Why I Don’t Want My Baby To Sleep Through The Night

Night

I sensed her tip toeing around the conversation. We only just met and I’d made a rookie mistake; innocently stumbling into a polarizing parenting ‘problem’. We were at a local playgroup. Her cheerful eight month old daughter was all smiles and drool, proudly pulling herself up on every available surface, mesmerizing my three year old son with her playful curiosity.

“She started teething at three months”, the new mother told me. “Oh my goodness,” I replied, “Her sleep must be all over the place. How are you coping?” And that was it – the controversy of sleep. Navigating society’s expectations around infant sleep is unfairly confronting for new mothers at a time when we’re trying our best to keep our heads above water. Most of us have very little support as we forge our own unique path, while making peace with our new rhythm of life.

She went on to tell me she’s incredibly happy but predictably exhausted. At the recommendation of their doctor, family and friends, her and her husband tried cry it out at two months of age; it worked for a couple of weeks. Reluctantly she said they know they need to do it again. When I revealed we never used sleep training it was as if a dark cloud was lifted from the conversation; her face immediately lit up, her shoulders relaxed and she enthusiastically asked me a million and one questions about my son’s sleep.

Everyone in her life was putting pressure on her to sleep train; to be non-responsive and leave her baby to cry. The first time she ignored her baby’s cries they lasted over two hours. The pain it had caused her as a mother was obvious.  She feared ignoring her little girl again could lead to long term scars in their thriving and beautifully connected relationship.

The practice demanded her to harden her heart to her daughter; the very person sent to soften it.

She’s not alone. For me, the thought of intentionally leaving my son to cry is too much for my soul to bear. Others may say, I’m soft. That I’m a pushover. That my son has me wrapped around his little finger. Or that I’m creating a rod for my own back. But, it doesn’t matter what others say. I don’t care what anyone else thinks because I know it’s simply not true. All that matters is how my son, my husband and I feel.

Non-responsive sleep training and the misguided notion that babies can and should sleep through the night go hand in hand; it’s almost universally accepted one results in the other, as if babies won’t be able to sleep without being trained. But, just because babies stop crying when they’re not responded to doesn’t mean they’re sleeping; it means they’re silent. Babies are incredibly intelligent and when they realize nobody is responding to their communication they develop a behaviour called ‘learned helplessness’ or as Dr Sears describes it ‘shutdown syndrome’.

Those terms send shivers down my spine; I never want induce feelings of helplessness in my son, now or when he was a young baby. So, until babies are physically and emotionally capable, sleeping through the night isn’t a priority or an expectation for me. Here’s why.

Claim your FREE Guide: The Lies Surrounding Infant Sleep That You Can Safely Ignore as a New (or not so new) Parent

Because babies aren’t designed to sleep through the night. Waking often, feeding, seeking comfort and going back to sleep is Mother Nature’s way of keeping babies safe. She didn’t do this as a cruel joke to harass or torture parents. She did it to safeguard babies as they learn how to breathe helping protect them against fatal dangers like SIDS. In countries where species appropriate methods like cosleeping and breastfeeding are the predominant form of night time parenting, SIDS is almost unheard of.

Because babies want to be close to their caregivers. Babies are said to be born 9-18 months prematurely. They are the most helpless and vulnerable social mammal there is. So, what their survival mechanism? Easy. It’s us – their parents. Babies are intentionally designed to be cute, to draw us in and make us want to hold and be close to them all night long. And when we don’t, they cry for us. A baby who cries to arouse their parent’s attention is a baby who is trying to ensure their own survival; forming an unshakeable connection with their protectors is the best way they know how.

Because humans are naturally “biphasic” sleepers experiencing a “first sleep” (from sunset until midnight-ish) and a “second sleep” (from 1 or 2 am until dawn). With the invention of electricity our natural pattern changed, enabling us to stay up later meaning adults began consolidating sleep into one 8-hour stretch. Eventually, your baby will catch up to our 21st century sleep patterns, but until then, try turning off your lights early and crawl into bed with your baby.

