The Culture of Sleep: Myth #1- 12 Hour Nights

infants sleep toddlers Feb 20, 2018

While sleep is a biological process, most of how and when we sleep is determined by the culture you live in. Culture determines how much you value sleep, who sleeps with who, when you go to bed and when your day starts. In America, there are many ideas around how infant and toddlers should sleep. Most parent think these ideas come from biology. When actually, the most pervasive beliefs about infant and toddler sleep, are only cultural constructs.

These cultural ideas often don't match up with biology or parental beliefs and leave parents feeling lost and helpless. Over the next 5 weeks I am going to debunk the top cultural beliefs about sleep that tend to cause problems when a parent is trying to create healthy sleep for their infants and toddlers.

Here goes- 

Myth #1- 12 Hour Nights

One of the most pervasive ideas we have about infants is the goal of getting a new baby to sleep through the night. "Is your baby sleeping through the night?" is a question new parents get so often many start to lie in response to avoid the unsolicited advice. What does that even mean, to sleep through the night? Well the most prevalent answer is 12 hours. This idea is taught and discussed in articles and book. There are even books with this idea as part of the title. I am not sure where this idea came from or how it started, because there is no evidence to back it up. 

What is Through the Night? 

What does it even mean to sleep through the night? The problem with that question is that it varies based on a child's age and weight. It also depends on how you define through the night. In the realm of clinic sleep research, though the night is defined as 5-7 hours of uninterrupted sleep. For most parents sleeping though the night means sleeping from bedtime until morning time without needing any help. In my work with families I have seen a parent feel their child is sleeping through the night, even if there are night wakes to eat. But since baby goes right back to sleep, they don't really count it as a wake up. On the other hand, some parents count going in to replace a pacifier as a wake up. 

Sleep Development

The developmental task of sleep in the first 2 years is to combined wake and sleep times. A new born sleeps every hour or so for about an hour all day and night. While a 2 year old sleep one 1-2 hour nap and then sleeps 8-10 hours at night. By 2 year children's sleep time has consolidated to mostly at night, while the wake times have all moved to the day. This is a developmental process just like learning to walk. Some children will walk sooner, others later. The same is true with sleep consolidation. Some children will do more night sleep sooner, while others will take longer to combined wake and sleep. Which means there is more of a range for when children will start sleeping with out interruption. What is the range? The not very helpful answer of 6-36 months.

 How Long a Baby Can Sleep

The total average amount of sleep in 24 hours for infants over 6 months of age is 11-13 hours  . This has been shown again and again in research both in the United States and cross culturally. If the total amount of sleep for most children who are still napping is 11-13 hours, it is physically impossible for them to sleep 12 hours at night. Most infants and children average about 8-10 hours of night sleep. The exact amount an infant or young child will sleep at night will depend on if they lean toward the lower or higher end of the average, and how much they are sleeping during the day. For example, a 7 month old infant who wants 12 hours total, sleep 3 hours during the day, will sleep 9 hours at night. But baby probably won't sleep 9 hours strait.

Most infants still need to nurse or eat at least once thought the night. How long a baby can sleep uninterrupted before they need to wake depends on age, weight and how much they eat during the day.

 So if your baby doesn't sleep 12 hours at night, they are perfectly normal. If your baby does stay in bed for 12 hours, remember all babies are different. Some do want more then average amounts of sleep.


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