Hunt for the Unicorn: Why ‘sleeping through’ is a bit of an ‘ass’.



A full night’s sleep is like the unicorn – we all believe in it, we know what they look like, we can imagine them easily – and yet nobody has ever seen a real one.

And those that have? Well, they are clearly lying.


Sometimes when we think we have done everything possible to ensure a full night’s sleep we really believe we might see a unicorn. The children have gone to bed without fuss, the evening is rolling along nicely, the routine was nailed and we all can look forward to finally waking up feeling refreshed in the morning without any wake ups.

Mostly, though, despite our best efforts in our hunt for the unicorn, it evades us.

The night had full unicorn potential yet it granted us with a…. horse.

And it is SO disappointing, aggravating and upsetting for sleep-deprived desperate parents. Up AGAIN at god knows when!

Sometimes after diligently trying again we don’t even get to see a horse in the night. In fact those horse nights with only a couple of wake-ups seem so nice by comparison to the nights when we find a…. donkey.

Those nights really are an ‘ass’.


I remember the early months of mummydom being tainted with a feeling that my baby was not as ‘good’ at sleeping as the other babies who apparently were all ‘sleeping through’. I didn’t know then that ‘sleeping through’ is a term given to young babies who sleep for a six hour block. Yes, if your baby sleeps from 8pm to 2am they are officially ‘sleeping through’. It is not eight hours like an adult’s sleep time– it is only six. So unless you go to sleep at the same time as your baby, you are likely to still be rather sleep deprived and crave the unicorn – of sleeping right through till morning. Ah, the unicorn. That sounds so nice.

My son was sleeping for a longer stretch, but I still felt cheated because I didn’t realise that he was ‘sleeping through’. The terminology had led me astray. It should be rephrased as ‘sleeping half way through’ to avoid misleading many new and desperate parents.

Now that my son is nearly two, sleeping through ‘should’ mean a full 8-10 hour stretch for his age. But this is like saying that all unicorns ‘should’ come with a magic saddle, and ‘should’ have a rainbow mane, and ‘should’ have a golden unicorn horn and ‘should’ have long eyelashes. (I clearly have a particular image of my unicorn and what it should look like…)

The truth is, a lot of babies and toddlers may only glimpse a unicorn. Some may never see a unicorn. Some might see unicorns every night – but the truth is that seeing a horse most nights is still a bit of a winner.

We have actually seen a unicorn. But it came and went and didn’t return. I think, in total, we have seen it five times in two years and it was so magical when it came.

While it may all be magic, rainbows and golden eyelashes in our two year old’s land soon, one need only walk a few paces across the house to our room and the sleep status is much more horse and bit more ‘ass’. Now that we have a second baby we can only dream of unicorns some day in the far and distant future.

I like the idea that sleep is a science but I also believe that every baby is different. It’s like categorising the fictitious unicorn squarely alongside the non-fiction domestic horse. You just have to try a few things and see what works and I think ‘horse’ is probably the best that most parents can expect for the first couple of years.

And horse is actually ok. In fact for sleep-deprived parents still in the donkey/ass zone, horse sounds pretty good.

A quick list of things that we have tried in our hunt for the unicorn with a toddler include (in no particular order):

  • clipping day naps
  • re-scheduling day naps
  • dream feeding as a baby
  • providing a bath and massage before bed
  • having a structured bedtime routine
  • limiting excitement before bed
  • adding sleep aids like pacifiers and teddies
  • using night lights for comfort
  • swaddling
  • white noise
  • using calming essential oils sprayed nearby(beware use of this before 3 months)
  • using a wriggler wrapper/safe-t-sleep for security
  • both co-sleeping and not co-sleeping
  • feeding them up with protein at lunchtime (once they start solids)
  • planning day activities to include exercise and stimulation to wear them out
  • limited stimulus at night
  • bringing bedtime forward or back (there seems to be an exact moment you have to catch…)
  • learning about circadian rhythms

We have had success with all of them with increasing sleep time and helping him to resettle after a wake up. Sadly I can’t recommend one method over the rest as they all have their merits, or not – I am too sleep deprived to remember…

What’s the moral of the story?

Night waking is normal.

‘Sleeping through’ is a bit of a fallacy and is rarer than you would expect.

Sleep cycles of families will continuously change.

Don’t be disheartened if you keep seeing horses.

The unicorn must remain elusive.



Love sleep? You’ll also love Outie.


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