Because babies are instinctively driven to conserve their milk supply. At birth a baby’s stomach is tiny, holding a mere 5-7ml of milk. As her mother’s supply increases, a baby’s stomach grows. Its a synergistic relationship. Combining it with the fact that human breastmilk is low in fat and therefore digested quickly, it’s normal that babies are hungry often. Encouraging babies nurse when they’re hungry safeguards a mothers’ milk supply and reduces the risk of engorgement and mastitis. Conversely, ignoring a baby’s hunger, day or night, messes with the normal development of milk supply and threatens breast health. Breasts may not empty properly, milk ducts may become blocked and mastitis becomes more likely. Not to mention, a hungry baby is a grumpy baby.

Because night time breastmilk is unique. Night time breastfeeding provides a whole host of unique benefits. Born with no established circadian rhythms, babies also don’t produce their own melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone). Melatonin has a hypnotic effect as well as relaxing the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract. Breastmilk follows a circadian rhythm for the secretion of melatonin with night time breast milk containing substantial amounts of this vital hormone. This helps babies develop their own circadian cycles, improves sleep and has been shown to reduce the incidence of colic.

Because waking often promotes brain function and development. Dr Darcia Narvaez, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, reports that night time breast milk contains high levels of a sleep-inducing amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a vital hormone for brain function and development. In early life, tryptophan ingestion leads to more serotonin receptor development. Serotonin improves brain function, promotes good moods and helps with sleep-wake cycles.

Because even adults don’t sleep through the night. The idea that we’re unconscious for eight hours every night when our heads hit the pillow is false. Every night we experience various depths and stages of sleep. We move through REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep cycles. Non-REM consists of four separate stages varying from drowsiness, light, deep and very deep sleep. As we move from one sleep cycle to the next, we lightly rouse; if we’re uncomfortable we may go to the bathroom, get a glass of water or simply roll over, hug our partner and adjust the covers. Adult sleep cycles last an average of 90 minutes, whereas infant sleep cycles are much shorter, an average of 45-60 minutes. This means babies experience a vulnerable period for night waking up to ten times per night (twice as many as their parents).

Because it can be scary in the dark. Our little man has just started to ask about monsters hiding in the dark and he’s scared of thunderstorms. Thankfully, we don’t experience thunder and lightening very often in Vancouver but when we travel to New Zealand, with its wild and windy weather, thunderstorms wake him up at night. The first time we all hid under the covers at 3am while the cyclonic winds pounded the side of our house. I remember craving sleep, but my overwhelming emotion was one of humility and gratitude; I felt honoured to be one of two people in the world he needed most in that moment, to be able to reassure him in the wee small hours as we snuggled up together and welcomed the return of sleep once more. I remember that night, its a good memory. I hope its banked in his memory too.

COME DAY OR NIGHT, DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOUR BABY

It would be amazing if all babies could sleep for long stretches from a young age. Some exceptional babies do and for those parents its a wonderful gift. But, if we believe all babies can and should be able to sleep through the night we’re setting ourselves up for inevitable and frequent disappointment. If we’re not careful this can quickly morph into frustration and resentment unfairly directed at our children. The good news is having realistic expectations around normal infant sleep makes it so much easier to accept the realities of new parenthood.

To find gratitude in the moments when they need us to dig a little deeper and sing, rock and hug them back into their quiet slumber.

I’ve written on this topic a number of times and I can predict the criticism it will elicit. Some may see this as judging parents. So, it’s important to make the distinction that this is about questioning societal practices and expectations, not individual parents. This is about advocating for the needs of babies while understanding parents need more support. We all make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time, which is why we need better information. Accurate and unbiased information, which I would argue cannot come from sleep trainers who profit from encouraging non-responsive parenting practices.

Above all else, as parents we need to feel free to be honest with one another. To admit that most of us cosleep at some point during the night, though almost half of us dare not admit to it. I hope my candid and humorous explanation of my son’s sleep helped the mother I met at playgroup feel better when she’s awake at 4am tomorrow morning. I hope she’ll feel she has sisters in the night because sometimes all we need is to know we’re not alone. That we’re not being shortchanged by our wakeful babies. That our efforts are fulfilling a genuine need and that we’re not the only ones who feel exhausted.

And mostly we need reassurance that by following our instincts, day and night, we’re not doing anything wrong.

