WHAT DOES NORMAL INFANT SLEEP EVEN MEAN?
Every one of us has done it, typed the word “normal” into google with some reference to something about your child's sleep. And whoooooosh you are met with millions of results pertaining to having the answer to what it is you long to know:
My baby is sleeping X hours, is this normal?
Her naps are only 20 minutes long - normal?
He wakes daily at 5.30, surely this isn’t normal?
The list goes on.
What's more there is very likely little consensus among the results you are presented with as you begin to make your way down that google rabbit hole. So usually you're only a few results in and you’re confused AF, even more so than when you started, and no closer to knowing what “normal” actually is.
Add in the powerful marketing techniques of the sleep training industry and you will be quickly led to believe that absolutely everything you and your baby are doing when it comes to sleep are completely and utterly wrong. Then once they have convinced you of this, they will then sell you the answer to all your problems. Which is usually some beautifully branded guide on how to leave your baby alone to cry, and once you do so promises sleep forever more.
None of their claims are based on what true biologically normal infant sleep is. None of their claims have grounding in evidence based science. If they did, you will learn if you stick with me, they would have little need to sell you their services!
So what follows is a discussion that a lot of the infant sleep “experts” are missing, the science and real world data on what biologically normal infant sleep looks like. This is the basis of all your questions around infant sleep: how to get more, how to make sustainable changes without cry it out methods, how to relax and enjoy those early years despite the changes in sleep that come with a newborn.
IS MY BABY SLEEPING ENOUGH?
So on your search of “how many hours should my baby be sleeping” you were told your 6 months old should sleep exactly X hours, or your 18 month old is far from “normal” if they are only taking X hours sleep, which paints a picture in your mind that things are drastically wrong.
But if you diverted your eyes for a moment and instead looked at the real world data of infant sleep across all ages what you would actually see is a HUGE variability in sleep totals.
The Sleep Foundation has this to say on the matter “Parents can benefit from using these guidelines as a target while recognizing that a healthy amount of sleep may vary among children or from day to day.”
So not only do their panel of experts agree that things are somewhat variable they also reviewed the research and made the following recommendations for total daily sleep needs by age:
It should also be noted that the "may be appropriate" range put forward by the National Sleep Foundation is even wider, so you do not necessarily need to be concerned if your baby falls under or above, especially if there are no health or developmental concerns.
Another systematic review and meta analysis by Galland et al. (2012) “Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: a systematic review of observational studies.” reviewed the current literature collecting the mean and variability of sleep durations, number of night wakings, sleep latency, longest sleep period overnight, and number of daytime naps. And their findings looked like this.
What we see here is that what they found correlates to what the National Sleep Foundation also says: That normal is in fact quite a large range. We see that anywhere between 9.7 - 15.9 hours for an infant; 9.9 - 13.8 hours for a toddler/preschooler and even between 7.6 - 10.8 hours for a child is within the range of expected normal. That is a huge 3-6 hours variability in real world data of what is normal in terms of sleep duration.
Most of us if we took this real world data and applied it to our child would begin to realize that our infant likely falls on the spectrum of normal. So if you have ever been made to feel less than because your child isn't sleeping a strict 12 hours per night by someone, perhaps their advice is not taking into consideration this variability around normal, and maybe they are mistakenly taking averages and extrapolating these onto all infants. But none of us, child or adult, is the same as anyone else. I am sure even you do not sleep the same as your spouse, sister, friends, you name it!
SHOULD MY BABY STILL BE WAKING/FEEDING THROUGH THE NIGHT
Up there with the most googled question around infant sleep is whether babies should be waking or feeding through the night at any particular age.
To understand why infants wake we have to consider our biology and evolution. Humans are born the most underdeveloped mammals on the planet. This vulnerability makes them highly attuned to want to stay close to their caregivers. Human infants do not have the ability to feed, care or protect themselves for many months and years, so it makes sense that they need to be close to their caregivers day and night and to wake to orient themselves back to these caregivers through the night.
