In the first year of parenthood, the most commonly asked question must surely be: “Does your baby sleep through the night?”
As many as one third of parents admit to lying about their babies sleep patterns, fearing judgement of family and friends if they tell it how it is.
Yet evidence supporting the normality of night waking throughout the first years of life continues to grow, challenging western beliefs that waking and feeding during the night gradually decrease after the early weeks.
In fact, periods of increased waking – inappropriately labelled “sleep regressions” – continue throughout the first and second year.
#1: “Sleep Regressions”
The term “sleep regression” is used to describe a period of time when a baby or toddler's sleep patterns change. These regressions are commonly seen around 4, 9, 13 and 18 months, and often coincide with major milestones like rolling, crawling and walking.
Because babies process information during sleep time, they become more wakeful when approaching new milestones. Rather than regressing, toddlers are actually progressing and we should see these periods of sleep disturbance as signs of normal development.
Parents often see these disruptions to previous sleep patterns as a problem, yet they are just a temporary change and responding gently and reassuringly to help your child fall back to sleep is all that is needed.
In addition to these “sleep regressions”, other developmental factors will disturb sleep in the second and third year of life:
#2: Wonder Weeks
Sleep disturbance is a common part of the Wonder Weeks, which continue into the second year and beyond. Leaps 8, 9 and 10 can be some of the more challenging – happening around 13 months, 15 months and 17 months.
With long fussy periods up to a month each, the first six months of the second year might sometimes seem like one, big sleep disruption!
#3: Mobility and Sleep Disturbance
It makes sense that learning to move would disturb sleep – and science is now proving this is the case. A 2013 study showed that babies not only have sleep disturbance in the month before they reach the crawling milestone, but up to three months afterwards!
It is likely that other achievements like sitting, standing, walking, climbing and running would challenge babies and toddlers in the same way.
#4: Exploding Vocabulary
Around 18 – 24 months toddlers typically go through a “language explosion”, with a surge in the number and usage of words. Moving from learning single words at a time, in a slow but steady, predictable pattern, toddlers around this age become capable of learning multiple new words at once and make great advances in communication.
Some children may have disrupted sleep during this developmental period – or be busy chatting when you try to help them back to sleep!
There is no doubt that ongoing, interrupted sleep is hard work for parents – especially when combined with paid work, study or caring for other children. However, it is important to understand that night-waking is a normal part of early childhood and not a problem to be fixed.
Instead, we need to look at ways to help children and adults return to sleep as quickly as possible. When families accept that it is natural for children to wake during the night and it is also normal for children to need parental support to return to sleep, there is less stress around the waking and less resentment of the child involved.