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Sleep Expectations: Why We Expect Infants to Sleep Through the Night, But Adults Rarely Do

Ah, the elusive promise of a full night’s sleep! It’s a dream we all cherish, yet it often remains just that – a dream. It’s a curious phenomenon of how we expect infants to sleep through the night while adults themselves rarely achieve this feat. As adults we might think we sleep through but what does the science say?

The Adult Sleep Expectation

The Holy Grail: Eight Hours Straight As adults, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the pinnacle of good sleep is eight hours of uninterrupted bliss. We envision ourselves drifting off into dreamland, awakening only when the sun gently kisses our eyelids.

Well, that all sounds lovely, but…..

Let’s look at the realities of adult sleep for a moment. Firstly, where did these eight hours straight come from? The idea of eight solid hours of sleep is a relatively new idea that came along with the Industrial Revolution and while we know relatively little of earlier sleep patterns, as this is something that was not particularly noted. I guess they were too busy sleeping. Not only this a recent case review revealed how averages differ between countries for example, the average in the UK is 06:39 and with Mexico showing the highest at 09:00 and Sweden being the lowest at 06:00. (1) So where are these eight hours coming from? Maybe the 9-5 working week has a little something do to with it.  

The other side to this coin is that we didn’t use all our night-time just for sleeping. Anthologists, and it is now widely believed that we are meant to have segmented sleep. This means that it was totally normal for us to wake part way through the night to do activities such as having sex, talking or another activity. This is called biphasic sleep (2).

What about sleep cycles? Excellent point! Sleep cycles are made up of four phases in mature adult sleep. While I won’t go into the details of the sleep cycle, it is important to note that your body actually wakes up when it’s finished each cycle. So why don’t we get up each time? Well, this is because, as adults, we can regulate ourselves and soothe ourselves back into another sleep cycle without remembering that we woke up. Gosh, we are clever, aren’t we?

Not only all this, but we seem to neglect that each human is completely different, with different sleep needs.  

The Infant Sleep: 12 hours straight through

The Holy Grail of Infant SleepNow, let’s contrast this with infant sleep. While they may sleep a total of 16-17 hours a day, what parents are looking for is a 12-hour stretch 7 pm-7 am. Knowing how important sleep is too little ones’ development, they must have continuous sleep and for parents to function just as they did before.

Sounds achievable?

Nope, it really isn’t. There are so many issues with this concept. Shall we unpack?

Like the eight-hour straight concept for adults, where has this come from? This idea has been pushed on us since the Industrial Revolution. Employers want their workers to get back as quickly as possible, and they can’t possibly work at the capacity they did previously if they are kept awake by a baby. So inconvenient. However, they want the workers to keep reproducing so they have replacements. It’s a very interesting paradox.   

What about the 7 pm-7 am concept? Many cultures do not have this as the normal sleep pattern for babies. Surely if this was the best fit for every single child, this is something that would be replicated in other cultures? That is not to say that this model doesn’t work for some infants and families. Yes, it absolutely can. However, this will not be the biological normal for the majority of the babies. Unfortunately, evidence on these is poor because of the vast developmental disparities between ages, and of course, all babies are different.

The night wakings are also an inbuilt safety feature of babies against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). (3)

So, what does this all add up to?

Our expectation is that little ones can sleep through the night when it’s not even possible for adults to do this. The difference is, of course, that adults can self-soothe to get right back into sleep but little ones don’t have that capacity.

The evidence around self-soothing is limited; this is because it hasn’t really been looked into. The concept came into play around the 1970’s and was used to describe infants who didn’t seem to need adult input to get back to sleep by Thomas Anders, who admit that it was more to counter the “signalled” wakings or crying when they wake. (4) Check out this response letter to see more on what he has to say on the matter.

What can we take away from this?

Let’s stop expecting babies to behave like adults. They don’t have the same brain capacity as adults, so this is such a disadvantage on a very big expectation.

Speaking from experience, there is a feeling you have around your children that they are just extensions of yourself. You almost expect them to sleep as much as you or like the same food or like the same books you liked at your age. They are their own little selves with their own personalities and behaviours in built.

What can we do to help?

1. Adapt and Accept: Infants teach us the art of adaptability. Embrace the unpredictability of sleep and find rest whenever you can. This can be easier said than done especially if you must go back to paid work or have other children at home. Getting some help in even after the fourth trimester really helps.

2. Safety Always: Prioritize sleep safety just like infants. Create a comfortable sleep environment without compromising on safety.

3. Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you’re sleep-deprived. Share the load with a partner, family member, friend or get some paid help. It truly takes a village.

4. Power of the Nap: Take a cue from infants and cherish the power of a good nap. Those short bursts of rest can make a world of difference.

Infant sleep is such a polarizing topic; what is best for your family might be different from others. Understanding the biological norms of babies’ sleep will help you gain insight into how you want to manage the lack of sleep, which ultimately is why you are researching babies’ sleep. Don’t be afraid of doing your own research and find a sleep coach/consultant that works with your family not just get your little one to sleep.

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