One thing that all parents know they will have to cope with when they have a baby, is sleep deprivation. Babies have tiny stomachs and need to feed every few hours, including during the night.
Even though lack of sleep is part and parcel of having a new baby, it’s not easy and really takes it toll. You soon want to know if they will ever sleep through the night.
When is my baby ready to sleep through the night?
There is no perfect age at which babies should sleep through the night. As with everything it depends on your baby and each one is different.
Some are better sleepers than others, and some can go longer without food than others. Some put on more weight than others, and some drink more milk in one feed, while others are grazers and eat throughout the day.
Check baby’s age
Generally sleep training of any kind should be avoided before 2 months of age. After 2 months, if baby is putting on weight and otherwise doing well, you can gently encourage longer night sleeps between feeds. This is not sleep training it’s simply encouraging longer night time sleeps rather than longer day time sleeps.
For example if you were waking baby every 2-3 hours to feed in the night, then you could leave them to sleep an extra hour longer at night (if they wished to) before waking them. Or you could avoid naps over 3 hours long in the day, so that they have their one longer sleep during the night time hours.
You can do this gentle encouragement more and more as they approach 4 months of age.
Check baby’s weight
At any stage it’s important to look carefully at whether baby has put on enough weight to allow them to be physically able to miss some night feeds. It may be that they are still on the small side and will need more regular feeds for longer and that’s fine. They will get there in the end. As a guide, general advice is that baby should be at least 12-13 pounds as a minimum.
It’s also worth remembering that, as you start to skip night feeds, that the milk from this missed feed needs to be made up during the day.
This can be done by feeding baby more frequently during the day or by giving longer breastfeeds or more formula milk with each feed. If you have any doubts or questions it’s always best to discuss whether your baby is ready to sleep through the night with your GP.
When can they sleep through the night?
The good news is that many babies are able to sleep through the night from 6 months old and some will sleep for up to 12 hours at night. Some sleep for long stretches at night naturally from as soon as 4 months of age, while others do not sleep through the night even after 6 months. Each baby is different.
At 6 months’ of age many babies’ bodies are more capable of sleeping through the night without food. By this age their circadian rhythm – which is their internal body clock that regulates sleeping and waking – has kicked in and they should be able to sleep right through.
The bad news is that our babies haven’t read the textbooks and might not agree with this. Just because they might be able to sleep through does not always mean they do.
I’m so knackered. What can I do?
There is no magic switch that works for everyone as all babies are different. However, there are several things you can do to help your baby sleep through the night, so you can all get a bit more shut eye.
When you start practising strategies to help your baby to sleep through the night, the key is to be consistent. Keep repeating the same things time after time.
Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work on the first day, it can take a few days to show the first effects. Soon your baby will learn how to settle and sleep without feeds during the night time hours.
Create a calm bedtime routine
Even very tiny babies realise when there is a routine in the evenings and respond to it.
They can benefit from a calm and consistent bedtime routine, and certainly from three to four months onwards, this can make bedtime easier going forward.
You could include a bath, a story, dim lighting and perhaps soft music to create a calm atmosphere before bed.
These things will give your baby cues that it’s time to wind down, relax and go to sleep.
If your baby has particular trouble calming down in the evenings, it can help to read the same exact book each night, read in the same way, or to play the same song every evening before bed. By keeping this bedtime routine completely identical from night to night, your baby will soon respond by calming down and relaxing more before bed.
A consistent sleeping environment, can also help baby to understand that it’s time for sleep. Simply placing them in the same crib, in the same room at the same time each day, can relax them.
You could also put baby in a sleeping bag or gro-bag for naps and night time sleeps. They will soon associate each of these these things with sleep time and this can help them settle down more easily. Sleeping bags can also keep your baby nice and cosy without any loose covers.
Encourage your baby to self-settle
One of the biggest reasons that babies call for mum and dad during the night, is because they have learnt that they need help and comfort to be able to fall asleep. This is not just at night but for their daytime naps too.
Learning to fall asleep on their own is essential for little ones to be able to sleep for longer stretches and, eventually, through the night.
You can help teach them how to self settle by placing them in their crib when they’re tired and ready for bed but not overtired, and allowing them the chance to go to sleep on their own.
