All Through the Night

Myths and facts about babies and sleep—psst—you're not alone!

You’ve just stumbled into your Baby Rhyme Time class, bleary-eyed and hopped up on lattes after another sleepless night, thanks to Little Miss Feed-a-Lot. Then you overhear one mom chirp, “Emma’s already sleeping through the night!” Rage simmers. Later, when you kvetch to your own mom, she says, “Well, you kids slept beautifully, but I wasn’t breastfeeding.” Resist the urge to strangle them both. The topic of infant sleep is highly subject to revisionist history and half-truths ““ otherwise people might stop having kids altogether! But let’s stick to the facts: “Babies typically wake about three times per night under one year of age,” says Dr. Shelly K. Weiss, a pediatric neurologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and author of Better Sleep for your Baby & Child (Robert Rose). Here, we debunk six myths, including the idea that your baby’s the only one not sleeping through the night!

Myth No. 1 “You can get him on a schedule from day one.”

“Until three months of age, babies eat and sleep around the clock,” says Dr. Weiss. They’re physically incapable of adhering to a schedule. Even great sleepers may have wakeful nights later due to teething, separation anxiety, illness or a big physical milestone. (Don’t worry, Ms. Chirpy from Rhyme Time will get hers.) The grain of truth: Keeping lights low and interacting less at night can help baby distinguish night from day. Dr. Valerie Kirk, a pediatric respirologist and medical director of the pediatric sleep service at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, adds: “The only thing parents can and need to do as early as possible is put their baby down sleepy but not asleep.” Learning to soothe himself and fall sleep will equal more peaceful nights later on.

2 “Babies just don’t sleep as well on their back.”

Babies sleep lighter—but still well—in this position, says Dr. Kirk. The grain of truth: Babies are more likely to rouse from a back-sleeping position if they’re in danger—that’s why it has been associated with a lowered risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

3 “You can sleep when the baby is sleeping.”

Many women find it difficult to sleep when they don’t know whether Junior will be up and bawling in five minutes or two hours. “One day my daughter, Claire, would sleep 2.5 hours, the next, just half an hour, so I found it a better use of my time to shower!” says Darlene Donnelly of Toronto. The grain of truth: Napping or taking turns sleeping in when your partner is home may help you catch a few anxiety-free zzzs. Getting your partner to provide a bottle of breast milk or formula now and again can also give him bonding time and you a break, says Dr. Kirk.

4 “Once she starts solids, she’ll sleep eight hours.”

“There’s no research to prove this,” says Dr. Weiss. Nor is there proof that heavier babies sleep better. “I was always told that once the baby weighs 10 pounds it will sleep through the night!” says Pauline Dekker, a Toronto mom. “Not true!” The grain of truth: Cluster breastfeeding before bedtime may help younger babies sleep a little bit longer. After eight months they shouldn’t need to eat in the night for nutritional reasons, says Dr. Kirk.

5 “Shorter daytime naps equal longer night sleeps.”

“It’s actually the opposite,” says Dr. Weiss. “A well-rested baby will sleep better at night.” The grain of truth: “It’s important to watch the timing of naps,” she adds. “If your baby sleeps past 4 or 5 p.m., bedtime will be delayed.”

6 “let her cry for 20 minutes and she’ll be golden.”

Parents often misunderstand or misapply sleep-training techniques, says Dr. Kirk. Occasionally allowing your child to scream for two hours, or going cold turkey on night feeding without doing any research beforehand, won’t work. The grain of truth: A phased-in sleep-training method can help babies six months or older. Talk to your doc about gradually decreasing night feedings or slowly increasing the length of time before you go in to soothe baby from five to 10 to 15 minutes. “Be persistent and consistent,” says Dr. Weiss. “Habits that developed over nine months will not be resolved in four days.”

At the end of the day (or night), sometimes you just need to adjust your attitude. “My wife and I kept getting up angry,” says Richard Whate, a Toronto dad. “Finally, we accepted that we weren’t going to sleep all night and started taking turns.”

Lisa Murphy is a Toronto writer who sometimes still gets up in the night with her two- and four-year-olds.

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