Claim your FREE Guide: The Lies Surrounding Infant Sleep That You Can Safely Ignore as a New (or not so new) Parent

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COMMENTS
  • January 23, 2017
    Nicole Branson

    This is hands down the best advice I have gotten thus far about my baby sleeping through the night. Such a well thought out and enjoyable to read article!

    • January 23, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much Nicole. I’m thrilled it was helpful and really appreciate your comment. xx

  • January 24, 2017
    Christina

    This echoes every feeling I’ve had so far regarding my baby being able to STTN. I often wonder why “is she sleeping through the night?” tends to be the first thing people ask about my baby. My response is usually to tell them that adults don’t even sleep through the night (thanks Fitbit), so why do we have these unrealistic expectations that a tiny baby should. I personally have decided that I will not subject my 8 month old to any form of sleep training and risk potential harm for the sake of a couple extra hours of sleep. As the adult in the situation (who made the choice to have a baby) I will just have to deal… And if not, there’s always coffee!!

    • January 24, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      I’m so happy it resonated with you Christina. And I love your humour and light-hearted suggestion of coffee…as I sit here typing and sipping mine! It is so difficult being sleep deprived and its sad when vulnerable parents are coerced into things their instincts would never tell them to do. Good on you for following yours xx

  • January 24, 2017

    I could not love this more if I tried. The unsolicited sleep advice I got as a new mom made me feel guilty for following my instincts. Fortunately, a background in developmental psych meant I did not waver. GREAT post. Just shared it on my blog’s facebook page.

    • January 24, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much Alana and you are so lucky to have the background you do. If I had my time again I would have studied psychology – I love it. So many parents are pressured into sleep training by others so I’m so happy to try and spread the word that it doesn’t need to be that way. Thanks so much for sharing and love your blog too!

  • January 25, 2017
    Kristin

    Thank you for this article. I’ve often felt like I was doing something wrong by not listening to their pediatrician but my mother gut can’t even think about cio. We have 11 mo old twin girls who are happy, confident and independent. They never once were left to “self soothe” and now I have more confidence that we are doing what is right for us.

    • January 25, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Kristin – I am so happy it helped 🙂 And twins – you’re amazing. Keep following your instincts – they’ll never steer you wrong. A “self-soothing” article will be coming soon. xx

  • January 25, 2017
    Amber

    Wonderful article about sleep. Thank you for writing such an honest and thoughtful piece. We most definitely need to change the societal beliefs and expectations surrounding infant sleep and this is a perfect article to help do so.

    • January 25, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure and thank you so much for your wonderful comment Amber! xx

  • January 25, 2017
    Elani

    I love the article! Factual and scientific explanation of why it is unrealistic for babies to sleep through the night. I have often tried to explain it to others myself and will in future definitely refer them to your article. I am one of the lucky ones…my two youngest children both started sleeping through the night at 2 weeks of age and I firmly believe it is thanks to feeding on demand and cosleeping. I tried to put my first son on a “routine” as was widely suggested and he was so unsure he fed every two hours until I stopped breastfeeding. Well done to you!

  • January 25, 2017

    I so appreciate every word of this article. I have quickly learned to never mention how tired I am because it undoubtedly warrants unsolicited advice about how I should let him cry it out. I just can’t do that. Thank you for so eloquently expressing my feelings!

    • January 26, 2017
      Molly

      I wish I would have learned quicker to not talk about how tired I was or how often we were getting up at night! I now know for next time around to just keep that to myself.
      I had never even heard of sleep training but I definitely learned quickly what it was from all the “helpful” people around me. Luckily I did learn fast that sleep training is not for us and completely goes against motherly instincts- for a reason.

      • January 26, 2017
        Tracy Gillett

        So true unfortunately Molly – I’ve written the same in posts before – that it seems easier to be dishonest and cope on our own. I’d love to set up a support network for mums to be able to be more honest about their natural choices.

  • January 25, 2017
    Emily

    I really appreciated this article. There is such a strange and rigid rule system around sleeping in this country…either it’s too much, or too little…counted down to the hour. I don’t like the right or wrong…one size fits all–old or young–approach. Thanks for all you do for the mama community!!

