In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sleepers. We don’t have to teach our babies how to sleep any more than we need to teach them how to pee. Sleep is a biological necessity. So whilst all children can sleep, what differs is; how they fall sleep, how long they sleep for, their sleep quality, level of parental intervention required, and the performance they give before, during or after they go to sleep.
As parents. what we can focus on is providing an environment that is conducive to sleep, enabling them to learn the skill of self settling, following our babies’ sleep cues, and respecting their unique temperaments.
In my experience, there tends to be a pattern between those who sleep well, and those who experience sleep difficulties.
So what are separates the ‘good’ sleepers from the not-so-good?
Routine: Babies thrive on routine and feel secure knowing what they can expect. The babies who sleep for longer and more regular intervals do so because they are on a routine with specific awake time, day naps, scheduled meal and play times. Establishing consistent, healthy sleep associations is also beneficial for encouraging your baby to sleep; e.g. swaddle/sleep bag, white noise, comforter, read book, kiss goodnight. For my ‘ready to go’ routines by age group click here
Space: I advocate comforting our babies when they need us. I also know from experience, that we can do more harm than good to our babies’ sleep patterns by attending to them too soon; either waking them up, or interfering with their ability to self settle. No child or adult ever sleeps through the night. We all cycle through stages of light and deep sleep overnight, and can semi-wake multiple times. It is common for babies to cry out in their sleep; and it’s not always a cry for our intervention.
I am not talking about cry it out; but allowing a few minutes of space to see if your baby will fall back to sleep on their own (rather than rushing in at the first little protest) can have a profound impact on sleep habits.
Environment: Just as we can’ t be expected to sleep with bright lights, strange noises, or when we are too hot or cold, neither can our babies. Environment is paramount to establishing healthy sleep habits. In particular a dark room, white noise, a consistent temperature (between 19-22℃), and appropriate clothing and bedding; can make the difference between a baby who can transition between sleep cycles on their own, to a baby who frequently needs parental intervention because something in their environment is interfering with their ability to sleep well.
Boundaries: Just as we can’t our kids to jump on the couch one day, and make it a punishable offence the next; your child will not know why they can come into your bed at 5am and not 2am, or on a Monday but not a Tuesday. They will become confused if you sometimes feed them every time they wake overnight, and at other times; try to re-settle by rocking/patting/shushing back to sleep, or letting them cry it out. The babies who are better sleepers, usually are because again, it comes back to security in knowing what they can expect from us in response to their behaviour.
More, not less: Being responsive to the evolving needs of our babies, especially in times of transition (such as teething, illness, milestones and general life progression) is paramount for building trust, and making your little one feel secure. I encourage listening, holding, cuddling, and sitting beside your child’s bed or cot if required during these times; as sometimes this is the difference between your baby sleeping, or not sleeping; and an overtired and unwell baby is a recipe for disaster. Just be aware of when your baby begins to feel better, and slowly reduce the intervention.
Genetics: There have been studies that demonstrate the role of genetics in sleep habits. Whilst daytime sleep is more affected by environmental factors, sleep duration (especially for babies around 6 months), is largely due to genetics. However, as our babies become older, the environment and routine overrides genetics in sleep duration and habits. From my experience with my kids, and many clients I have worked with; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Safe to say, if mum or dad is an early riser, or a night owl, then you can expect your children to display these patterns also.
Temperament: Temperament is nature, not nurture, and influences the way that a child interacts with her environment. It can also impact a child’s ability to self-soothe. According to T. Berry Brazelton, some elements of temperament include activity level, distractibility, persistence, approach-withdrawal, intensity, adaptability, regularity, sensory threshold, and mood. The more sensitive, spirited, stubborn, persistent babies seem to have the most difficulty (and require the most parental intervention) when it comes to sleep; whereas the more relaxed, easy-going, adaptable, and calm babies tend to be better sleepers. We must consider our baby’s unique temperament when deciding on routine, how we respond to them, and the most effective sleep training method; as there is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Boy vs girl?: There have been no studies to prove that one gender sleep better than another. Only in my experience, I have worked with more boys up to age 18 months, and girls 2-3 years. Not enough stats to form a solid conclusion, but watch this space!