Family Matters

Study: Most Babies Sleep Through the Night (But Not Mine)

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There is a new Pediatrics study showing most babies sleep through the night by three months. I do not know those babies. Nor do I want to get to know their parents.

I have read all the sleep bibles. I can properly conjugate “Ferberize.” I love my three children, as I have told them since birth and they now dutifully parrot back, “more than all the stars in the sky and all the sand on the beach.” Luckily for them, that stars-and-sand metaphor is not linked to their ability to go to sleep and stay that way. Consistently good sleepers they are not. My son, 7, used to be gripped by the talons of night terrors. My 5-year-old daughter spent months in a nest at the foot of my bed. My 3-year-old? No promised cache of jellybeans or special pair of pink panda tights has persuaded her to spend more than the occasional full night in her own bed. “I had a bad dweam,” she announced sometime in the haze of last night’s slumber, clambering over me to insinuate her Dora the Explorer nightgown-clad body between my husband and me. We’re too tired to take her back, and so the pattern continues. (More on “Mompetition”: Why You Just Can’t Make Mom Friends)

But enough about my family’s sleep woes. Let’s scurry back to New Zealand, where the parents of 75 infants kept sleep journals whose accuracy was confirmed by time-lapse video recorders. Researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand reported that the fastest consolidation in infant sleep regulation took place during the first four months, which makes sense taking into account the stark transition from the initial weeks when newborns sleep in round-the-clock chunks. By four months, babies have established more typical sleep patterns, with most meeting three different criteria: sleeping from midnight to 5 a.m., sleeping for any eight hours at night, or — drumroll, please, for the elusive Holy Grail of parenting —  going to sleep and staying horizontal for the coveted 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. stretch.

Researchers found that the babies were most likely to achieve the latter milestone between two to three months, although it wasn’t until five months that more than half of infants achieved this goal. By 12 months, more than 85% of babies were sleeping either midnight to 5 a.m. or eight hours; 73% were sleeping from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. (I can’t help but sympathize with the parents of the 21 infants in the study who never achieved an unbroken 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. stretch.) (More on Video: Filming Embryos Improves Chances of Pregnancy)

To really put the pressure on, the authors argue that “sleeping through the night” should be redefined to refer exclusively to the period from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for babies four months old and older. “The alternative criteria lack social validity in that they ignore congruence with family sleep patterns,” they write.

I have friends who’ve adhered to the authoritarian and controversial tenets of On Becoming Baby Wise and boast their babies slept through the night at six weeks. But they are the exception. Most parents I know complain that their babies wake, night after night, far beyond the magical three-month mark. Unable to function as my maternity leave waned, I opted for the cry-it-out method — espoused by Richard Ferber — with my oldest; he cried on-and-off for five hours the first night, but it worked. He quickly learned to sleep through the night like a champ, and he (my son, not Ferber) still smiled at me the next morning when I came to pluck him from the confines of his crib. So, yes, sleep-training can work, but the emotional cacophony of crying was an agony I was not willing to revisit with either of my daughters. (More on Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?)

Fortunately, my non-sleep-trained 5-year-old now willingly snoozes for a good 11 hours straight. Fortunately, my 3-year-old is beguiling enough, even in the dark, that a small maternal part of me is just a tiny bit happy to see her by the light of the moon. And, taking the long view, I know that soon enough, she too will follow the path her sister blazed and leave me alone in the middle of the night.

Perhaps the key to solid nighttime sleep lies in prevention, suggest the authors. They recommend intervening in the first three months, “beginning as early as 1 month for intervention to be synchronous with the onset of sleeping through the night.” One month? Even the alternately revered/feared Ferber doesn’t advocate starting that young. “Would I put my kid on a strict schedule and let him cry it out at one month?” says Kim West, a.k.a. The Sleep Lady. “No, I wouldn’t.” One bit of across-the-board advice she endorses involves putting your child to bed drowsy but awake so that they learn how to soothe themselves to sleep. Don’t do anything — play a song, for example, or rock them to sleep — that they can’t recreate on their own in the middle of the night. Even at one month, you can encourage a baby to self-soothe by putting him to sleep before he’s actually asleep. If he squalls, pick him up. But he might surprise you and fall asleep on his own. It’s a strategy that West, a clinical social worker who’s built a healthy sleep consultation business, calls “sleep-shaping.” “If you can gently shape and guide their sleep,” she says, “you never have to sleep-train them.” (See below for more of West’s tips.)

Meanwhile, the New Zealand researchers divulge nary a tip — no do’s or don’ts — as to what they mean by “intervention,” although they do acknowledge there’s research to be done on what exactly predicts and precipitates sleep problems. (More on 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

When they find out the answers, I hope they’ll wake me up and let me know.

Some of the biggest sleep mistakes West sees parents make:

Inconsistency. Parents are often inconsistent both at bedtime and in how they respond to night wakenings. For example, one night a mother might feed a child back to sleep, other times she will rock the baby, and another time she will bring the baby into the parents’ bed in desperation.  Even a very young child can get confused and inconsistency can lead to more tears, not less.

Letting children use “sleep crutches”. If babies or toddlers are allowed to  fall asleep being nursed, bottled fed, rocked or walked to sleep at bedtime, they won’t learn how to fall asleep on their own. And when they wake up during the night (as we all do) they won’t be able to go back to sleep without being nursed, fed, rocked or walked to sleep again.

Late bedtimes. Children need on average 10-11 hours of sleep at night for the first 9 years of their life! Too late a bedtime and skipped naps will create poor quality sleep, more night wakenings, and an overtired child!

Practicing “reactive co-sleeping”. Some couples decide they want to have their child sleep in their bed, for the first few months or for a few years. That’s fine, if you both agree and you know all the safety precautions. But “reactive” co-sleeping is when the baby is in your bed as a last resort because you just don’t know how else to get him or her to sleep, not because you have chosen the family bed.

Impatience. Families need to dedicate two or three weeks of their time, energy and consistency to sleep coaching to see significant changes in night sleep and naps.

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