The one question every new parent asks is when do babies start sleeping through the night? Babies may start having a few episodes of sleeping for 6 – 8 hours through the night by around 4 – 6 months. They may do it once, or a couple of nights in a row and on other nights they may need your help.
Every Baby is different but there are some common patterns
It is important to understand that there is no switch you can flip to make this happen. Babies don’t just start sleeping through the night and then keep doing it forever; there is a lot of stopping and starting because there are so many factors that contribute to their sleep development, but there are a few theories that work; both on their own and in combination. Our role as parents is to help them learn and feel secure to achieve it. By the time they reach their first birthday, they become very good at it and not only do they need to sleep through the night, they want to.
The minute you announce a pregnancy, especially if it is your first baby, every other parent immediately tells you to cherish your sleep because it will diminish significantly when you have a new baby. This is true to some extent. Babies have very different sleeping patterns to adults until they adjust to their new world and learn to sleep outside the womb. However, as difficult as that first year can be, it doesn’t have to be unbearable and the more you know and are prepared about what to expect, the easier you will cope.
Babies have very different lives inside the womb. They sleep a lot during the day while the mother is active; essentially rocking the baby to sleep. At night when the mother is still, they move around and stay awake. Women find it the hardest to sleep during the last few weeks of pregnancy as the baby becomes increasingly active.
When babies are born, they need to adjust to a different routine that we impose on them, one where they learn to be awake more during the day and sleep through the night. This does not happen automatically and babies must learn to do this as they develop.
Babies must first reach some physical and cognitive milestones that will help them sleep through the night.
- Newborns have a startle reflex called the Moro reflex. Until they are around 4 months old they will respond to disturbances such as noise, sleep cycles and other stimuli by startling. They demonstrate this by flailing their arms and being surprised easily. Losing their Moro reflex will help them sleep through the night.
- Babies gain weight and grow. Whether they are being exclusively breastfed, mixed fed or are only drinking formula, they double their birth weight by around 5 months and will start to require solid food by around 6 months. A baby’s sleep pattern will change during a growth spurt. They may sleep more or they may fuss more. Sometimes they will sleep more during the day, which could affect their sleep at night.
- Infants will gradually require less feeding through the night (night weaning). Breastfed babies tend to feed more frequently because breast milk is digested faster, however all newborns need to be fed every 2 – 4 hours. As they grow and when they start solids, they don’t need to feed as frequently during the night. When they are fuller, they sleep for longer and they learn to ignore their hunger during the night.
- Babies will learn to self soothe. Whether it is by using a pacifier, sucking their thumb, holding on to a favourite toy or blanket or listening to music or a noise machine, babies will start to get through their sleep cycles independently. When they wake up or go into a lighter sleep, they start to return to deep sleep by themselves, without needing assistance from their parents.
When do babies start sleeping through the night? Some ways to help them.
- Establish a good bedtime routine. You don’t have to watch the clock; don’t focus on the exact minute, just thereabouts. Dinner, bath, pajamas, a story or song, a goodnight kiss and a favourite toy or blanket, some ambient sound or music and a darkened room. Maybe even a pleasant room spray; Lavender is very soothing for sleep. The trick is to be consistent so they know what to expect and feel secure.
- It is important to find a reliable way to comfort them if they call out to you. The book French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman talks about the way in which French mothers wait a little when the baby cries out. They claim that newborns will be able to learn to sleep by the time they are 2 months old if we let them. They may not do it every night as other issues arise throughout their development, but ordinarily, when all things are well, they learn to sleep through the night earlier this way.
“Waiting is the key: the French do not do instant gratification. It starts more or less at birth. When a French baby cries in the night the parents go in, pause, and observe for a few minutes. They know that babies’ sleep patterns include movements, noises and two-hour sleep cycles, in between which the baby might cry.” – Michele Hanson, The Guardian
- There are several ways to help babies sleep through the night.
You may be comfortable letting the baby cry themselves to sleep. You may prefer to pick them up and rock them to sleep, especially if you have multiples or other children and you don’t want everyone else woken. Most people settle for somewhere in between.
- Focusing on awake times is sometimes more beneficial than worrying about how long the baby is sleeping for. If you understand how long a baby should be awake for their age, their day naps fall into place and this influences immensely how they sleep at night.
An infant’s milestones may interfere with sleeping through the night. Knowing what to expect will contribute to how you survive them.
The first year of a baby’s life is one of the most dynamic. So much happens to them in that first 12 months and they experience many changes. It is important to provide consistency and a sense of security for babies so that they feel safe. Sometimes giving them the space and opportunity to sleep is all that you can do and the most common milestones just need to be endured. Staying calm and positive to get through the nights and days of upheaval and always returning to the routine will help immensely.
- Babies will learn to roll, crawl, sit upright by themselves and stand; not necessarily in that order and sometimes they will skip a step. Their brains are processing these new abilities and this could prevent them sleeping through the night. Often babies will practice their new skills through the night when there aren’t as many distractions and this tends to keep them awake or disturb their sleep.
- Babies will experience pain and discomfort associated with teething, illness and vaccinations. Fever, aches and stress will almost certainly mean that they take longer to fall asleep and may sleep for shorter periods. They may need medication, but mostly they need comfort and support to get through it.
- Traveling or going on holidays and sleeping away from home, changes in the home like a new bed or a new baby brother or sister or any other break in the routine will affect an infant’s sleep patterns. It is our job as parents to make any transition as smooth and secure as possible.
- When babies start eating solid food their bodies will experience changes that may affect their sleep. Their digestive systems will be working harder, they will wet and soil their nappies in a different way and they will remember the different textures, smells and tastes they have encountered through the day.
When something is wrong. Sometimes there is evidence that we need more help.
- A snoring baby may not be cause for alarm, they may just be congested or in a very deep sleep. However it may also indicate that they have a condition called sleep apnea, which means their breathing is being interrupted.
- If you suspect that your baby is having difficulty breathing it is important to look for signs such as bluish lips and fingers, wheezing or a caving of the chest. Irregular breathing could be a symptom of conditions such as asthma or croup and may need professional investigation.
- Some babies experience acid reflux, which is when milk is regurgitated back up from their stomach into their throat causing burning and discomfort. They will vomit or spit up regularly after feeds and this can be uncomfortable and distressing. Often the symptoms of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) will present when they are lying down, so sleeping becomes associated with pain and discomfort.
- If an infant is not reaching their milestones including sleeping through the night on a regular basis by the time they turn one, they may need to be examined by a pediatrician. It isn’t a reason to immediately panic, but addressing issues early may contribute greatly to a resolution in the long run.
Ideally, a baby will sleep through the night sooner rather than later, but children, like adults, will have sleep interruptions and disturbances occasionally and with the right information and support, sleepless nights will become an exception rather than the rule. So next time you wonder when do babies start sleeping through the night, consider the facts listed above.