Sleeping Through the Night: A Common Question
“Is your baby sleeping through the night?”
It’s such a common question. We ask it of new parents all the time. It’s a question I hear myself asking constantly. Here’s the bigger question. What do we mean when we ask it?
“Is your baby sleeping through the night?”
It’s a comfortable alternative to the question I really want to ask: “What’s your baby like? Who is he or she?” I find that first-time parents of singletons don’t know how to answer that question, since they lack a personality comparison to describe their child against. It was easy for me to see that J was an independent baby, in comparison to M. It was obvious that M was a chatterbox, in contrast to J.
But I digress.
I kept hearing myself ask new parents whether their baby is sleeping through the night. When I’d get an affirmative answer, I’d congratulate the new parent on his or her achievement. When a parent said, “No,” I’d try to comfort them by telling them that my girls didn’t sleep through the night until they were a year old, but we survived and besides, their baby would sleep though the night much sooner than mine because everyone’s baby is bigger for their age than mine.
Sleeping Through the Night: Do We Mean the Same Thing?
Then it occurred to me. I have no idea if we mean the same thing when we say, “sleep through the night.” Are we talking 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep on the part of the baby? 8? 6? Does a nursing session without actually waking baby count as an interruption? How about a diaper change? What about night terrors?
New parents want to know when this magical through-the-night sleep will come. By failing to define my terms, am I setting my friends up for an impossible goal by even asking the question?
Sleeping Through the Night: What I Thought
I defined sleeping through the night as being able to skip one of both babies’ 3-hourly feedings, enabling me to sleep for a solid 5-6 hours without needing to feed, soothe, or change a baby.
My daughters, probably because of their extremely small size, weren’t able to do this until they were well over a year old. Our pediatrician told us that part of the issue was that their stomachs would simply not be large enough to contain enough nutrition to sustain them for 6 hours, the reserves in the body fat inadequate. The recognition that there was a physiological reason for my sleeplessness was a great comfort.
Although I was still married when my daughters were tiny, their dad was in Iraq, so I was responsible for every. single. middle-of-the-night feeding… before leaving for work at 6:15 am. I was a zombie.
Mercedes is in the same boat. At 17 months, her little ones are asleep by 7:15 pm, awake at 10, midnight, and sometime again between 12-5. They’re up for the day around 8. RebeccaD wrote, ”For the first year, if we got 4 hours we felt like we won the lottery. On the other side of age one, they are sleeping 11.5-12 hours nightly with only occasional interruptions. It will happen!”
We’re in the minority. Most moms are getting more than 3-hour spurts of sleep within the first half of their children’s first year.
Sleeping Through the Night: Variation in Definitions
I took my question of defining this through-the-night thing to the MoMs of HDYDI.
MandyE and DoryDoyle, like me, defined sleeping through the night as dropping the middle of the night feeding or feedings. Mytwintopia wrote that she, “felt better about [her] life when [she] found out that for [her] pediatrician STTN was 6 hours.” Maritherrien had heard the same thing.
LDSKatelyn was also told that 6 hours was the magic number, but for her, it’s 8 hours. Her twins slept 12 hours through the night around 7 months old. Her singleton son wakes up once a night, every night from about 6 months old. It’s half-way through his long stretch of sleep. She suspects it’s a habit rather than a need to eat.
RebeccaD‘s pediatrician defined it as the first 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep and considered the next 4 hours the first nap of the day. However, it didn’t feel like “sleeping through the night” to her until it her kids were sleeping a full 12 hours, without any intervening feedings or diaper changes.
Liggy, our most experienced mom with 3 older singletons preceding her twins, has always considered sleeping through the night to be 6 to 8 hours. Her twins were sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night at 6 months, eating every 2 hours or so during the day.
For KaylaDickens, sleeping through the night will be a 12-hour block of sleep.
Mercedes‘ definition was my favourite: “The mythical capabilities of twin unicorns on a bed of cotton-candy clouds while the mother basks in the sticky sweet nectar of peace and quiet.” And Jen Wood, with her 5-year-olds, said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
MandyE’s definition changed over time. Her first definition of “sleeping through the night” was about 7 hours, her daughters sleeping 10:30 pm – 5:30 am. Eventually, she dropped the 10:30 feeding and delayed out the morning feeding. 11 hours of sleep became the norm when her girls were about 6 months old.
Despite the claim in an article on the La Leche League site that 5 hours is the “medical definition” of sleeping through the night, I was unable to find anything definitive using the American Academy of Pediatrics website search. The La Leche League piece doesn’t cite references, so I’ll have to stick with what we MoMs came up with. 6-12 hours without needing a feeding seems to be our consensus. That’s a 100% variation.
As with most matters of parenting, listen to your kids and don’t worry about the averages. Whose kid is average, anyway?
How have you defined “sleeping through the night.” When did your kids do it?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.