“When is my baby going to sleep through the night?” is a question I get very often from parents. I usually tell them “well, nobody actually sleeps through the night.” Looks of horror now come my way. What on earth is this woman talking about?!
I’m being cheeky, of course, but it’s helpful to understand how sleep actually works, on a neurological level, to underline the importance of the skill of putting yourself to sleep.
We basically have two kinds of sleep: Non-REM and REM. Deep sleep, known as Non-REM, is the physiologically restorative part of our sleep. Our Non-REM sleep develops around the 3-4 month of life (which is why some babies will start sleeping longer stretches at this age) and is always the majority of the first part of our night’s sleep. Active sleep, known as REM, is just that: active, when we dream and consolidate memories. Babies are born with more than one-half of their sleep being REM, which is why infants often look “half asleep”, very twitchy, and may even smile during sleep.
So why does this information matter? The body wakes up, very briefly, when it shifts from one type of sleep to the next, during something called a partial awakening. If you had a great night’s sleep and nobody was waking you (and maybe that’s not possible right now) you’d never remember that you actually woke in several partial awakenings throughout the night- you’d turn over, adjust your blanket and go right into the next sleep cycle.Essentially, we are putting ourselves to sleep all night long.
However, if a child doesn’t actually have the skill of falling asleep unassisted during the initial onset of sleep, they won’t know how to do so during the night. That’s why I say we don’t actually don’t sleep through the night, we just know how to put ourselves back to sleep. It’s that simple.
So, if you’re working on a new sleep plan, or just feeling baffled why your child wakes up during the night, make sure they know how to put themselves to sleep at bedtime- then you can help them build on that skill during all the following awakenings they will have through the night.