Really, at this point I could say “my toddler.” It’s still normal.
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“Do you have any other questions for me?” my son’s pediatrician asked.
“Um, no. I don’t think so.”
“Okay, well if all is well, we’ll see you in 3 months.”
“Great,” I said, strapping my screaming, freshly vaccinated son into his stroller. “Oh actually, there is one thing. Should Hunter be sleeping through the night?”
“He’s not?” she asked.
“No,” I chuckled. “Not him. Never him”
You see, my son — my 13-month-old son — isn’t (and has never been) a good sleeper. I mean, he naps well, and rests often. He dozes in his Bumbo seat and car seat. He regularly falls asleep on me, in his stroller, and at the dinner table, but in the evening, he is restless.
I put him down at 7:30 p.m. He wakes at 10:30 p.m. and it’s a struggle to get him back to sleep. On a good day, he stays asleep until 5 a.m.
Most days he is up by 4 a.m.
And while I’ve tried to get him to sleep in and (more importantly) sleep through the night — I’ve adjusted his diet, bedtime, and the length of his naps — nothing works.
Not more sleep. Not less sleep. Not salves, scents, oils, or the dreaded “cry it out.” And that is because it is normal for babies to be sleepless and restless.
Babies are not designed to sleep ‘through the night’
Now I know what you’re thinking: You’re saying, “She’s rationalizing. She’s making excuses.” I can hear you saying, “She’s wrong.” And that’s because I’ve heard it all.
Well-meaning friends have told me stories of their blissfully sleeping babes. Of infants who began sleeping through the night by their 16th week or, in some cases, their 12th.
Moms on social media have inundated me with sleep training tips and suggestions. Strangers have told me what I am doing right… and wrong.
And even though no one agrees on the solution, everyone agrees my son is an anomaly.
Something, they say, is wrong.
But the truth is babies do wake up.
A 2019 study found that as babies passed the 6-month mark it wasn’t that they were waking fewer times each night — it was that they weren’t waking their parents as often.
It has been firmly established that sleep cycles exist, and adults experience brief periods of wakefulness each night, so why do we expect different from our littlest ones?
Further, a 2018 study showed that 57 percent of 6-month-olds were not “sleeping through the night” for 8 hours. Older babies weren’t getting a full night’s shut-eye either. Researchers found that 43 percent of 12-month-olds woke up in the middle of the night.
So for every parent who claims their little one slept through the night at just a few weeks old, there are plenty who are still waking with their babies at 6 months, 12 months, and beyond.
Newborns need to wake for frequent feedings. Infants are still learning to experience the world and aren’t fully equipped to self-soothe. Even toddlers who wake early or in the middle of the night are developmentally normal.
Babies also don’t wear clocks or read calendars, so while many books and articles suggest your infant will sleep through the night by a certain date, there’s no guarantee.
Every baby is different. What works for one baby will not work for every baby.
Are there things you can do to promote good sleep?
You can and should create a routine. Bath. Clean diaper. Pajamas. Feeding. Bed.
You can and should try to stick to a schedule. Some experts suggest putting your child to bed at a particular time, like 6 or 6:30 p.m., but the hour doesn’t matter as much as the habit. Consistency is key.
And you can (and should) create a space which encourages sleep. Put your baby in a dark, cool, quiet room.
You can also try various tools, for example, some babies love to be swaddled during those first months. Other parents swear by sound machines.
But my son didn’t care for any of these things. He wouldn’t use a pacifier. He hated white noise. And even the most high-end swaddles we tried when he was a newborn didn’t soothe him to sleep, and that’s OK.
It is normal. He is OK. Your baby is OK.
So while you may be tired — I know I am — please be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself and realize that having a sleepless child doesn’t make you an inept person — or a bad parent. Really.
You’re doing a great job, and your baby is doing just fine. Some children just march to the beat of a different drum. Besides, one day your child will be a teenager, and I assure you that (by then) your little one will love sleep.
Looking to learn more about sleep training? If you want to try a different approach and/or are desperate for relief, check out these five tricks.
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Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.