Six Things I Have Learned About Baby Sleep

Posted on Jan 30, 2013 in Featured, Sleeping | 3 comments

Eight years ago, I was pregnant with my first child and I knew that I would probably have some sleepless nights in my future. It turns out that I didn’t even know the half of it. No one tells you ahead of time how bad it can be or how to cope, but three kids later, I’ve learned a couple of things:

6. Babies Get Tired Every Two Hours

Little babies can only be up for about two hours before they are tired again. Knowing this can make all the difference in how your days unfold. Knowing this can soften sleep struggles. Take note of when they get up and watch them after about two hours. It’s easier to put a sleepy baby to bed than to fight a baby who is either over-tired or not tired at all.

Baby sleeping

5. Babies Have ~45 Minute Sleep Cycles

Thanks to Elizabeth Pantley for teaching me this one. We all sleep in cycles of deep sleep and light sleep, and we all wake up at various times during the night before returning back to sleep.

The problems for parents and babies are:

  1. Our sleep cycles are different lengths (baby cycles being quite a bit shorter than ours). Babies wake more frequently than we do and often wake when we are in a deeper part of our sleep cycle making it more painful for us to wake up (though breastfeeding and co-sleeping both help to sync mother and baby sleep cycles).
  2. Babies don’t always know how to go back to sleep when they wake up during a lighter stage of their sleep cycle. This is why a baby who has a particular sleep association (like say, nursing to sleep as all my children have had) will wake hourly all night long and want to use that same method to go back to sleep.

I happen to think that nursing to sleep is normal based on the biological systems that support it. However, it did help to know what was going on when my babies started waking hourly, or why a baby will only take 50 minute naps.

4. Put Down The Sleep Books

I’ve said this before, but this one is pretty big for me so I will say it again: the more I read the sleep books, the more likely I was not in a good head space about our sleep situation. I’m not saying that you should never ever pick up a book on baby sleep. Many of them are super helpful. Some of them are not. Also, as I indicated with the two points above, it IS worth knowing a bit about the mechanics and biology of baby sleep and naps. Absolutely. But when you are obsessively reading more than one sleep book at a time, keeping sleep logs, counting wake ups, comparing last week to this week, plotting, strategizing, and reaching for another sleep book, there’s a pretty good chance that you need:

  • support
  • a break
  • to clear your life of commitments
  • to accept that this what is happening for you now, but it won’t last forever

I’m glad I read some of the books when I had my first baby. But I’m also glad that I eventually realized that I never needed to read them ever again. (This also goes for googling: how to get my baby to sleep or why is my baby waking up so much).

Baby sleeping soundly

3. It Sucks When People Tell You That The Baby Years Go Fast, But It’s True

You know above where I said that you have to accept that this is what is happening now but it won’t last forever? You might have sworn at me under your breath. I hated, HATED, it when people said variations of “all this will one day be a memory” and I could have punched them in the throat when they even hinted that I would miss it. When I was in the depths of psychotic sleep deprivation, this is about the least helpful thing you could say to me. For someone who is struggling with the debilitating effects of lack of sleep like depression; rage; inability to think straight, recall vocabulary, or drive safely; every single day and every single night is torturous. Telling that person that in two YEARS it will be better is to completely misunderstand and minimize what they are going through.

However. It is so true. I have had three kids who have been “terrible sleepers.” (Whatever that means. I’m starting to suspect they were babies.) The first time around it was far more debilitating than the subsequent times, primarily because the first time I had nowhere inside me to gain some of that perspective. It really felt interminable. The second time I had the experience to know that it wouldn’t last forever and that I could get through it. But you only understand that from experience, so don’t say those things to a first time mom.

2. Don’t Count Your Chickens…

You know how that one ends right? Here’s the deal: For the first 3-4 months after birth, baby sleep is still kind of womb-like. Some books and experts talk in general about the Fourth Trimester, and I would generally agree with that idea. During this time, the baby is still not really awake to the world. She can’t see far. She sleeps a lot. She still blinks in shock at the brightness and loudness out here. And when I say that her sleep is womb-like, I mean that she may have her days and nights mixed up as she did in the womb when she would party as soon as you stilled your body for sleep. Or she may have the habits of a male lion: eating and sleeping for 20 hours a day in 15 minute to 2 hour stretches. Or she may only sleep while attached to your body. Whatever her pattern, the main thing to keep in mind is that nothing from this time is at all predictive of what will come next. Don’t worry if the days and nights are mixed up – it WILL get sorted. I guarantee it. Also, don’t brag about how great a sleeper your baby is – it will probably bite you in the ass (raising my hand here). If the baby is less than 16 weeks old, expect everything about sleep to go through a lot more phases. I repeat: at this time, it is far too early to tell what kind of sleeper you have on your hands. Don’t fret. Don’t gloat.

