Can (so-called) “self-soothers” turn into nightwakers? (Hint: Yes)

I don’t see myself as a nightwaking problem solver. Hardly, as my personal track record with our three children would clearly show) I’m more into detecting and debunking bad research and bad advice. But I wanted to respond to this one reader question, because it brings up an issue that is relevant to all parents. Here’s the question:

“My six month old slept through the night from week 7 on without any “training.” yes, i am blessed. however, in the past month or so, she wakes up about 1 or 2 every morning. i offer her a breast (for comfort since there is nothing left in there) and she easily falls asleep. however, when i put her back in her crib she starts moving around like crazy, and hits her head on the crib, rubs her eyes and can’t settle down. i have been taking her into my bed, where she can settle down, so i could get some sleep, but i do not want her in our bed. the pediatrician yesterday told me not to even offer her a breast, but to try patting her for a bit so she continues sleeping on her own. this was a huge fail last night. any ideas? is this maybe a phase?”

Dear Reader: The first thing you need to know is that you’re talking to someone whose three kids didn’t start “sleeping through through the night” consistently until age 3 1/2. In other words, I’m not the guy with easy as pie nightwaking solutions. Now, if you’re still interested…

The first thing I would say is that it is totally normal for babies’ sleep and waking patterns to change fairly suddenly. I’ve heard tales similar to yours numerous times.  I know someone whose baby was a legendary sleeper: slept more than most babies and never woke in the middle of the night — at least not in a way that disturbed his parents, and then suddenly started waking and crying out.

I was involved in an academic study where we surveyed close to 1000 parents on their nightwaking experiences. In that study 41% of the parents who reported nightwaking said there had been a time when their baby did sleep through the night. So what you’re experiencing is normal (if frustrating).

This is another one of the realities that many baby sleep experts won’t tell you (although some are getting better about this). Babies who sleep through the night, including those who have been “taught” to do so, often start waking again at some point.

There are lots or reasons why this might happen: illness (even just a little cold) teething (although experts continue to deny this) and probably a whole bunch of reasons we can only guess at.

Usually there is nothing wrong, except that the baby is awake and upset. And upset babies want to be comforted. And parents usually want to comfort them. (This is the way things work with babies and parents.) Sometimes the need for comfort at night might be a one-off or temporary thing that resolves on it’s own. But sometimes it can become habitual. It’s completely logical to me that babies would prefer to fall asleep in Mom or Dad’s arms, or nursing rather than falling asleep on their own. And they can come to expect it or at least get use to it as the normal course of events, in which case, falling asleep on their own won’t be easy for them. As I once read in a Penelope Leach book, falling sleep is partly about habits. So kids whose falling asleep habit includes physical contact with Mom or Dad are going to tend like that and want it to want to stay that way. And if parents feel OK about doing that, I see no problem. The parents might be doing it for a long time (believe me, I know), but although many experts have extolled the virtues on independent sleep for babies and toddlers, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that non-independent sleep in the early years has any sort of negative affect on kids. In fact, I’ve seen a little evidence to the contrary.

But what “studies show” does not translate into what you ought to do. And I can’t tell you either. Regardless of what anyone says, you have to make a judgment call about a) what you think is best for your baby b) what you think is best for you as a parent, which includes what you think you are able to manage or cope with.

I’m not going to get into what’s best for your baby. I couldn’t possibly say. All I will say is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with a baby who wakes up and cries.  Well, there could be something wrong, but if there is, you’ll see other sign – symptoms of illness, behaviour or emotional problems (which, actually, may or may not have anything to do with the sleeping pattern). But, I repeat, most nightwaking babies are just fine, start sleeping through eventually no matter what their parents do or don’t do.

One of the mistakes I think experts make is that they position nightwaking as the baby’s problem, specifically a baby “sleep behaviour” problem.

Me, I think it’s the parents who have the problem. I don’t mean that their parenting is a problem. I mean that their nights are disturbed, they are going short of sleep, they are stressed about going short of sleep, they are stressed because so many people give them the message that they should be able to control their baby’s sleep. How parents feel about nightwaking matters and sometimes that in itself is the biggest source of stress, and is the “problem” that needs to be addressed.

I don’t mean to say, just control your own attitude and you’ll be fine. But, what I am saying is that how you feel should, in large part, guide how you decide to handle this at least as much, if not more, than the simple fact that your wonderful sleeper suddenly started waking.

If this situation becomes the new normal and you find a way to cope with it (many do this by having the baby in the parents bed) and you feel OK about that, that’s a perfectly OK way to handle it.

If you feel you can’t cope (and whether or not other people think you should be able to cope is irrelevant!), there are things you can try that are more gentle that the thing today’s parents refer to as cry-it-out. Google no-cry sleep solutions or gentle sleep solutions and see what you can find.

I don’t endorse any particular method. I think different parents need different options.

Just keep in mind that two of the biggest sources of distress for parents of nightwakers is the feeling that their baby is deficient in some way (because he doesn’t “self-soothe”, like some experts say he should be able to) and that the parent feels deficient because she/he is unable to control their baby’s sleep in the way experts seem to think they should.

If you can slay those two demons, you’ll have a much better chance of coping with the situation and figuring out what’s best for your family.

I wish you luck. And you, and all other parents of nightwakers, have my sympathy. I know what it’s like.

And keep one more thing in mind. As my family doc used to say, “Remember, I could be wrong.”

Does anyone else have any ideas for this mom?

