wake an average of 3 times a night (Anders & Keener, 1985; Anders, 1978). That means if your baby wakes more than that, it’s normal. Less? Also normal. And, while the trend is for older infants to fall back asleep on their own, when we look at infants who are not sleep trained at 12 months, 50% of them need parental intervention to fall back asleep (Goodlin-Jones et al., 2001).
I have a secret for you. Do you know what it means when 50% of the population does something?
It's the statistical definition of NORMAL behavior!
That’s not all! We also see extended night wakings until age three in 40% of kids (Weinraub et al., 2012). Three! Not six months, not a year, three years. Now, these wake patterns are largely variable and can depend on many factors including infant temperament, family functioning, marital satisfaction, parenting stress, and, I’m sure, many factors we haven’t yet identified.
Alright, so we know that babies wake. If you’re a parent, that shouldn’t be surprising. But let’s shift our focus for a moment to talk about what WOULD be required for an infant to successfully sleep through the night. The term of the day is: self-soothing. Oh, we’ve all heard it. It’s what extinction methods of sleep-training claim to foster (more on that in the final post).
What is it really? Self-soothing is used as a blanket term referring to a myriad of really complex skills, most of which don’t develop until late childhood, at the earliest. One of the biggest components of self-soothing, as we understand it, is emotion regulation. This is the ability to effectively manage and respond to (typically negative) emotional experiences. This requires a mature neocortex, or, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level brain function – including rational thought. This is - to put it mildly - underdeveloped in infants and toddlers. Therefore, our babies simply cannot rationalize their experience. They cannot mediate strong feelings on their own. The result: they rely on caregivers (that’s you!) to externally regulate these feelings for them.
You want to know how smart this innate co-regulation system is? Babies often won't settle when you're sitting because they feel
safer when you are in a position to flee from danger (Esposito, et al., 2013). Not that this will help your tired legs.
Children begin to learn this this skill by watching caregivers who model behaviors and then by calling on their caregivers for help. When caregivers work with infants or children in response to negative emotion, this is “co-regulation”. Infants use co-regulation way more than any other self-soothing skills in isolation. Before a year of age, infants almost never use emotional regulation skills outside of asking for an adult (Campos et al., 2004). Seeking a caregiver to buffer negative emotion was the only intentional “self-soothing” skill seen in a study of infants 3-13.5 months (Rothbart et al., 1992).
At 10 months (wayyyy after most infants start sleep training) 78% of infants cannot calm themselves when distressed, when the source of distress is a researcher (Stifter & Spinrad, 2002). When the source of distress is a caregiver, their ability to calm themselves is even lower. That means that if mama is the one creating distress by not meeting a need, baby is going to have a much harder time calming down. In fact, you rarely see toddlers displaying these emotional regulation skills with any consistency, aside for asking for you, of course.
You do this too! We don’t often withdraw from people when we’re upset, we use them for comfort.
Except when even someone touching you annoys you, ya know?
What does this self-soothing have to do with night waking? When an infant wakes, they cry. Crying is an indication of a negative emotional experience AND serves to communicate said emotion to a caregiver. By crying, infants and toddlers are asking for you to help them co-regulate a negative emotion. This is their best emotional regulatory skill! In order to sleep through the night, they need to have a skill other than calling to you. In order to gain that skill, they need you to co-regulate and model emotional regulation.
And, parents, I gotta say it: adults don’t sleep through the night. Sometimes you have to pee. Sometimes you have a nightmare. Sometimes your partner is snoring so loud you could murder them. The fact is, we wake up. The difference is that, as adults, most of us have the skills to understand what woke us, how to relax, and what to do to put ourselves back to sleep. But even then, it’s only most of the time! Sometimes, the anxiety (or the annoyance) is too much, and we’re just up. That feeling – that I can’t go back to sleep feeling? That’s what babies feel all. the. time.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that:
1. It is normal for infants and toddlers to wake throughout the night.
2. It is normal for infants and toddlers to need your help to fall back asleep.
3. It is normal and adaptive for infants and toddlers to cry out to you to help them regulate negative emotions upon waking.
NORMAL! In, like, the very best way.
So, mamas, the next time someone asks you if your baby is sleeping through the night, hold your head high, muster your sassiest eye roll, and reply “are YOU?!”.
About the Author
Amanda Cannarella has a P.h.D in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology. Through her business Be.loved, she provides full-spectrum and full-service support to expecting, new, and growing families. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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