Everything You Know About Sleeping Through the Night Is Wrong


One of the most common questions asked to a mom of an infant is, "Is she a good sleeper?" Often what they actually are asking is, "Does she sleep long periods of time?" as if a baby who wakes up more frequently has a problem.

Our culture is very egocentric, and it shows in our parenting, as a lot of guides and cultural conditioning suggest that success as a parent is the ability to have an uninterrupted night. However, not only does this set parents up for unnecessary stress, but it's not even biologically sound thinking.

If we only expected from our babies what they were naturally designed to do, we'd have a lot less sleep struggles.

For example, "sleeping through the night" is a phrase thrown around often, but do you know what it actually refers to? Five hours. That's it. Sleeping through the night means a five-hour stretch. Once. What is being determined isn't if you laid down after brushing your teeth and woke up to your alarm clock, but that your baby's body recognizes the difference between daytime sleep and nighttime sleep, and sleeps longer periods at night than they do in the day.

That's it.

While some babies will naturally begin sleeping longer periods of time at young ages, and will push off the need for food, that is the exception, not the rule.

Babies will sleep longer when they are biologically ready to do so. It is a developmental step like walking and talking, not something you can (or should) force, much like you can show your child the potty but expecting them to use it before their bladder is developed enough to hold urine is only setting up a battle that is impossible for either of you to win. In fact, when observed, it's discovered that even moms who swear their babies sleep through the night (by adult standards) are mistaken -- their baby still wakes up, they just don't know about it, and they didn't wake up any more or any less than babies whose mothers were aware of the nighttime awakenings.

One of my absolute favorite quotes about sleeping through the night:

Probably one of the main reasons that night-waking babies are such a big issue is that parents don't have realistic expectations of the sleep patterns of babies. We are bombarded with magazine articles and books that perpetuate the myth that babies should not have nighttime needs. Babies were designed to wake up often at night to feed and cuddle -- keep in mind that many adults wake during the night, too. If our expectations for babies were not so different from our babies' expectations for themselves, much of this "problem" might disappear.

If a well-meaning family member or doctor tells you that your rocking or nursing to sleep needs to stop, consider that they don't live in your household. It is totally normal and acceptable for even a 1-year-old to wake up and need their parent to help them ease back to sleep. Normal! Our culture isn't supportive of that, though, but the reality is, our culture pretends that babies need to be sleeping, without intervention, for incredibly long periods of time, before they're actually ready to. And almost no one actually does it, especially without fights and crying, but they don't talk about it because they don't want to be seen as a lax parent.

Well people, take heart. As long as you promote healthy sleep patterns, everyone is well-rested, and you are respecting your baby's emotions and developmental abilities, how you put your baby to sleep and when they wake up really isn't an issue. It is absolutely okay to be nursing a 15-month-old during the night. It is okay to need to sing a little to a 9-month-old. Stop looking at books and people who tell you your baby must sleep, and look at your baby who tells you they're trying, but just need a little help from the person they love most, who comforts them best -- you.

Are you at all concerned about how long baby sleeps?

baby first year, baby health, baby sleep


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Zoe Elizabeth

I strongly disagree with phrases like, "In fact, when observed, it's discovered that even moms who swear their babies sleep through the night (by adult standards) are mistaken -- their baby still wakes up, they just don't know about it, and they didn't wake up any more or any less than babies whose mothers were aware of the nighttime awakenings."

My child has gone through 2 week long phases of waking every 20-45 minutes and is a terrible sleeper. She has sleep problems. I don't expect her to sleep 12hrs through the night but is a baby is not sleeping hour long stretches at a time, they are not getting the right kinds of sleep (the deeper slumbers, REM etc). Encourage good sleeping habits, yes, ignore 'sleep trainers', yes, but I have every reason to look at my upset, tired baby, and worry about her sleep. Its whart I do about it that matters.

Lians... Liansmommie

Well mine never slept for more than 2-3 hours a night until he was 31/2 YEARS. We did actually have an issue that has since been dealt with, or more accurately, dealing with. You wouldn't believe the "advice" I got about putting him down. It is always good to remember that you are around your baby and know him best so what works for you is probably what is best for him, not someone else's expectation.