If they tend to fall asleep on you, then try to place them in the crib when they are drowsy but not out for the count. As long as they open their eyes once when they’re placed in the crib, and realise they are in bed and not in your arms that’s fine. It will go a long way to helping them realise that they are capable of putting themselves to sleep.
Giving your baby the chance to fall asleep on her own and to settle herself if she wakes in the night can be one of the key things you can do to help her sleep through.
If baby is overtired she may cry for a minute or two. As long as this isn’t a desperate or hysterical cry it can be OK to let them shout out for those one or two minutes. The crying can often be your baby’s way of unwinding before sleep. After a minute or two they stop crying on their own and settle to sleep on their own.
Elizabeth Sloane, renowned baby sleep whisperer and author of The Gift of Sleep agrees. She says:
I think there is this mixed signal that once the baby makes a noise, you have to immediately pick them up. In actual fact you will probably make the baby more overtired and confused, as they will wonder why they are being picked up when there’s nothing actually wrong. All they’re doing is trying to go to sleep by themselves. The best gift you could give them is the opportunity to try.
If your baby is used to feeds and rocking or being cuddled in your arms to fall asleep, it can be a bit daunting when you first encourage her to self settle.
If your baby cries after you put her down when she is drowsy then listen for a minute or two and give her time to settle herself.
If she carries on then you can go to her, pat her back gently to settle her down and then leave the room. You might want to quietly tell her it’s sleep time but don’t talk much, just use a few soft words. Then leave the room and check again. If all is well you can repeat the process.
The idea is that baby is reassured that you are there and learns to settle herself to sleep in her crib.
Make the last feed of the day a biggie
If your baby goes to sleep with a full tummy, they will be less likely to wake from hunger during the night.
You can split the last feed of the day into two in order to help them take in more milk before their longer stretches of night time sleep.
For example, you could give your baby half their usual feed in the early evening, say at 5:30 before their bath. You can then offer them a full feed at 6:30-7 pm just before their bedtime. That way they will have one and a half feeds before bedtime.
Other parents prefer to give a ‘dream feed‘ at 10-11 pm before they go to sleep themselves, to help baby sleep for longer.
If you do this it should be a very sleepy feed.
You lift baby out of the crib quietly when they are sleeping and wake them just enough for them to take the bottle or breast. They often then sleepily drink the milk with their eyes closed. You burp them calmly again and place them back in the crib.
Lights and sounds are normally kept low during this time to keep your baby in sleep mode.
It should be noted that not all babies respond well to this late and sleepy feed. Some wake up for good and it can then take 2 hours to settle them again. This can end up being a bit of a nightmare for tired mums and dads so it’s best to avoid the ‘dream feed’ if this happens and to stick to the larger 7 pm evening feed.
But for many parents the ‘dream feed’ has worked wonders and has helped their baby sleep during the key night time hours that parents need sleep as well.
As always see what works best for you and your baby.
Try to avoid baby always sleeping on the breast or bottle
It can be an easy cycle to get into.
Babies love the comfort and warmth of breastfeeding or of being in your arms and bottle feeding. They get tired easily and so they drink a bit and then drift off to sleep.
The problem with this happening constantly is that they start to depend on suckling to help them drift off and need this again if they wake in the night. Often they end up not feeding because they’re hungry but because they associate the sucking as a behaviour to put them back to sleep.
One way to break this cycle is to give baby their last feed during their bedtime routine but not right before they go to sleep. So you could give a feed, then brush your baby’s teeth and read a book before settling them to sleep.
Another way is to make a habit of feeding baby as soon as they wake from their naps. This helps them to be more alert when feeding and less likely to fall asleep while feeding.
Find any way that works for you, to avoid them always falling asleep on the breast of bottle. It will be helpful in getting them to sleep through the night.
Gradually drop the night feeds
If your baby has put on enough weight, is old enough and is feeding well during the day, you may start to look at dropping or reducing the number of night feeds.
Perhaps your baby is waking at the same times every night, as if by clockwork, to feed. Or you may have noticed that your baby feeds less at one night feed than another, in which case you can work on whittling down that feed first.
Here are a few ways you can start to reduce their night feeds:
- Reduce the size of the feed. You can reduce the amount of time you breastfeed by a minute, or offer slightly less formula. You can keep doing this gradually over time until baby hopefully no longer wakes for that feed.
