On meeting a new baby for the first time, one of the most common questions asked to new parents is: “Are they good? Do they sleep?” My response to this question would be: “Yes, of course she is good, she’s a baby.” And: “No, of course she doesn’t sleep, she’s a baby!”
Sadly, I fear that the frequency of these questions has caused parents today to equate good parenting with babies who sleep. As a sleep consultant I am constantly faced with parents feeling insecure about their abilities. Statements such as: “I know I have broken her” and “I know it’s my fault he doesn’t sleep well” make me really sad.
I hope that the next few paragraphs will help to take a bit of pressure off new parents.
Let’s start at the beginning. Newborn babies aren’t designed to sleep for long periods of time. Their little tummies are about the size of a cherry when they are born, which means they need to eat little and often and will wake to feed at least every two to three hours in the early weeks.
According to a recent systematic review which drew together data from 34 studies on newborn sleep, by three months some babies (but not all) are able to sleep for one five-hour stretch at night, and by five months 50% of babies were able to sleep for eight hours. However, the average baby will not sleep through all night until close to 12 months old. 
So where does all this pressure to have babies as young as six weeks old sleeping from 7am to 7pm come from? It certainly isn’t reflecting actual newborn sleep behavior. Popular beliefs about when babies should be ‘sleeping through the night’ are based on studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s on groups of formula-fed babies.
It’s no secret that one of the reasons I became a sleep consultant was due my own stress and anxiety over my eldest child’s sleep, or lack of! I, like a lot of new parents, reached for the books, for pre-prescribed routines, and I, like a lot of new parents, was left frustrated, depressed and angry that my baby didn’t fall into the ‘norm’. Why wasn’t she tired at 8.30am? The books said she should be tired by then.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to baby’s sleep. Yes there are some average patterns – for example I know from my time as a sleep consultant that most newborns will sleep on average 15 hours a day, most four-month-olds can last one and a half to two hours between sleeps and most nine-month-olds need two and a half to three hours of daytime naps. However, these statements need to be taken as a guide, not something to beat yourself up over if your baby doesn’t fit the ‘normal routine’.
So, this is my plea to the parenting world. Let’s take the pressure off ourselves.
- Expect frequent night-waking and lack of routine from the start.
- Don’t worry about creating bad habits in the first few months.
- You can’t spoil a newborn baby by picking them up too much. Don’t just share the good with your mum/dad friends, share the bad too!
- Let’s normalise the erratic nature of infant sleep behavior with honesty and support for one another.
- Let’s not set ourselves or others up with unrealistic expectations, which may lead us and them to feel like failures.
There is a time and a place to teach positive sleep habits and this is different for every parent/baby, but this certainly doesn’t need to be the focus for the first few months, especially if it’s causing you stress and anxiety.
If you would like any further advice or support with your little one’s sleep feel free to get in touch Vikki@allaboutbabies.org.uk