Having been an integral part of you for 9 months, their primitive brain is no different from that of our ancestors who resided in caves and needed constant protection from the elements and predators. So waking and crying or alerting their caregivers to their presence, the need to be held and cuddled or fed through the night makes absolute sense. Babies need you to protect them, they need you to feed them to thrive and survive.
Our tiny newborns have very small stomachs. Milk is broken down quickly by the growing infant - in as little as 2 hours or so, so if your infant is feeding every two hours overnight, it is because their stomach is empty and they need to refill themselves.Their need for sustenance and nighttime nutrition in this period of rapid growth does not suddenly cease as they reach 4 or 6 months old, or the clock strikes 8pm. In fact their biggest moments of both brain and physical development occur overnight, and their physical and cognitive growth in the first year, and beyond, is nothing short of mind blowing.
Anyone telling you that your baby should be able to go 12 hour stretches without feeds is not attuned with how our baby’s digestive tract is formed or where they are in their development. At its core it is simple biology that drives this need, not manipulation or any other clever marketing trick the sleep trainers throw at you when they tell you to ignore those cries of hunger or comfort at night.
I REALLY DON’T THINK THIS IS NORMAL.
You’d be right in thinking that there must be occasions when things are feeling beyond normal, despite still understanding normal is highly variable. Perhaps you have a baby that wakes every 40 minutes all night long for an extended period. You’ve noticed they snore or struggle to breathe in the night which wakes them, or they find it hard to go back to sleep once they rouse in the night. Something feels off, and it isn’t explained by the wide variability of normal.
And you are correct there are times and situations where we have an infant who falls outside of the huge variability of normal and seeking some professional help is recommended.
What I am not talking about here is seeking help to get them ‘sleeping more or through the night.’ If you know anything about my approach and understand any of the science behind infant sleep these claims are BS and anyone making them is selling you some variation of cry it out. What I am discussing here are red flags that something more is going on medically/physically for these children that is getting in the way of them sleeping as an infant should normally (refer yourself back to the above if you have jumped here first).
Here are some of the things that call for a little more investigation to see if there is something else is going on for your child:
Hourly or more wakes all night for more than a few weeks
You notice your baby is mouth breathing, gasping or snoring in the night.
Cannot sleep unless latched (not the same as prefers or likes to sleep latched a lot of the time).
Seems uncomfortable at night.
Takes a long time to resettle in the night, with a lot of distress during each wake period.
Cannot sleep flat.
What these are not to be confused with are common challenges with infant sleep that arise during certain developmental stages such as split nights, early waking, false starts. While this can be related to sleep needs and require some support it is often worth waiting a few weeks to see if these continue or pass when the developmental stage is over. If you are still experiencing these things after a few weeks it might be worth investigating if things are off.
So if you are struggling with your infant's sleep and have been considering heading down the path of sleep training, first check for any of the above, and do seek advice around any of this, sometimes it is the simplest of solutions to help them and you get more sleep.
YOU'RE TELLING ME THIS IS NORMAL BUT I AM STILL STRUGGLING.
Infant sleep absolutely throws our routine and worlds upside down, and it can be a real challenge in today's society, a society that does not appreciate what biologically infant sleep looks like, to traverse the nightly wakes and feeds.
We are expected to bounce back, continue on with all the to-do's of life, the groceries, the care of other infants or earn money all while dealing with an infant who is biologically designed to wake. For many mothers their partner returns to work after two short weeks of paternity leave leaving them alone for most the day and night to deal with these changes alone. So it is absolutely no wonder so many of us struggle with those early years of parenthood. It is no wonder we now live in a society so hyper focused on fixing the infant despite them behaving/sleeping as they are biologically expected to.
If you are finding sleep difficult to sustain despite your infant falling into the normal category or you have noticed one of the red flags mentioned above then it might be time to seek help.