The question “When will my baby start sleeping through the night” bothers most parents. They are curious about that, but also often have to endure the inquisitiveness of other family members or friends. “Is he/she sleeping through the night yet?” they keep asking as if that was an exam of the child’s development and parents’ competences.
However, that question is based on a wrong assumption. It is asked by people who don’t fully understand what child development really is about and what individual differences are. There is no one age at which all children start sleeping through the night. It just happens at some point and doesn’t change back.
Each child is different
Each child has their own day and night rythm and their individual way to react to stimuli (e.g. sleeps quietly when a car alarm blares outside but wakes up at the quietest rustle).
About 10% of children are more sensitive than others. They need to be constantly cuddled, carried, and calmed down. Soothing them and fulfilling their need for closeness is also more difficult. Such a high need baby will need their mom to be near almost all the time. If she moves away from her sleeping baby, their sleep is shallow and they’re alert, they’ll keep waking up.
Other children since birth suffer from various health problems (colic, allergy, reflux, hip dysplasia) and that makes them fussier. Such children may have problems falling asleep and wake up more easily.
Finally, there are children who develop linearly, and those who go through stages. In other words: they take their time preparing to acquire a new skill and then suddenly become “more adult.”
These are all natural reasons that make it impossible to determine the exact moment when a child “should” sleep for hours.
The need for sleep changes
Sometimes I hear parents who proudly say: “Our Steven sleeps through the night since birth. He’s two months now and sleeps like an adult.” When I hear that I think three things.
First of all, it’s not the parents’ achievement. They just happened to have a baby with a simpler “programming.” In that case, it’s nice not to boast in front of those parents whose children don’t sleep that well – why add to their frustration?
Secondly, it’s NOT the optimal situation when an infant sleeps through the night without a break for nursing. Check how often they eat during the day, what their weight gain is, or if they’re not drowsy due to, for example, neonatal jaundice. An infant should be fed at least 8 times per day and the break at night between nursing should not be longer than 4-6 hours (it depends on how much they ate during the day).
Finally, the fact that a baby sleeps like an angel does not mean that they’ll continue to do so. Almost every child at some point has problems with sleeping. Between the 4-6 months, infants develop motor skills, their nursing is less effective during the day, but they demand more food at night. It’s natural and good for their development, night milk is rich with fatty acids and perfect for children at that stage. But around 7-8 months a lot of children feel an increased need to be close to their mother. They often wake at night and calm down only when cuddled.
Children sometimes can’t sleep
Teething pains. Beginning of a viral infection. A runny nose that makes breathing difficult – in the first year all that makes resting at night difficult for the whole family. A bit older children have problems with sleeping when they stop nursing or due to other changes in their lives (e.g. when mom goes back to work). And it’s hard to demand from them to “deal with that,” because they “should sleep through the night already.” A baby who misses their parents during the day will want their attention and closeness at night. Naturally, it does not mean that the whole family life should be turned upside down. The baby should be calmly reminded that night is for sleeping. But we should also try to understand the baby and we shouldn’t require them to suppress their basic needs.
When the rhythm of day naps changes, so does the night sleep.
An infant usually sleeps between meals, but a 2 or 3-month old baby gradually begins to develop a rhythm to their day naps and play time. There may be 3 or 4 naps per day, but it changes over time. Towards the end of the first year, a lot of children have only 1-2 short naps. And each time when a nap is removed from a daily timetable, the baby’s night sleep changes too. Sometimes they unexpectedly fall asleep at 7 pm and it’s impossible to wake them up. However, they wake up long before dawn (at 2 am or 3 am) with a lot of energy for playing. It’s normal. If they wake up at night, they never, ever do that to be nasty and to tease or harass their parents. That’s how their nervous system happens to be working at that specific developmental stage.
What can parents do to prolong a night’s sleep?
Parents can patiently teach their child that night is for sleeping. It means:
- no lights in the room where the child is sleeping (e.g. computer screen, a night lamp) – this interferes with the sleep-regulating hormones produced during sleep;
- at night, when your baby wakes up and wants to eat, don’t switch on bright lights and avoid making too much noise. Change only if necessary;
- regulate the daily routine: walks, play, the bath should happen more or less at the same time;
- introduce pre-sleep rituals. E.g. bath, massage, lullaby, nursing (these are just examples, you can have your own ritual). Repeat each evening. With time, an association develops: “Right, dad is bathing me and putting on new clothes, it means sleep time is soon”;
- avoid energetic activities and extra experiences in the evenings (guests, loud noises, light);
- when they are 6 months or older and eat other food (not only breastmilk), give them a bit heavier food in the evening, e.g. cereal (remember to brush the teeth afterward!)
Note – don’t feed when asleep!
Some parents, in order to ensure the longest possible sleep for both themselves and the baby, do that: when the child is asleep and they’re going to bed too, they feed the sleeping baby. Pediatricians don’t recommend that. Eating should be something we are aware of. By feeding a baby when they’re asleep, we disturb their appetite. It’s a really bad idea to feed a baby with a bottle while they are sleeping on their back. They can choke easily and the food may get to the tympanum and trigger infections. Moreover, babies who have teeth may end up with baby bottle tooth decay.