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 Feeds-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).
Sleep is one of those things you totally take for granted…until you have a baby to contend with. Babies and sleep are sometimes strange “bedfellows”…and as people who’ve been there, we wanted to debunk the 7 most prevalent sleep myths (the 14th is “you’ll never sleep again”…we promise. It will happen).
“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, illness or a big physical milestone. (Don’t worry, Ms. Chirpy from Rhyme Time will get hers.) 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.
“There is no scientific study comparing the sleep duration of bigger babies to smaller babies,” 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). “However, larger babies have larger stomachs and are able to take in more milk when feeding. This may help them to sleep longer periods of time without waking due to hunger.” Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night (McGraw-Hill), says this myth was busted early on with her kids. “My worst sleeper (up every hour) weighed 8.5 pounds at birth and my champion sleeper (10 hours straight by six weeks old) weighed six pounds, so I can confirm from personal experience that this isn’t true.”
Not so, says Dr. Weiss. “It’s important to know that no one (babies or adults) sleeps through the night. We all have brief arousals at night and go back to sleep, not remembering them,” she says. While some babies are better at self-soothing than others and can go back to sleep on their own, most cannot sustain a sleep period for six to eight hours until they are around six months old, adds Dr. Wendy Hall, a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing.
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.
You’ve probably heard this one a thousand times already (we know we did—even from the nurses in the hospital!). Heck, we even used it once when our in-laws dropped by unexpectedly and we just wanted to take a nap—DON’T believe it. In the first few weeks, your baby needs to eat—constantly—but is actually every two to three hours. So there may be times when you will have to gently nudge him into an at least slightly awake state just for a feeding.
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 Jenniffer of Regina. 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 them bonding time and you a break, says Dr. Kirk.
“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 Paula, a Sudbury mom. “Not true!” 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.
“There are some babies who are very light sleepers and are awoken very easily by environmental noise, and some that have difficulty shutting down when exposed to stimulation,” says Dr. Hall. “The fact is,” says Pantley, “most babies are perfectly fine with their own sleep. It’s the disruption to the parents’ sleep that creates most of the problems.” Hence baby gets labelled as a poor sleeper.
No matter what your mother-in-law insists, the experts say there is no evidence that proves formula helps babies sleep better. This includes babies who are breastfed that get a supplement of formula. If this were true, says Pantley, “all formula-fed infants would sleep though the night within a few weeks of life—and we know that’s not the case.”
“The literature suggests that infants who are late to bed and are consequently overtired sleep more poorly than infants who are not overtired,” says Dr. Hall. Most babies do sleep longer with an earlier bedtime, suggests Pantley. “Many parents are afraid to put their child to bed so early, thinking that they will then face a 5 a.m. wake-up call. But keeping your little one up too late backfires, and more often, a late night is the one followed by that early morning awakening.”
Similarly to a late bedtime, it’s actually the opposite. “A well-rested baby will sleep better at night,” says Dr. Weiss. “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.”
Sure, we may need complete silence to fall (and stay) asleep, but most newborns actually love background noise with a shushing sound or whooshing, like that of a fan because it was pretty noisy inside your tummy when they were in there. Some babies can sleep through vacuuming, the low hum of a dinner party or even a movie. It’s comforting and familiar to them.
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 Roman, a Winnipeg dad. “Finally, we accepted that neither of us was going to sleep all night every night and started taking turns.”
We polled our readers and asked when their baby started sleeping through the night (six straight hours without waking or feeding). Here’s how you responded.
Under 2 months 11 percent
3-6 months 27 percent
6-12 months 27 percent
Still waiting (sigh) 35 percent
How much sleep does my child need?*
*According to the Canadian Paediatric Society
|Age||Sleep (including naps)|
|0-6 months||16 hours a day (three to four hours at a time)|
|6-12 months||14 hours|
|1-3 years||10-13 hours|
|3-6 years||10-12 hours (by age five, most children have outgrown napping)|