Sleeping through the Night
by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology,
Texas A & M University
[This essay was originally directed to one person. It has
been edited slightly to make it less specific.]
I am an Adjunct (semi-retired) Associate Professor of
Anthropology and Nutrition at Texas A&M University, and I do research on infant/child
feeding beliefs/practices both cross-culturally and from an evolutionary perspective, as
well as research on children's health and growth. I know from first-hand experience that
being a new parent is a difficult time of adjustment, especially when expectations don't
match reality, especially when our culture has taught us that children should have certain
needs/wants/behaviors and then our children don't seem to fit that mold. This
problem of a mismatch between expectations and reality can be very difficult for new
parents to accept and adjust to. Sometimes, some children can be
encouraged/convinced/forced to fit the mold of cultural expectations, and they do fine.
Othertimes, though they do eventually fit the mold, it is at the expense of their sense of
who they are, their self-confidence, their view of the world as a safe and trusting place,
sometimes, even, at the expense of their health or life. Probably nowhere do cultural
expectations and the reality of children's needs conflict more than in the two areas of
breastfeeding frequency and sleeping behaviors.
Human children are designed (whether you believe by millions
of years of evolution, or by God, it doesn't matter) -- to nurse *very* frequently, based
on the composition of the milk of the species, the fact that all higher primates (Primates
are the zoological Order to which humans belong, higher primates include monkeys and apes)
keep their offspring in the mother's arms or on her back for several years, the size of
the young child's stomach, the rapidity with which breast milk is digested, the need for
an almost constant source of nutrients to grow that huge brain (in humans, especially),
and so on. By very frequently, I mean 3-4 times per hour, for a few minutes each time. The
way in which some young infants are fed in our culture -- trying to get them to shift to a
3-4 hour schedule, with feedings of 15-20 minutes at a time, goes against our basic
physiology. But humans are very adaptable, and some mothers will be able to make
sufficient milk with this very infrequent stimulation and draining of the breasts, and
some children will be able to adapt to large meals spaced far apart. Unfortunately, some
mothers don't make enough milk with this little nursing, and some babies can't adjust, and
so are fussy, cry a lot, seem to want to nurse "before it is time" and fail to
grow and thrive. Of course, usually the mother's body is blamed -- "You can't make
enough milk" -- rather than the culturally-imposed expectation that feeding every 3-4
hours should be sufficient, and the mother begins supplementing with formula, which leads
to a steady spiral downward to complete weaning from the breast. Human children are also
designed to have breast milk be a part of their diet for a minimum of 2.5 years, with many
indicators pointing to 6-7 years as the true physiological duration of breastfeeding --
regardless of what your cultural beliefs may be. I can provide you with references to my
research on this topic if you wish to read more.
The same is true of sleeping. Human children are designed to
be sleeping with their parents. The sense of touch is the most important sense to
primates, along with sight. Young primates are carried on their mother's body and sleep
with her for years after birth, often until well after weaning. The expected pattern is
for mother and child to sleep together, and for child to be able to nurse whenever they
want during the night. Normal, healthy, breastfed and co-sleeping children do not sleep
"through the night" (say 7-9 hours at a stretch) until they are 3-4 years old,
and no longer need night nursing. I repeat -- this is NORMAL and HEALTHY. Dr. James
McKenna's research on co-sleeping clearly shows the dangers of solitary sleeping in young
infants, who slip into abnormal patterns of very deep sleep from which it is very
difficult for them to rouse themselves when they experience an episode of apnea (stop
breathing). When co-sleeping, the mother is monitoring the baby's sleep and breathing
patterns, even though she herself is asleep. When the baby has an episode of apnea, she
rouses the baby by her movements and touch. This is thought to be the primary mechanism by
which co-sleeping protects children from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In other words,
many cases of SIDS in solitary sleeping children are thought to be due to them having
learned to sleep for long stretches at a time at a very early age, so they find themselves
in these deep troughs of sleep, then they may experience an episode of apnea, and no one
is there to notice or rouse them from it, so they just never start breathing again.
Co-sleeping also allows a mother to monitor the baby's temperature during the night, to be
there if they spit up and start to choke, and just to provide the normal, safe environment
that the baby/child has been designed to expect.
Is this convenient for parents? No!
Is this difficult for some new parents to adjust to? Yes!
No doubt about it, the gap between what our culture teaches
us to expect of the sleep patterns of a young child (read them a story, tuck them in, turn
out the light, and not see them again for 8 hours) and the reality of how children
actually sleep if healthy and normal, yawns widely.
But the first steps to dealing with the fact that your young
child doesn't sleep through the night, or doesn't want to sleep without you is to realize
- (1) Not sleeping through the night until they are 3 or 4
years of age is normal and healthy behavior for human infants.
- (2) Your children are not being difficult or manipulative,
they are being normal and healthy, and behaving in ways that are appropriate for our
Once you understand these simple truths, it becomes much
easier to deal with parenting your child at night. Once you give up the idea that you must
have 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night, and view these nighttime interactions with
your child as precious and fleeting, you get used to them very quickly.
I highly recommend Dr. Sears' book on Nighttime Parenting
[available from the La Leche
League International Catalogue]. Our children's early years represent the most
important and influential time of their lives. It passes all too quickly. But meeting your
child's needs during these first few years will pay off in many ways in the years to come.
Prepared August 25, 1997.
Last updated March 16, 2004, by kad. Contents copyright 1999-2004 by Sue Ann Kendall and Kathy Dettwyler. Thanks to Prairienet, the Free-Net of east-central Illinois, for hosting this site from 1999 through 2004.
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