Infants and younger children spend much of their time sleeping. Sleep is as essential for their development as the hours they spend awake. Sometimes, however, the most natural thing in the world does not come naturally and can cause distress, conflict and drama within many families. Why is that?
By Dr. med. Herbert Renz-Polster, author of the book «Schlaf gut, Baby!» («Sleep tight, baby!»)
Sleep in children
Having a good night’s sleep can be challenging, even for us adults. It simply cannot be forced, no amount of effort can lead to a good night’s rest. Quite the opposite is true: relaxation leads to sleep. Sleep finds us, not the other way around. And there is a good reason why nature intended it this way. When we sleep we lose all control. We are defenceless, reflexless, and powerless. It is therefore critical that we only fall asleep under specific conditions – when we feel comfortable and secure. No howling wolves outside and no squeaky floor boards. It is not surprising that before going to bed many of us wonder if we really removed the front door key from the door. We can only relax when we feel safe. Once we relax, we can finally fall asleep.
And children? It is exactly the same with them. They have demands for Sandman. And parents learn quickly, what these demands are. Yes, the little ones want to be fed, feel warm and also tired (we sometimes forget that). And then they face the same important question: Am I safe, secure and snug?
How do babies feel secure? Unlike adults, they cannot find security in themselves, which is a good thing: How could a baby fend off a wolf on its own? How could it tuck itself in when the fire goes out? And how could it get rid of a mosquito that landed on its nose? Infants get their sense of security from their guardians, who take care of their safety and provisions, as nature intended: their parents. This is also the cause of the first struggle as soon as the little ones get sleepy: some kind of invisible rubberband tightens around them and pulls them right towards their most trusted person, the parent. If they do not find anyone the tension rises and Sandman is guaranteed to make an exit…
However, this is not everything. Human babies are born relatively underdeveloped compared to other mammals. It takes the first three years for their brain to develop from the basic stage at birth and triple in size! Particularly this development spurt has a strong impact on the sleep in children. Babies’ brains are comparatively active after falling asleep – new connections are formed, helping it grow in the truest sense of the word. This process consumes a lot of energy – babies wake up often to “refill”. During this stage babies’ sleep is rather light and filled with dreams, which is why it is so difficult to put them down again once they went back to sleep, they startle easily.
How babies sleep
There are good reasons why child sleep is different from adult sleep. Let’s summarise the most important aspects discovered about sleep in children.
The need for sleep varies from child to child. The same way some children are extraordinary eaters, some children seem to devour sleep – and vice versa! Some newborns sleep 11 hours a day, while others sleep 20 hours (the average is around 14.5 hours). At 6 months, some babies only require 9 hours of sleep, while others need up to 17 hours (average sleep is now around 13 hours). In their second year, the daily need for sleep averages around 12 hours plus/minus 2 hours, depending on the child. Some 5 year-olds may get enough sleep with 9 hours a night, while other children still require 14 hours…
Infants need some time to find their ideal sleep rhythm. While newborns sleep equally during day- and night-time, one sleep pattern can already be identified after two to three months: their night sleep gradually starts to lengthen. Most five to six months old babies still require three daytime naps, while only a few months later two naps will be sufficient for most children. As soon as the little ones start to walk a lot of them content themselves with one daytime nap, but not all of them. At the age of four, at the latest at five, even the last naptime will belong to the past.
For a baby to sleep right through the night, without any waking up, is quite rare. Therefore, a baby sleeping from midnight until 5:00 is considered as sleeping through, according to science. During the first six months 86 percent of infants wake up regularly during the night. Around a quarter even three times or more. Between 13 and 18 months around two-thirds of the babies still wake up regularly during the night. Boys generally wake up more often than girls during the night. Even babies sleeping in their parents’ bed wake up more often (albeit less long…). Breastfed babies – compared to non-breastfed babies – need a little longer to sleep through.
The child and adult ‘sleep formulas’ are quite similar: babies want to be fed, warm and tired when going to bed – and they need to feel safe. Therefore, they need their adult guardian – while some need their presence more urgently, others need their presence longer. Regularly experiencing the presence of a loving adult while drifting off to sleep will slowly build up the baby’s own sense of security, its own ‘home of sleep’.
It is a false notion when parents think that it only takes the discovery of one special trick for their child to sleep without any problems. However, this kind of trick doesn’t exist, and if it does, it only works for the neighbour’s child.
Believing that being present while your child falls asleep, as they naturally expect, will spoil your child is another common misunderstanding. For roughly 99 % of human history, a baby sleeping on its own would not have survived the night – it would have been abducted by hyaena, bitten by snakes or not have survived the sudden onset of a cold front. And yet the children had to become strong and independent. Closeness does not spoil!
And we need to learn to not attest babies a sleeping problem when they cannot fall asleep on their own. It is absolutely normal. The Spanish paediatrician Carlos Gonzales expressed it this way: “If you take away my mattress and force me to sleep on the ground, falling asleep will be very difficult. Does it mean that I suffer from insomnia? Of course not! Give me back my mattress and you will see how well I can fall asleep! If you separate a child from its mother and the child struggles to fall asleep, does it suffer from insomnia? You will see how well the child can sleep once you unite it with its mama!”
It is rather a question of finding the best way to signal to your child: Here I can be comfortable, here I am able to relax. Then the next step will follow naturally – the way to sleep.
Sleep tight, baby!
Discussing the way to sleep is the central theme of the author’s new book: « Schlaf gut, Baby ! » (« Sleep tight, baby! »), co-written by ELTERN journalist Nora Imlau. In this book, they discuss the prevailing myths and fears surrounding sleep in children and advocate strongly in favour of responding to each child individually and developmentally appropriate – apart from any rigid rules. Empathic and based on scientific research and practical assistance, the authors encourage parents to discover their own way to ease their baby’s sleep.
About the author
Dr. Herbert Renz-Polster is a paediatrician and an associated scientist at the Mannheim Institute for Public Health of the University of Heidelberg. He is one of the leading experts regarding child development. His works « Menschenkinder » (« Human children ») and « Kinder verstehen » (« Understanding children ») have profoundly shaped the education debate in Germany. He is the father of four children.