Baby or Toddler Not Sleeping Through the Night?

Are you tired? Most parents would say that they are sleep deprived. And so…the childhood sleep market thrives… with oscillating cribs, Nap Nannys, and countless books on “Sleep Training Methods”. Pediatric Sleep Centers and Childhood Sleep Specialists have sprung up across the country, offering their own special programs…for a price.

However, have you ever thought about WHY your child doesn’t sleep through the night? Or why he doesn’t sleep (in long stretches)… exactly as you do? Though reading this blog will probably not make you feel more rested…you might be encouraged to know that there are biological reasons why you and your baby (or toddler) are intentionally not “synched up” when it comes to sleep. Let’s examine this further:

  1. Babies do the things that they do because they were designed that way…for survival. Babies are extremely vulnerable during their first few months of life, and short sleep cycles ensure their survival. What if your baby drifted off into an uninterrupted, deep sleep every night…without the ability to communicate a need for warmth, proper airflow (breathing increases with lighter, active sleep), and nutrition (tiny bellies digest Mom’s milk within 2-4 hours)?
  2. Babies and toddlers have shorter sleep cycles to ensure proper brain development. Most of the human brain’s cells are formed before birth, however the connections among those cells are made during infancy and early childhood. Therefore, while adults typically drift off into a quiet, non-REM, or non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep (and remain in deep sleep for 90 minute cycles, while the brain rests)…babies sleep lighter and “smarter”, engaging in twice the number of REM cycles (in which the brain gets a workout). In fact, sleep researchers have determined that blood flow to the brain doubles during REM sleep, and during this time, the body increases its production of nerve proteins, the building blocks of the brain. Learning is also thought to occur during REM sleep, as the brain processes information that was acquired while awake and stores data that it “thinks” is beneficial. The bottom line: one might rationally conclude that a baby’s brain needs to continue functioning with many periods of lighter, more active sleep in order to properly develop (babies’ brains grow to nearly 70% of adult volume in the first two years of life!).  Finally, it is interesting to note that premature babies spend up to 90% of their sleep time in REM sleep (perhaps to accelerate brain growth).
  3. Your baby or toddler does not enter sleep the same way that you do. Is this scene familiar? Your baby has enjoyed a warm bath and all of her favorite bedtime rituals. She has finished nursing…and is lying sweetly in your arms, rocking back and forth while breathing softly. Her eyelids have been closed since her head hit the Boppy.  You gently pick her up…and just as you bend over the crib to deposit her for the night (you can’t wait to watch Modern Family on your DVR), she erupts with a loud cry. “She was dead asleep!” you tell your spouse later. Well, actually, she was still in a state of very light sleep when you woke her. Had you rocked a few minutes longer, she probably would have entered a deeper sleep for the put down (indicated by longer breathing patterns and “limp limbs”).
  4. Some babies need help getting back to sleep, so don’t let rigid “Cry It Out” advocates make you feel bad. Because children do not enter sleep as you do… and have shorter cycles of deeper sleep, some may need help falling back to sleep after they wake (especially during the first six months). However, for older babies and toddlers, “sleep onset associations” can inhibit sleeping through the night…meaning that they require cuddling, nursing, or rocking to fall back asleep (and Mom or Dad!). However, use your best judgement. Is your child sick? Teething? Hungry? Cold? Or wet? If all is well, then a night “crying it out” as an older baby can sometimes be helpful in encouraging them to be “self-soothing” (No Mom wants to be a 24-hour milk factory, right?). However, for everything else and in between… do what you feel is best for that individual child’s temperament and overall health, not what X-book tells you to do.
  5. Don’t feel pressure to get your baby to sleep too deeply, too long, too soon. Remember that parents in your play groups, in your neighborhood, or even in your family are likely to exaggerate how long their babies sleep. Some might even brag that “all of their kids were good sleepers”, as if that is a badge of honor for parental achievement. To the contrary, a child’s sleep pattern is much more a reflection of their temperament, rather than the result of parenting style.

So finally… though nighttime feedings and early wake-ups are often difficult in the moment, your infant needs shorter sleep cycles to survive, and your toddler is rapidly developing the same brain that just might one day pay for college. Does that make you feel any better?


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