    • January 25, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Emily! And you’re so right. People who don’t like what I say ask me what I suggest doing instead – the answer is so simple, respond to your baby. It will be unique for every child and only a parent can know what to do. Thanks so much for reading and for your lovely comment xx

  • January 25, 2017
    april

    Thanks for such a well written article! It’s so helpful to have such an appropriate article on child sleep! I have a 18 month old who still gets up once every night (or 2 am). While I am exhausted and would love for her to sleep through the night, I understand that her super fast metabolism makes her hungry to nurse again and curl up with mom and dad for a bit It’s challenging to explain to others who think my child should sleep from 6 to 6 each night. I appreciate honesty among parents and the understanding that every child is different with different needs!

    • January 25, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Absolutely April and I know what you mean. So many of us just keep it to ourselves for fear of the inevitable criticism. The truth is more babies/young children than parents who dare to admit it spend at least part of the night with their mum and dad in bed. Feel free to be brave and honest on Raised Good. Do what feels right and keep following your instincts. Lovely to connect 🙂

  • January 25, 2017
    Dean

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and for our family, also couldn’t agree more! I’m curious your thoughts on naps though…short naps to be more specific. Too, your term “sisters in the night” is fantastic. It’s comforting to think that out in the world, there is at least one other mother going through what you are going through in that very moment.

    • January 25, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Dean – really appreciate it. And you’re so right, its comforting to know we’re not alone. My son stopped napping about 6 months ago (I’m still in mourning – ha ha!) – he napped until he was just over 3 years old. When he was smaller he mostly napped in a hammock and once he grew out of it napped on our bed. Sometimes I stayed with him…and typed blog posts on my phone! We never had an issue with crying for naps but if he skipped them I didn’t worry. Elizabeth Pantley has a book called the No Cry Nap Solution – I haven’t read it but her books are generally excellent. Did you have a specific question with naps? Thanks again!

  • January 25, 2017
    Lindsey

    Hi Tracy,
    Another great refreshingly honest and compassionate article. I love getting your emails which tell me another little nugget is waiting for me to read in the middle of the night while I’m sat nursing my ten month old in the dark. I find that your words always seem to reinforce what I’ve been thinking about around the time your article pops up. There is definitely a strong affinity there which means yours is the only website I am still subscribed to ten months in.
    Thank you friend.

    • January 26, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Aw, thank you so much Lindsey, that’s so kind of you to say. And I am so happy you enjoy the posts. I remember reading on my phone in the middle of the night in those early day too so can just imagine 🙂 Thank you again and I’m so happy it resonated with you. Hugs xx

  • January 26, 2017
    Joelle

    Hi Tracy,
    Thank you for this blog, I so appteciate your work on it and feel your passion about educating parents! I resonate a lot. And have one thing to add which was a HUGE insight for me last year with my second baby. That is from Aware Parenting. It’s about the need for release of tension and emotions, that all babies build up more or less. And that we as mothers think most of the times that our child is hungry and wants to drink, while some of the times our baby just wants to cry, WITH US NEXT TO THEM. That’s the big difference, that only crying with someone loving present with them gives relief. Also deep laughter trough play can release. I just applied this on a even deeper way and right a way I could notice a great shift in the sleeping pattern of my daughter (14 months). I can really suggest Reading Tears and tantums from Aletha Solter. It completely supports co-sleeping and long breastfeeding by the way 🙂
    It’s such a beautiful journey, parenthood!

    • January 26, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Joelle and thank you for your kind words. Thank you as well for your insight which I can’t agree more with. I have a book on my bedside table called Tears Heal which I need to read. As parents we definitely don’t need to stop tears, we just need to be there for our kids when they are experiencing any emotion no matter how difficult. Studies have shown that a baby’s cortisol levels don’t rise when crying in a parent’s arms but they do when they’re alone. Thank you for bringing up this important point. And we applied the laughter version today with a lot of play! I will check out the book you mentioned as well. Thank you again xx

  • January 26, 2017

    Amazing post. This is the exact advice I so wish I would have got and understood when I needed it. Since arriving at the same conclusion myself, I try to help as many other new moms as I can understand this. I am so happy to have this enlightenment going into having another baby at some point in the future.
    I have shared this post with many of my mom friends already.
    Thank you so much:)

    • January 26, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Molly – very kind of you and I really appreciate it. Thrilled the post resonated with you and we are on a similar mission hey. Love your website 🙂

  • January 27, 2017
    Sean

    What a wonderful read. This is some of the best advice I’ve received so far. Just knowing there are others dealing with the same issue is comforting in itself. Thank you for the blog. I’m looking forward to reading your other material.

