Why humans aren’t designed to sleep through the night

Written by Jo

We are a society obsessed with sleep: the lack of it, quality of it, and how to “fix” our newborns’ sleep.

Yet the concept of eight hours sleep is the product of the industrial revolution and its modern working hours, agricultural daylight saving and domestic lighting.

Before this, humans slept in two distinct phases at night. This is well documented in historical art and literature such as Dickens, Cervantes and as far back as Homer’s Odyssey.

More recently the work of historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, whose 2001 research revealed historical evidence of humans ‘biphasic’ sleep. He noticed that all historical accounts of sleep used the terms ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep, and that being awake for an in-between period during the night was “a part of life’s rhythms”.

Humans are born with their own distinct rhythms of sleep. For nine months they sleep inside another human. This intimate sleep connection is still heavily relied upon after birth by a neonate with an immature sleep pattern, developing nervous system and a stomach the size of a cherry.


Sleep occupies the mind and conversations of every new mother I’ve ever met.

It’s the focus of numerous questions during the antenatal sessions I conduct. Parents on a quest to seek the best knowledge; the one plan that will get their infant to sleep through the night.

When faced with such questions I always answer, “Can you teach a goldfish to play netball?” The response is always along the lines of goldfish do not have the brain capacity or physical agility to accomplish such sporting endeavours.

Strangely enough, neither to babies.

All human sleep is regulated by an internal body clock known as a circadian rhythm. As adults we cycle through light sleep to deep sleep and onto dreaming and then returning to light and deep sleep on a nightly basis, teetering on the edge of wakefulness momentarily, many times through each cycle.

No human on the planet sleeps an entire night without rousing several times.

A baby is not born with a sophisticated adult circadian rhythm and has sleep-wake cycles spread throughout the day and night. Babies move through the same sleep cycles as adults, however their cycles are shorter and more numerous, with more time spent in light sleep.

So it’s understandable why new parents find the early weeks so exhausting and frustrating. Ever tried to put a sleeping newborn down?


Mothers most often find themselves the sole caregivers, especially after partners have gone back to work, with the constant pressure of caring for a new baby plus the omnipresent jet lag that is sleep deprivation as incentive enough to seek professional help.

Professional help within the field of infant sleep comes in many guises these days, from books with plans to follow to night nannies and sleep consultants and everything in between.

As a Doula I have supported countless families through the night, with a focus on expectations on newborn sleep, early gentle sleep associations and what to do when babies do sleep u-turns, as each developmental leap often creates.

Previously as a nanny and maternity nurse my focus was on implementing routines very early on with little to no essential knowledge of a newborn’s sleep biology, breastfeeding, co-sleeping or normal infant sleep development. My mission was to encourage lengthy sleep cycles or better still, sleeping through the night, mostly armed with formula and a purpose to help parents as well as ensuring my continued employment as happy parents recommend to other parents.

The last decade has witnessed a 360 turn in my approach and my knowledge.

The more information I sought, books I read and workshops I attended, the louder the question became. Can we really expect babies to adapt to adult sleep patterns from birth?

Professor Helen Ball and her team at the Durham University Parent-Infant Sleep lab have been researching normal infant sleep for over ten years, and provide comprehensive and up-to-date evidence based information online via isisonline.org.uk. According to Professor Ball, “Encouraging babies to ‘sleep through’ before they are ready to do so makes it difficult to keep on breastfeeding, and may encourage babies to develop mature sleep patterns out of sequence with their other circadian patterns such as those controlling the regulation of temperature, hormone production and the genes that control our biological rhythms.”

In our 21st century approach to infant sleep we seem to have overlooked the basic features of how babies actually work.

We ‘problematise’ normality and seek to trouble shoot what is potentially developmental stages. Babies acquire the ‘skills’ to sleep longer cycles, slowly and incrementally, just as humans develop new skills from language to riding a bike, slowly surely and with a shed load of patience.


Leading sleep researchers agree that young babies should sleep in ‘sensory proximity’ during the early months when SIDS is at its highest. This allows for mother and baby dyads to synchronise waking and breathing thus allowing babies to be roused by their mothers movements and breathing throughout the night.

These innate nocturnal interactions are a protective factor against SIDS, nudging tiny ones out of sleeping too deeply than their immature nervous systems can allow for.

Mars Lord, twin mother, course co-ordinator for ‘Loving The Multiple Mothers’ and Doula for over a decade writes, “Instead of thinking of sleep as something you do over one 6-8 hour block, try thinking of getting sleep within a twenty four hour block. Get support during the day so that you can utilise those day time naps.”

Support is key and preferably from knowledgable and compassionate caregivers who understand the nighttime needs of newborns and growing babies — and are not on a mission to problem solve normality by employing variations on ‘cry it out themes’.

That only serves to raise cortisol levels on a developing brain and immature nervous system.

So let’s get real about sleep: whether adult or newborn, humans aren’t designed to sleep through the night.

By Jo. Find out more about her gentle Doula work at Jojodoula.com

Are you a bleary-eyed sleep app obsessive? Have you done a U-turn from routine stress to gentle sleep tricks? We would ❤ to hear from you. Contact us, comment below, or tag #WokeMamas on social media.

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