Napping baby

1. I Don’t Know Anything About Baby Sleep

With the sleep challenges we’ve endured, I don’t think I would ever have gotten pregnant again except that I told myself “This time it will be different. I will do X differently. Or THIS kid will be one of the ones people talk about who is a good sleeper without me having to do anything differently.” I thought it was all the stuff I did wrong or I thought my oldest was a bad sleeper and the next one would be better. I put so much effort into trying to do things differently because I needed so desperately to get better sleep. I read the books and I blamed everything from nursing to sleep to co-sleeping. I believed I could not suffer through that kind of chronic long-term sleep deprivation ever again so every pregnancy I prayed that THIS kid would sleep.

Some babies do seem to sleep easier than others. I’ve read about families where they changed nothing and one kid slept and the other didn’t. I’ve read about families who changed everything but both kids slept the same. Most people will tell you it’s the personality of the kid. I would love to believe that but after three non-sleeper kids in a row that feels awfully unfair to me.

In the end, I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand why some people say their kids just slept through the night from the time they were wee babies. It probably is some intricate combination of genes, personality, parenting, physiology, environment, and phase of the moon…like everything in life.

All I know is that the pattern of sleep that my children followed does seem to be very normal, very widespread (even if it isn’t widely talked about) and I have no idea if there’s anything anyone can do about it. Oh yeah, and it’s probably not my fault. You just get what you get and you have no choice but to roll with it.

I’m sure you’ve learned a few things about baby sleep over the years too. I would love to hear what you figured out.



  1. Ok, we have had the same experiences and the same realizations about infant sleep! Needing to stop obsessively reading sleep books? Check. (I gave all mine away for my third) Don’t count your chickens? Check. Wanting to punch people who said that the years are short? Check. I’ll add those who said “this too shall pass”, even though this is one my my mantras now. I think it is insensitive to mothers who are struggling to say it. Now I prefer to say, “The days are long but the years are short.” I think it is more respectful to what the mother is going through in the moment.

    Looking back at all my struggles with my kids and sleep (I haven’t slept the night in almost nine years now and I look like it, lol), I’ve learned a lot about myself and it has made me the mother I am.
    Twitter: christyrollo

  2. Actually, my first was a ‘good’ sleeper from about 3 months on. She was a terrible napper, but she’d go 8+ hours at night after spending all evening cluster nursing. My second nursed every 3 hours pretty much on the dot once milk came in, and kept that waking schedule up even after he weaned. He’s 4.5 now, and just starting to really settle into a more adult style sleeping pattern. So I am one of the ones who believes it’s a combination of personality and physiology and maybe the Chinese zodiac.

    My daughter was premature, though, and during her first couple of months would wake every couple of hours at night. It would take her 45 minutes to nurse back to sleep sometimes. And because I was using a nipple shield at the time, I couldn’t nurse lying down. I cried, a lot. At one point my husband tried to console me by saying it would probably pass in a couple of weeks. I remember looking at him and saying, “But I’m not sure I can even last another couple of hours, at this point.” So, yeah, I know the hollowness of those platitudes.
    Amber´s last post ..Podcast: Britt Reints on Making Dreams Happen
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

  3. One of my mantras in life is “This, too, shall pass.” (The famous phrase that can make a sad person happy and a happy person sad.) None of my boys were “good sleepers”. I’ve received all the advice, read all the books, dealt with the unending nights. I’ve often said that the best bit of parenting advice I ever received was “Don’t wake a sleeping baby.”

    And then my daughter was born. On day one, she slept four hours, nursed … rinse and repeat. Day two, she slept five hours. By day four, my midwife said I had to wake her every two hours and make sure she ate. Seriously? NEVER wake a sleepy baby. That was like my number one rule of parenting. We spent two weeks working around the clock to get her up to the proper weight and then I was given permission to let her find her own schedule. She’s three months old and naps from 1pm until 4pm and then from 9pm until 8am. I don’t fight to put her to sleep – I put her in her bed and she falls asleep. What baby does this?

    I did NOTHING different with her. She was like this from the beginning. At three months, she’s a better, more consistent sleeper than her three year old brother.

    However, to put it into perspective – during all of her waking hours, she nurses. I get about half hour breaks between the end of one and the start of the next session. It’s really hard to get anything done because I’m constantly nursing her to give her the nutrition she isn’t getting all night. So I’m still exhausted.

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