“Sleep like a baby” is a phrase that was clearly coined by someone who has never slept in the same house as a baby. A baby’s night sleep certainly doesn’t seem like the ideal example of rest. They are often up multiple times a night, and what little sleep parents do get is usually punctuated by crying. Who wants to sleep like that?
We all have visions of immediately training our newborn to sleep through the night. We also sometimes have visions of them reading by age three and loving broccoli. Parenting is about perpetually managing expectations.
The reality is that we all sleep like babies, minus (hopefully) the crying part. There are cycles of wake and sleep for everyone, but babies, especially newborns, are just getting the hang of life. Understandably, they need some time and help to figure out how to get back to sleep when their normal cycle brings them out of the wonderful deep sleep zone. This process can be traced to their brain, the hub of everything.
Brains are busy all day long, and it can be hard to quiet them for bedtime. Think about how much a baby is processing in a single day! They are hearing new words, figuring out how their body moves, learning to eat, and taking in so much new information. Sleep is when their brains process all of the latest data. In time, their brain waves settle down to rest. By around six months, their brain activity is similar to an adult’s brain activity. But before that, things are all over the place, which can mean more frequent waking.
As these brains keep learning, everything keeps changing. Their brain and body figure out how to work together to roll over. This is an exciting milestone! It is also a milestone that might wake them up when their brain wants to practice their new hobby in the middle of the night. That’s normal! As adults, we roll around at night, too, but our bodies and brains have had enough practice that we can sleep through it. That’s not the case for a baby, so just give them time. As babies grow and develop, they will add more and more moves to their repertoire. Again, this makes for fun videos, but don’t be surprised if it translates into disrupted sleep.
There are a few key stages in your baby’s development during that first year, and those stages have different sleep demands. Let’s take a look at three of these phases and how sleep changes along the way.
- Four Months: Things start getting exciting around four months. The snoozy newborn is replaced by a baby that is beginning to engage with the world. It’s thrilling! And exhausting (much like parenthood itself). Four-month-old babies sometimes experience sleep regression. Your three-month-old might have landed some nice sleeping rhythms, but your newly turned four-month-old might throw those out the window. Again, that’s normal! Try to stick to a routine, and things usually settle down pretty quickly.
- Six Months: This can be a delightful stage for babies! They are getting more and more expressive, squawking and smiling and shimmying around. It is a fun time to be a baby! It can also be a time of sprouting teeth, which can affect sleep. Many parents introduce solid foods around six months, which can lead to heavier sleep, but solid foods can also disrupt sleep if there is an unknown allergy.
- Nine Months: By nine months, everyone is hopefully starting to figure out the sleeping thing… And then, everything changes…again.
Nine months bring more movement, sounds, moods, and brain connections than ever. They are probably scooting, maybe crawling, and perhaps even standing. Their little bodies and brains are interacting with the world in new ways every day, so it can be hard for those brains to wind down at night. You can expect some sleep regression around nine months. This can look like refusal to nap, difficulty falling asleep, extra crankiness from lack of sleep, or waking up more at night.
So, Sleep Disruptions are Normal. . . What do I do About Them?
Just because it is “normal” for a baby to be up several times a night does not mean it is fun. And it doesn’t mean it can’t change. Again, adults often wake up during the night as well, but we have learned how to go back to sleep.
Utilizing a sleep training method can help your baby learn how to get back to sleep. Some parents use the Ferber sleep method and allow their baby to cry for set times as they learn the skill of self-soothing. Others prefer to respond immediately, uncomfortable with the idea of letting their baby cry. No one sleep training method is better than another, and not all of them work for every baby. There will probably be some trial and error on your part.
However you approach the natural cycles of waking up in the night, there are things you can do before you put them to bed to increase their chances of a good night’s sleep. Routine and rituals before bed go a long way in signaling to the brain that it is time to wind down and rest up. Those rituals will look different for everyone: bath, song, story, a walk. Find a routine that works for you, and do your best to stick to it.
If a sleep regression lasts longer than six weeks, you might want to contact a sleep coach or doctor to see if there are other ways to get everyone back on track with sleeping.
Ups and downs are a part of parenting. Sometimes those ups and downs happen all night long. Just know that it will pass, and everyone will figure it out. It isn’t easy being a baby, and it isn’t easy being a baby’s parent. Be grateful for their busy growing brain, even if it means some lost sleep. Someday you’ll lose sleep over them for different reasons, but that’s a different blog post entirely!