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From the moment he or she is born, a baby’s innate personality shines through in so many ways: how he eats (with zeal! selectively…), what makes her smile or how he plays. And yes, tired parents, how your baby snoozes (or doesn’t) is also due, in part, to the sleep personality that she was born with, also called her “sleep temperament.”
Doctors and sleep researchers have identified two types of sleep temperaments in infants as young as six months: self-soothers and signalers (babies who tend to call out during the night). Most babies fall somewhere in between the two temperaments.
We tend to assign values to these temperaments (for example, the notion that self-soothers are “great sleepers” while signalers are “not good sleepers”), but there really isn’t a hierarchy, says Dr. Elizabeth Super, pediatrician and children’s sleep specialist with the Pediatric Sleep Medicine program at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “Babies aren’t good or bad sleepers,” she says, “they’re just different.”
Curious about which temperament your baby has?
All babies naturally wake up five to seven times per night – this cycle continues into adulthood, although it’s often imperceptible to adults. Babies with self-soothing sleep temperaments are more easily able to drift off to sleep when bedtime begins, as well as get back to sleep on their own when they wake. These sleepy-heads may also snooze for longer periods of time, or start sleeping through the night sooner than other babies.
Is your baby a self-soother? You may hear her wake up (perhaps babbling to herself) and then settle back to sleep. She might use a pacifier, suck her thumb, cuddle up with a favorite blankie or hum to herself as part of her soothing routine.
It takes these wide-eyed (and sometimes lusty-lunged) little ones longer to learn self-soothing skills that come more quickly to others. These babies may have more difficulty falling and staying asleep, and when they wake up during the night, they may cry or call out.
Is your baby a signaler? If your healthy baby has regular nighttime wake-ups, or if his cries stop and he lights up when he sees you enter the room, then you may have a signaler. Learning a new sleep routine, or settling back into his normal routine after an illness, vacation, illness or developmental milestone may take more time as he discovers and develops self-soothing skills.
Whatever her innate sleep temperament, you child’s sleep skills are a learned behavior. The self-soothers of the bunch may’ve caught on more quickly, but don’t worry, your signaler will get there in his own time.
“Developmentally, all children, whatever their sleep temperament, will learn to adapt and fall asleep independently as they grow,” Dr. Super says. Remember that sleep challenges will come and go and even the calmest of self-soothers may have difficult phases of sleep development. Whatever your child’s sleep temperament, supporting great sleep habits will help her build sleep skills that she needs to get good rest.
Other posts in the Dr. Super sleep series:
Six strategies to improve your baby’s sleep skills
Monsters under the bed: banishing bedtime fears
Battle bad dreams, night terrors and things that go bump in the dark
The real scoop on teething and sleep