    • January 28, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much Sean – so kind of you to say and I’m very happy you enjoyed it. Even just writing on my site and seeing comments makes me feel better about my journey too. We’re not alone for sure! Parents in the night 🙂

  • January 27, 2017
    Jen

    I really enjoyed reading this post, since having our daughter nearly 10 months ago now all we hear is, “is she a good baby?” Really meaning does she sleep through the night? I’m not sure how people associate being good or bad with babies and especially relating to sleeping. I never sleep through the night and wouldn’t expect her to either. I drink gallons at night and I’m sure she gets thirsty too! We co-sleep and I think of all the amazing moments we might have missed with her if she was in another room. Like her rolling for the first time at 3am! Or sleep crawling till she lands herself on my tummy! It’s the best! It’s tiring sure but it’s so worth it!

    • January 28, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Jen and couldn’t agree more. The whole “good” and “bad” stereotype is so BAD and so incredibly destructive! I love the experiences you shared and we’re the same. I have so many incredible memories shared in the dark with my son. It is hard but that’s parenting and what we need as parents is more support, not pressure to squash our instincts. Thanks again! xx

  • January 28, 2017
    Emily

    Great article! 🙂

    • January 28, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Emily! xx

  • March 30, 2017
    Sarah

    Fab article. You’re so right. When sleep deprivation really has me on the ropes all I need is someone to tell me it’s normal and we’re in this together and it really helps.
    I’m so sick of the ‘is he good?’ constant questioning. Yes actually he is truly marvellous but that doesn’t mean he sleeps! Then you get the formula suggestions or people trying to plug early weaning. A lot of people don’t get it. I will not sleep train my son.
    Anyway I think I’m waffling – must be tiredness (ha ha) thanks again!

  • March 30, 2017
    Catherine-Harris

    Anthropologists Robert and Sarah Levine studied parenting in traditional societies (mostly Africa) over many decades. Those mothers practice cosleeping and carry infants around all day long (or other relatively carry them while working). In their recent book, Do parents matter? Levine and Levine recount asking mothers about infants waking up at night. The mothers said, “Why would they wake up?”

  • July 28, 2017
    Rachel

    Am going through a tough spot with my daughter at the moment with sleep. During the day she refuses to go down at all, at night she will often (finally) sleep, but the whole night is broken by her fidgeting around. I’ve co slept since birth (5 months), and she has always kept me awake through her constant thrashing around (she loves to kick me in my emergency c section wound!). I’ve been told so much that I should sleep train, get her on solids, try formula, get her in her own room. I’ve stopped talking about it now as can’t be bothered with people’s responses. Actually, I often don’t talk about it because I feel embarrassed about the decisions I’ve made and the impact they’ve had on my sleep. I’m sure people think I’m an idiot. Thanks for writing this. Makes me feel like I’m making some of the right decisions. I am sleep deprived, I have a fussy baby; but I’m doing the best I can by her and hoping my instinct serves me better in the long run xx thank you

  • October 27, 2017
    Chelsea

    I am familiar with these concepts, and my husband and I strive to parent our sweet six month boy gently, yet today I was feeling my frustration build with our lack of napping and difficulty nodding off before almost every sleep. I read this article and gave my sweet boy a big hug, so grateful that I can trust him to sleep when needed without training. Thank you for the encouragement.

  • October 29, 2017
    Mel

    I wish I’d found your blog 6 months ago but i’m loving it now. I am laying next to my baby girl with my hand on her chest to help her in her day time nap. But I’ve refused to let her cry. Im reading article after article on here and loving every single one. Thank you for your words on all topics! I’m sticking one of your paragraphs from another article on the fridge for daily
    reassurance 😁

    • October 30, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much for your kind words Mel and I’m so happy to connect. Enjoy your baby girl – shared day time naps are a precious gift. Makes me smile about you sticking a paragraph to your fridge – that’s amazing. I’m so happy my words connect with you. xxx

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