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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6 Responses to Can (so-called) “self-soothers” turn into nightwakers? (Hint: Yes)

  1. Nicky says:

    What a wonderful article,and just great soothing advice you offer,John. I wish there were more parenting experts like you around! I also agree (and I’ve experienced similar) that how society views night-waking babies can, in itself, be one of the things that stress new parents the most. I remember visiting a doctor with my first baby,and he asked how many times she woke at night. I was a bit fuzzy about this (as she was co-sleeping and I generally breast-fed her back to sleep without fully waking) so I told the doctor ‘I don’t know, 3,4,more times a night. But that’s normal,isn’t it?’ (I had no idea!) He replied emphatically ‘NO. That is NOT normal!’ – and this is where I suddenly became aware I had a ‘night waker’ – suddenly I had a problem! But by the time I had my third child I had become much more philosophical,accepted the night waking more easily,and just knew it would pass. And it did. All 3 of my kids were night-wakers,now they are amazing sleepers. They go to bed around 8pm (on school nights) ,and sleep like logs till we wake them the next morning. I never thought I’d see the day. And I’m so happy I never attempted any controlled crying or training of any kind. It just didn’t feel right. So listen to your instincts. Be careful with advice from doctors,they are not operating on a basis of love and compassion,just recycling the same tired advice they themselves were given. Listen only if that advice speaks to you,or resonates with you,whatever it may be. We all have different expectations,ideas,and tolerance levels,with regards to sleep,and really no expert on earth has the right to tell you what you should or should not be comfortable with. There is no ‘One size fits all’ Lack of sleep can make you desperate and susceptible to all kinds of advice,so be careful of approaches which offer quick fixes and encourage you to go against your instincts. Do what feels right,treat yourself with kindness on the days you feel tired,and, as John said,keep an eye out for symptoms which may indicate teething or illness. I have come to believe that night waking is totally normal,though,and there may be no reason. Always remind yourself that ‘This too shall pass’ – Good luck!

    • Anna Billington says:

      “Be careful with advice from doctors,they are not operating on a basis of love and compassion,just recycling the same tired advice they themselves were given.” – I’m a doctor and a mother, and will use the important points from this article, both at home and at work. Not everyone is the same doesn’t only apply to parents, but to health professionals as well. Just saying…

      • Nicky says:

        Regarding the response (‘I’m a doctor and a mother’) I have to apologize for that comment. I hadn’t intended to generalize,and, of course, I do realise that not all doctors are the same. Also,that particular doctor I mentioned was actually a fantastic doctor,in fact the best pediatrician we’ve ever had. He just wanted to help me. And he tried giving my little one homeopathic treatment to help her sleep,as well as recommending cranial osteopathy,which we tried,all to no avail. He was also a father,and told us lots of stories to have us get through these times. Perhaps when I made that comment,I was thinking, in general, of ‘sleep experts’ who tell us to let babies cry it out,and I know a lot of this advice comes from doctors, But,you are right,not all of them! Sorry for the mistake.

  2. K says:

    My life got much easier when I just gave up expecting my LO to sleep through the night. Prior to six months we had the occasional night of sleeping through mixed in with one night feeding and then we hit a perfect storm of wonder week, teething and learning to crawl, sit, stand, cruise etc and all that good sleeping went out the window. Leaving my girl to cry just made me feel shitty so I made the decision to just let it go and bedshare on a part time basis.

    Infant / toddler sleep is not linear and if night waking wasn’t so normal there wouldn’t be such a market for books written by so-called sleep experts!

  3. KK says:

    One reader of another one of your posts says: “for the first four weeks of my son’s life he was a very drowsy baby requiring no assistance to sleep at all”

    The reader you reference in this article says: “My six month old slept through the night from week 7 on without any “training.””

    So did my daughter; she started out sleeping 5-7 hours at a time at night. But my pediatrician said she wasn’t gaining enough weight back after her initial post-birth weight loss, so she moved me to feeding her every 3 hours (and called it “on demand” – what a joke – she was demanding it a lot less often than that at night, I had to wake her every time, and it often involved doing things like shaking her and causing her discomfort so that she came out of a deep sleep). The minute I started doing that, her natural sleep patterns were disrupted. I often wonder if she wasn’t just re-gaining weight at her own pace and should have been left alone to do so.

    Some of what has worked for me in the meantime is having a consistent-ish night-time pattern (since babies don’t work on a clock). I take her upstairs to a darkened room, turn on her bedtime soundtrack (I play the same music for her every night), and feed her. She’s usually asleep by the time she’s done drinking off the second breast. She’s been co-sleeping in my bed since birth, but I am slowly “weaning” her to a bedside co-sleeper, which is causing a bit of disruption for now but things should settle down soon. Her patterns are still quite erratic – some nights she sleeps in 3 3-hour bursts, sometimes 1 8-hour burst plus another 2-hour cycle, sometimes 2 5-hour bursts.

    I do find that she sleeps best when she has an active day, be it physically or mentally – lots of tummy time and bouncing around, lots of stimulus from new sights and sounds, etc.

    The key to parenting for me is to roll with the punches, be flexible, and remember that it’s not about me. Years of yoga and meditation have helped with this :)

    On another note, the last time I took her to the pediatrician, I got a different doctor than usual, who, when she found out I was co-sleeping, gave me the alarmist “if you co-sleep your child will die” spiel and a handout called “the pros and cons of bedsharing” that included not a single “pro”.

    I was reminded once again that, as parents, we all need to decide what is best for us and our families, and learn to ignore the background noise. Of course, we should always inform ourselves so that we go into our decisions with open eyes, but the science and conventional wisdom don’t work for everyone.

  4. Zrinka says:

    i just now got to read your response to my comment!! thank you for that. i wish i could report that things have gotten better, but they have gotten “worse.” i am doing what i can to try and help my daughter calm down and get some sleep (yes, still bringing her into our bed) and we will see how it goes….my usual latte, has turned into a quad-shot :)

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