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We Need to Stop Diagnosing Babies and Toddlers With 'Sleep Issues'

Photograph by Twenty20

I remember chatting with some moms at the playground when my first child was about nine months old. The moms had babies similar in age to mine, and like many moms of babies, we started talking about sleep. Several moms were bemoaning the fact that teething had wreaked havoc on their baby’s otherwise good sleep. Other moms were talking about illness or other interruptions that had kept their babies up. But they all seemed to expect that their babies would be slipping back into sweet, uninterrupted slumber ASAP.

I stood there, dumbfounded.

My baby had never, ever slept through the night. The most he ever slept was maybe a 2-3 hour stretch, and that wasn’t often. I made the mistake of mentioning that to these moms. They were kind enough about it, but they didn’t understand how that could be. Hadn’t I sleep trained? Did my baby have an upset stomach or allergy? Had I seen a doctor about this? One mother said she could get me the name of a sleep specialist her friend had used.

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These moms seemed to think that there was something actually wrong with my baby, and for a second, I believed it too. I mean, if all these moms had great sleepers, but I didn’t, maybe my son was defective in some way. Maybe he had a sleep disorder, or some a medical condition that was affecting his sleep.

But then I looked down at him, all rosy-faced, kicking his legs around in the stroller, and I thought to myself, “He’s totally healthy, normal and generally well-rested. Why should I worry?”

Eventually, all of our kids slept through the night. But many didn’t do so until they were 3 or 4 years old. None of them ended up having sleep disorders. In fact, all of our kids are currently moody tweens who we have to drag out of bed to get to school on time in the morning.

Besides being a mom of two wakeful babies who ended up being kick-ass sleepers, I am a lactation consultant, and I've worked with babies and toddlers for the past seven years. I've seen see all kind of sleepers—babies who start sleeping really solidly from a few weeks old and only wake when they aren’t feeling well, babies who start sleeping well at 3 or 4 months old, and babies who don’t start to sleep through until they are toddler or preschoolers.

So I’d like to clear something up once and for all: Night waking among babies and toddlers is totally normal.

Really and truly.

There is nothing wrong with your child if they wake up during the night—and sometimes quite often. It's also normal to have a baby who sleeps well from an early age.

Sleep is a spectrum. Babies can be anywhere on it, and still be considered normal.

So, to the moms and dads who are right there in it: please don’t fall for the bullsh*t idea that you are failing your baby if night waking happens frequently.

Still not convinced? Here's a bit of research for you that shows how normal night waking is through the toddler years: A 2012 study published in Developmental Psychology looked at more than 1200 infants and their night waking patterns from 6–36 months. The researchers found that 66 percent of the babies woke only about once a week at six months old. But the other 34 percent of the babies woke much more frequently—about seven nights a week at 6 months, and about once a week at 24 months.

There's also another fascinating study looking at Swiss children during the first 10 years of life; 493 children were followed, with interviews about their sleep patterns at various intervals during their lives. Night waking was observed frequently during infancy, but was not predictive of night waking during later childhood. And get this: 22 percent of the kids still woke at least once during the night at 3 years old, and half of all the kids they observed still woke up at least once a week at 4 years old.

The researcher’s conclusion? “Nocturnal wakings are common during early childhood.”

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For those of us who have been there and gotten to the other side, studies like these make us say, “DUH.” But it’s not that easy when you are in the trenches, and getting judgments and “advice” left and right about your wakeful baby or toddler.

So, to the moms and dads who are right there in it: Please don’t fall for the bullsh*t idea that you are failing your baby if night waking happens frequently. Some babies and toddlers wake up a lot. It’s common and normal. Our culture is at fault for shoving the idea down our throats that it isn’t normal, thereby shaming parents who don’t have “good sleepers.”

All children learn to sleep through the night in their own time and in their own way. In the meantime, parents who are living through it deserve a fist pump, a shoulder to cry on—and a nap.

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