Sleep: What’s ‘Normal’ Anyway?

Bang! Bang! Bang! It was 11pm, day 1 after our return from holiday. Little O was jet-lagged and refusing even more than usual to go to sleep. We were exhausted and not in the mood for another tantrum… especially one from the man who had recently moved in with our neighbour and was now hammering on our front door!

Now, I understand that people live busy lives and don’t wish to be kept awake by a screaming two year old. Ask any parent, I’m sure we’re all in agreement with that. However, what is a mother to do when she lives in a ‘cosy’ 3 bed terrace, built somewhere in the 1980s with the flimsiest walls I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure the dolls’ house I made from an old Cornflakes packet in my reception year at school had thicker walls). We just have to do the best that we can… or move from a Cornflakes packet to a yogurt pot at least!

Our eldest son has never been the best sleeper, but neither is he the worst. By the end of his first year he was sleeping in his own crib, sometimes with and sometimes without a dummy, usually through the night. (If he didn’t stir until 5am then it counted!) However, fast forward another year and whilst he always started in his own bed, by the early hours he was always in ours and on his majesty’s orders, we were still being forced to ‘Go downstairs,’ at the crack of dawn. Yes, we had a Gro-Clock, yes we’d experimented with bedtime; sleep just wasn’t something that Little O was drawn to.

“Can you do something to shut your child up?” the man yelled, as my husband leaned out of our upstairs window.

My inner-bitch hackles raised instantly.

“Do you have children?” my husband asked.

“I had two. But they never cried like this.”

Well, bully for you, I thought. Count yourself lucky to have had two children that seemingly loved going to bed, without fuss and didn’t feel the need to express themselves as strongly as my son was doing now. What was his secret? Is there one? If so, why wasn’t someone bottling it up and selling it on to desperate parents? Hindsight is a wonderful thing; I wish now that at this point we had invited him in, handed him our little bundle of joy and asked for his top tips. Maybe if we had, we wouldn’t have heard his next statement…

“Have you taken him to the doctors or something? It’s not normal, all this crying every night.”

(I wish I was kidding with this statement or at the very least embellishing it, but I assure you, those were his actual words.) Our new neighbour completely overlooked the fact that we had been out of the country for the past two weeks, yet either way, was insistent that far from being a strong-willed child overcoming jet-lag and resisting bedtime, we had on our hands a child in need of medical help. I was livid. Wouldn’t you be?

Time ticked by, our angry neighbour took my husband’s advice and ‘politely disappeared’, Little O continued crying which eventually turned into singing and then incessant nattering, until finally, sometime in the early hours, sleep found us all. ZZzzzzzzz…

As morning came, I had gone from feeling angry to upset, from knowing my son was just a normal two year old to questioning myself – maybe I’d missed something? Maybe there was something wrong? Maybe my neighbour was right?! Before I continue, here’s my disclaimer: whilst I’m not a sleep physician, neither am I a sleep specialist or an expert on insomnia. However, I do know how to collate and assimilate the information that some extensive Googling throws back at me. And as it turns out, my earlier instincts were right, my son was perfectly normal.

What is normal anyway?

Before you read this and wind up worrying too, I wish to reiterate that our children are human; they are unique – even identical twins have their own identities and personalities; there is no ‘one size fits all’, especially with regards to sleep. I’ve yet to find an affiliate link to a magic sleep potion, though if you search for ‘how can I get my child to sleep?’ you’ll find entire libraries of books written on the multitude of approaches available – sleep-training, co-sleeping, controlled napping, dare I mention cry it out… you name it – there are almost as many approaches to infant sleep as there are individual children!

Whilst the experts’ perspectives vary, they do tend to agree on the typical sleep needs of babies and toddlers. In our old house with it’s flimsy Cornflake packet walls, we had little concern over how Little O slept, or indeed where he slept (within reason), so long as he actually slept. Sleep is what worked best for our family, however we could get it. And one way or another, Little O usually managed to tot up the recommended amounts of it (making him unexceptionally… normal). So…

Sleeping baby and toddler

Newborn to 1 Month

Total sleep in a 24 hour period: 14 – 16 hours

The goal for ‘night-time’ sleep: (because this is the bit that we care about most, right?) 8 – 9 hours

1 Month  to 3 Months

Total Sleep: 14 – 15 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 9 – 10 hours

3 Months to 6 Months

Total Sleep: 14 – 15 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 11 hours

6 Months to 9 Months

Total Sleep: 13 – 14 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 11 hours

9 Months to 1 Year

Total Sleep: 12 – 14 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 11 and a half hours

12 to 18 Months

Total Sleep: 12 – 14 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 11 and a half hours

18 Months to 2 Years

Total Sleep: 12 – 13 hours

Night-time Sleep Goal: 12 hours

Now, I have a small confession: Wishing not to appear hypocritical, as I write this, I realise that Little O has never achieved 12 hours in one night – and neither am I sure that he ever will. (Hence the night-time sleep ‘goals’). He’s a morning lark (like his dad!) No matter when he goes to bed, or what time the sun is set to rise on the Gro-Clock, we’ve learnt to count 6.30am as a lay-in! However, just like me, he really needs his sleep, otherwise we tend to resemble the Incredible Hulk. At almost 35, I still benefit from a little post lunch siesta, given half a chance. Ultimately, it’s the total amount of quality sleep that matters most, not just what’s achieved once it grows dark.

Please, please, please also bare in mind that not one of the sleep guidelines you’ll commonly find will take into account the needs of a teething baby, or a sick toddler and what will work for your child is whatever will work best for you and yours. Even in the chaos of raising children and coping with sleep deprivation, once you start totalling the hours, you’ll likely realise that everything is perfectly ‘normal’… no matter how many parenting experts or angry neighbours try to tell you differently.

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