Lians... Liansmommie

Zoe Elizabeth, your situation doesn't fit this article. What she was trying to say with the part you quoted was that moms don't realize how often their babies actually wake up because they are never woken up by it.  I know what it is like to have a chroically tired child, but if you read most of the questions about sleeping through the night, it often turns their child is actually already sleeping well, (5 or so hours) but because 8 hours is the usual definition moms just don't realize it. I hope you and your child can get her sleep issues dealt with.

kerij... kerijeanbean

I was blessed with my first child.  He slept pretty well.  He would stir I could pop a pacifier in his mouth and he would go right back to sleep.  He was out from 8 to 6 every night starting at 4 months of age.  My second one slept soundly from day 2 to about 5 months.  Then he was awake every 1 to 2 hours until he was almost 3 years old.  He still woke up 2 to 3 times a night until he turned 4.  Finally he slept through the night.  My baby girl still wakes up 1 to 3 times a night.  She is 21 months old now.  I have nursed and rocked my babies to sleep until they were going to bed on their own.  The biggest reason I want my kids to sleep is so I can sleep.  I do understand she will sleep when she is ready.  I type this as my little girl has nursed herself to sleep.  Hopefully we will have a better night than the last few, but I do expect to be up in a couple of hours with her.

tyrel... tyrelsmom

Good article.  My daughter usually wakes up two times a night.  She wakes because she needs to pee.  She doesn't cry hard, and if I am unable to go to her, she'll pee in her diaper and fall back asleep.  But what's the point of that? So she can sleep in a wet diaper for a few hours and then wake back up fussy because she's wet?  Or, get used to peeing in her sleep and being wet and be unable to be dry through the night at school age?  I take her to the potty and then nurse her back to sleep.  It takes maybe 10 minutes, and she gets to stay dry all night.  She's 15 months.  I expect this to last for quite a  while yet, although I'm hoping she goes down to once a night before too long.

Sonia Gibbon

Brilliant article - wondered if we could talk EC. I have an EC shop and would love to talk to you about it. The bladder thing is a myth perpetrated by society too - and Dr Brazelton - and not the case at all.

Really love the article though

Debbie Pavey

I really disagree with the thrust of this article. Many babies need to learn to sleep well. Whilst in the womb they are rocked and soothed to sleep with the noises they hear. Pregnant women often report that their baby appears to wake and start kicking as soon as the Mother rests. So it's normal for babies to struggle sleeping in the quiet, dark, still night once they are born. But that is just what they need to learn for the sanity of the family and for their own development. It takes time and patience to get there, but it's a skill babies learn just like any other. Some will find it naturally, but many will need help. If you just accept that your baby just doesn't sleep well and isn't 'ready' to do so, you risk ending up with a toddler who doesn't sleep well and then a child. My first baby slept terribly. I couldn't cope with the sleep deprivation and so made it a key goal to get him sleeping through the night and we made it. He is 10 now, sleeps brilliantly and is well rested in the mornings. If I had just accepted things early on, where might we be now?

Wendy Cray Kaufman

I love this article! Thank you so much! I am SO sick of people asking if I have a "good baby" in reference to his sleeping habits. He is one year old, and he stills gets up once or twice every night to nurse. Other than being a little tired, I have no problem with that because I know it's natural. My MIL even gave me rice cereal as a shower gift so I could put it in his bottles when he came home from the hospital! (I guess she didn't know that he didn't get bottles...) 

This type of information needs to be more readily available for moms who don't understand why everyone else's baby seems to be sleeping more. It's so easy to think you are doing something wrong, when you are actually just trusting your maternal instincts and listening to your baby's needs. Bravo on a great article! :)

Jennifer Fehrenbach McNeely

These comments have made me feel better about our 24 month old waking in the middle of the night. Often she runs into our room and divebombs between my husband and I... sometimes she is hungry, Its nice to hear from other parents who are ok with this.

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