Should babies really sleep through the night?

57c9ef289664d15d20c0183e2aeac640I open my eyes, darkness. The moon’s silver glow casts shadows on the walls, my heart quickens, the wind howls and I am sure I can hear all kinds of scary and worrying things. I turn over and reach out, beside me my partner sleeps, his peaceful breathing calms me. I look at the clock the glowing numbers tell me it’s 2.30 am, I take a slip of water from the glass on my bedside table. I snuggle down in my bed and close my eyes, I start to drift again, back to land of fairies and butterflies.

Im sure we have all experienced this, waking in the middle of the night, disorientated, thirsty, needing the bathroom or a little scared. Often reaching out for that needed drink or to someone close to be reassured is enough to help us fall back to sleep our needs met, feeling safe and secure again.

When we think about how we as adults react during the night it always comes as a surprise to me that we somehow expect our little ones to behave differently.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone that sleeps 12 hours straight without waking at least once, wanting comfort, or to have some other need met. Yet we have parenting books galore, as well as sleep experts and parenting sites that promise you ways to train your baby to sleep all night long. I have even seen so called ‘experts’ promising to have your newborn baby do this from the day you come home from hospital.

There is plenty of evidence and research to show that our little ones aren’t supposed to sleep all through the night. But I want to talk about something that isn’t research, that isn’t evidence based, but your own instinct as parents. What do I mean?

As parents we are bombarded with so much advice on how to parent that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. The results of this has been us losing the natural instincts we all have for caring for our children. So while we have much evidence to look at regarding our children and their sleep, maybe we need to be listening to what our own inner voice is telling us.

Have you ever watched how animals respond to their young? Natural instinct will cause them to lick, feed and protect their young. A while ago I saw a video of an elephant doing all it could to get its calf breathing and standing after giving birth. No one told the elephant to make it’s calf breathe but it followed its instinct. We have natural instincts too that help us in caring for our young. Orangutan babies are clingy — in the literal sense. Orangutan mothers maintain physical contact with their babies for the entire first four months of its life. They never let go. Not once! They cling to Mom for the next five years, sometimes breastfeeding well into their sixth year of life. So let’s think about what happens when our babies cry.

A lot of parents will tell you they get to know their baby’s needs by how they cry. As soon as a baby cries parents will go and pick their baby up, comforting and loving it. Some moms report even leaking breastmilk at their baby’s cry.

Crying is a baby’s way of communicating with us, signalling hunger, the need for a lovely dry nappy, that they are tired or feeling unhappy and needing a cuddle or even telling us they are ill. Yet for some reason many books and experts will have you believe that your baby’s cries for you in the night are them being ‘manipulative’ and that they should be ignored and left to cry, in fact scream, often for hours until they ‘self settle or sooth’.

When we think about this it seems almost unimaginable that anyone would even consider this. If we were to apply this to ourselves as adults could you imagine waking in the night and your partner telling you your not able to have a drink or go to the bathroom or giving you comfort because you have woke scared or feeling ill. How would you feel? Would we not feel our partner cold, uncaring and feel hurt at their rejection? In fact many people who live alone will tell you that it is often at night they struggle most.

If we as grown adults, with the full ability to reason understand the important of our needs and comfort, then why do we expect tiny babies or young children to understand why their needs are not being met.

Let’s go back to when your little baby was growing inside you. Your womb is dark and warm, your baby can hear your heartbeat and food is constantly available via your placenta. When your baby is born time is needed to adjust to the new surrounds. Your baby will now experience warmth and cold, hunger and the need to ask for food and don’t forget the effects of gravity. Your baby isn’t being manipulative simply finding its way in this new world. You, as parents are your baby’s anchor and security, you mean food, love, safety, in fact survival. When we respond to our baby’s needs it re-enforces that you care for your baby and wish to meet their needs. By going to our babies and picking them up we teach them that their communicating works and that when they need us we will be there.  

When we as adults feel loved and cared for, when loved ones cuddle us when we are sad, make us sandwich when we are hungry and care for us when we are sick does it not make us feel loved and content? This is true also for our little ones. babies that are responded to by their parents do not pick up bad habits but instead simply learn they are secure and safe.

Think too of a mother that is breastfeeding. The hormone prolactin that helps with milk production is at its highest at night. It is therefore vital to build and maintain a good supply that mothers breastfeed their babies during the night. Advice that your baby should sleep through can affect your breastfeeding relationship and make the need for supplementing with formula.

No one is saying that lack of sleep isn’t hard to cope with in fact it can be very difficult. But, there are ways to manage this. Resting at others times of the day, asking friends and family for support, safely co-sleeping and remembering that this is temporary can help. Also looking and reading about why our babies wake at night especially if it’s for feeding can help us understand our little ones better.

It is good for us to remember who is it that is making us believe that babies should sleep through the night?

Is it pressure from others, books or parenting sites? What’s important is YOU and your relationship with your baby not the expectations of others.

It may also be we need to look at our expectations and ask, are we doing too much or being too demanding of ourselves but also our children? The years with our babies are special and we cannot get them back. Sometimes letting go of the housework, the emails and demands of others can be hard but if it enables us to love and hold our children more surely it’s worth it?

Every time my daughter’s cried my heart would ache. I wanted to run to them, hold them tight, soothe their distress and stroke their hair and make everything ok. This hasn’t changed even though they are both now older. Many times well meaning friends and family told me I would spoil them and they would be clingy and never sleep. I would be berated for letting them fall asleep in my arms while feeding and sighed at for not having a strict routine. But my instinct and my heart wanted to hold and be with my babies. I don’t regret listening to that inner voice for a moment. Some of the best memories I have is bedtime stories, feeding my babies, their hands entwined in my hair, watching sleep making their eyelids heavy and feeling so amazed at what I had created.

It always makes me think of gardening and when we plant tiny seedlings. They need special care, food, water, and protection from the elements to grow. We do not view this as demanding but part of their growth and what joy we get when from that tiny seed grows a beautiful flower.

When our children are small they are vulnerable, they depend on us for everything and they grow up so fast. Time with them is precious before they go off into this big wide world without us and instead of needing your cuddles they will be out living life to the full. As parents the greatest thing we can give them is our time, our love and reassurance so they grow up feeling safe and secure.

So when your little one cries listen to your instincts and respond, pick them up and soothe them whether its 2 pm in the afternoon or 2 am in the night. Give them what they need and help them learn that you will always be there. Let your arms ache from giving them your love, instead of your heart aching from doing what others expect. Your children are gifts, yes even at 2 am and like a beautiful seedling when nurtured and cared for they will grow into the most beautiful flowers.


Further reading


  1. Lindsey says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you so much. As you say, there is so much information out there that makes you feel you should be wanting your baby to sleep through the night…but I really do not! I want to be there and give my baby what he needs when he needs it, a little sleep deprivation is as nothing next to helping him feel loved and secure in that love. But I was feeling self doubt trickle in in the face of all those other opinions, so reading this has been a breath of fresh air and a much needed boost to my confidence in my own instincts. Thanks again!

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