Bags under the eyes, frequent yawns, forgetfulness, edginess, coffee-stained teeth, difficulty concentrating, delayed reaction, increased anxiety: These are the effects of long-term sleep deprivation and fragmentation, and they're a rite of passage for parents of infants. But what's not shared as freely is the bleak news that parents should expect to endure months—possibly two years and some change—of fragmented sleep.
In an article published in the British Medical Journal, Helen Ball, a professor from the Parent-Infant Sleep Laboratory at Durham University, wrote: "Recent trends in Western infant care have led to misperceptions of normal infant sleep development. When we ask whether a young baby 'sleeps through the night' this reinforces the idea that prolonged infant sleep is important and should be achieved early."
Ball points out that not only is sleep a developmental process that matures during the first years of life, but also that sleep behavior and this developmental timeline vary among babies. Infants aren't born with circadian rhythms; their sleep patterns just begin to consolidate at three months, with the body clock maturing between 6 and 12 months. The kicker: "Night waking is a characteristic of infant sleep that comes and goes during the first year, irrespective of previous consolidation, and with no clearly consistent pattern," Ball wrote.
Nighttime Sleep Disruption Is Normal, But Not Always the Norm for Babies
It can be incredibly frustrating if your infant begins sleeping for six to eight to sometimes 10-hour stretches without waking at night, then, a few weeks later, he or she starts waking again one, three, four or five times a night. If you can't attribute the night wakings to illness, teething pain or environmental changes (like travel), your baby could be about to hit a major developmental milestone, such as crawling or walking. These achievements can affect sleep patterns. Babies' brains are working overtime as they approach these milestones and, because babies process information during their sleep, it's normal for them to wake up more often—and cry out for your comfort—as they attempt to master new skills.
These progressions occur throughout the first two years of life; they're popularly referred to as sleep regressions, and tend to precede developmental milestones at 4 months, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months and 24 months (timeframes can vary per child). Translation: If parents believe they will be free of sleep fragmentation and deprivation during the first couple of years of life, it could ease stress if they revise expectations.