Baby sleep: What’s normal and what isn’t

Are you beyond exhausted and incredibly confused about what’s normal and healthy when it comes to your baby’s sleep?

Do you compare your baby’s number of night wakings to your friend’s little one, who has been sleeping through the night for several weeks?

Do you worry that you’re spoiling your baby because you feed/rock/cuddle them to sleep, and now you’ve probably started a ‘bad habit’?

On the flipside, have you been told that your baby’s sleep (or lack of it!) is normal, and that they’ll just grow out of it, when you sense that something isn’t quite right?

If you answered yes to any of these questions…congratulations, you’re a parent! We know you’re here because you’re sleep deprived, so let’s jump straight into what’s normal (generally speaking, of course, as every baby is different) before looking at what’s not:

What’s normal when it comes to baby sleep?

‘Normal’ here refers to what is biologically normal for an infant. Knowing that your baby’s sleep is normal and healthy can help to reduce stress for some families, but may not feel helpful to others. In the case of the latter, there are things parents can do to make their lives more bearable, which we’ll go into a little shortly. So, what’s normal?

  • A baby who wakes regularly overnight for feeds. It’s unrealistic to expect a baby, especially a breastfed baby, to sleep through the night. Night waking serves to protect the baby from SIDS (read Night waking is developmentally normal for a baby).
  • A baby who will only fall asleep in their caregiver’s arms, a baby carrier, pram, or carseat. Learn about The fourth trimester from your baby’s perspective, and why they prefer to be close to you and enjoy movement as they adjust to life outside the womb. Beyond the newborn weeks, your baby may still prefer contact naps or naps on the go. These still count as naps, and you can get on with what you need to do (or sit and rest) because you’re not tied to only one sleeping space at home (for example, the cot).
  • A baby who stops sleeping through the night. This can happen anytime, and be due a number of reasons including teething, growth spurts, separation anxiety, a sleep progression (such as the one at 8-10 months), a developmental leap, or an illness.
  • A baby who wakes in the night and takes a long time (maybe hours) to resettle back to sleep. You might see this change in sleep patterns anytime, but it can be common around 6 months when separation anxiety peaks.
  • A baby who goes to bed late. In many parts of the world, children don’t go to bed at 7pm, as would be generally expected in Western cultures like Australia. A baby who has a late bedtime isn’t a problem, unless it’s a problem for the family, so tweaks can be made to gradually and lovingly move bedtime earlier.
  • A baby who isn’t sleeping the ‘recommended’ number of hours. Remember that they’re only recommendations, so let your baby guide you instead. If they’re happy and settled during the day, they are most likely sleeping enough. Each baby is unique, and so are their sleep needs.
  • A baby who will only fall asleep if they’re being fed. Both breastmilk and infant formula is designed to make a baby sleepy, plus your baby will feel safe and secure in your arms to drift off happily. Feeding an infant to sleep is never a ‘bad habit’, or a ‘negative sleep association’. You don’t need to teach your baby to sleep, and in fact, self-settling is a myth (so you can ignore the outdated advice to put your baby down drowsy, but awake).

So, have you discovered that your baby doesn’t have a sleep problem? How does it make you feel that their sleep is actually healthy and normal? What if you’re so sleep-deprived and struggling with your baby’s normal sleep habits?

Read our How to holistically optimise your baby’s sleep, which doesn’t involve any sleep training, but just provides some simple tweaks to gently support your little one’s sleep.

If possible, ask for help from family and friends, tag team on the weekends with your partner if you have one, prioritise your sleep by going to bed early some nights, and pay close attention to the signs you need to seek professional help.

What’s not normal when it comes to baby sleep?

Now that you understand what is normal (even if it’s problematic for you), let’s look at some red flags that something medical might be going on that will need to be explored further.

Is your baby waking and crying all the time in the night, perhaps every hour or less?

Does your baby take a long time to go to sleep, no matter what you try?

If either of these scenarios describe your baby’s sleep patterns, the following issues could be at play, as described by Tracy Cassels, PhD of Evolutionary Parenting. Some issues can overlap, making the likelihood of sleep disruptions greater, so you may need to see multiple specialists.

  • Food allergies or intolerances: This is one of the more common causes of problems with falling asleep and staying asleep, and sometimes is mistakenly diagnosed as colic. If your baby has excessive gas, tummy cramping, or green poo (which can also be lactose overload), see your GP, paediatrician, or allergy specialist for a diagnosis.
  • Breastfeeding problems: Without realising it, you might have a low milk supply, issues with your baby’s latch, and undiagnosed tongue ties. Being hungry will have a huge impact on a baby’s sleep and result in lots of crying and waking. Find a good lactation consultant who can diagnose any feeding concerns.
  • Reflux: Reflux might present as spit-up or vomiting, but can also be silent, making it trickier to diagnose. If you suspect your baby has reflux, look for a doctor who specialises in it to determine the best course of treatment.
  • Highly sensitive infants: Some babies are particularly sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, or too many people, (and even things like scratchy tags on pyjamas, or strong laundry detergent on their clothes or bedding), so sometimes they’re startled from their sleep easily or struggle to fall asleep. If this sounds like your baby, sometimes sensitive bubs benefit from safe bed sharing, and some prefer to sleep independently with a white noise machine. Try to find what works best for your baby.
  • Other medical conditions: If you’re certain that none of these issues could be the cause of your baby’s excessive crying and sleep problems, keep seeking professional support. You are the expert on your baby. Ask another lactation consultant to check for tongue tie and lip tie. Ask your doctor to rule out sleep apnea. If any experts recommend sleep training, get another opinion. There are other more gentle and responsive approaches that pose zero risk to your developing baby.

If you would like any further information, or would like to book a gentle and holistic sleep consultation with our resident baby sleep expert Kara, please email her at [email protected]

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