- If bottle feeding, you can slowly water down the feed, adding increasing amounts of water and less milk. Again hopefully baby will soon no longer be hungry for that feed and will not bother waking for it.
- You can drop the feed entirely. This is the best way to stop babies from waking up for feeds when they are doing so more out of ‘habit’ than because they really need the milk. It is quite hard and tiring on mum and dad. Baby will wake crying for a feed and the idea is that you settle them into a drowsy sleep for a period of time without feeding them. This can be done by giving them a dummy instead of a bottle and rocking them slowly back to sleep. They will probably only doze in your arms and may sleep for just 20-30 minutes at first. They will then wake again crying at which point you can feed them as normal but repeat the process again the following night (even if they wake up later than before). After 3-5 nights, the routine time of waking in the night will be broken. Baby will stop waking at their usual hour for their feed. If they are ready to sleep through the night, they may well start pushing through the night without their other feeds as well. It is a very tiring process for mum (or dad) as you have to be awake and able to settle baby back to sleep when they first wake up, even if for a little while, for it to work. If this does not work for you and your baby is crying frantically then do feed them and try to reduce the feed in another way.
- You can change the time of their ‘dream feed’. Instead of feeding them their sleepy feed at 10pm every night, do it at 9pm, or at 11pm. This will mean that later on in the night, they will wake at a different time. Again this works by throwing off their body clock which is telling them they have to wake at the same time every night to feed. If baby is ready to sleep through the night they will hopefully stop waking for those night feeds and push through the night.
Remember that your baby will need to make up whatever feed they are dropping during the night, by having it during the day.
Keep an eye on how much they are drinking and on their weight so you know that baby is happy and content without their night feeds.
Day time is just as important
In order to get your baby to sleep through the night, it’s important to consider what they are doing during the day.
Are they feeding enough during the day to allow them to skip feeds at night?
Are they having enough regular naps during the day for their needs?
Are they able to settle themselves to sleep for those daytime naps or do they always need rocking?
By helping you baby to do well during the day, to have enough milk regularly, and to be able to settle themselves to sleep, it will go a long way to helping them be able to sleep through the night. A good routine during the day, can help a lot during the night.
Nap times matter
It can be tempting to stop daytime naps, to make sure your baby is tired at night and more likely to sleep through. It seems like a logical thing to try. However, it’s actually harder to settle an overtired baby and harder for them to settle themselves.
Messing with your baby’s usual daytime naps is likely to backfire. Research has found that babies who nap during the day actually sleep better at night. University of British Columbia School of Nursing professor and sleep researcher Wendy Hall says:
Children who have regular, adequate daytime naps settle to sleep at night easier, have less night waking, are less accident prone during the day, and show better performance on cognitive and language tasks.
That being said research has shown that a nap in the very late afternoon can impact how easily a baby will be able to fall asleep at night. So these should be kept short.
Long naps of more than 3-4 hours during the day, can also start to interfere with the long stretches of sleep that you want baby to have at night. This is because they will have had their long sleep of the day during the day. It’s worth avoiding naps over 3 hours long during the day.
So, the best advice is to stick to your baby’s usual routine of adequate daytime naps for better sleep at bedtime.
The three Cs – stay Calm, stay Committed and stay Consistent
Sleep is the holy grail for parents.
While there’s nothing we’d like more than for our babies to sleep through the night, changing ingrained habits can feel like a daunting prospect.
Sometimes it can feel easier to just keep doing what you’re doing. That way you know your baby will go down and get some sleep, even if they then keep waking at night.
Babies are fast learners and can quickly break any habits they have got into when it comes to sleep.
What can make the difference to the success of any strategy to help your baby sleep through the night, are the three C’s. Whether it’s putting your baby down when they’re drowsy to self-settle or preventing 4 hour naps in the daytime – if you know the approach you are going to take and if you calmly do the same thing over and over again, then babies will very quickly learn the new routine.
Stay calm, stay committed and stay consistent.
And hopefully very soon your baby will start to sleep longer at night and you will get some much needed slumber too. Good luck!
Some important points to remember before trying these gentle sleep training techniques:
- Before starting make sure that baby is otherwise healthy and has put on enough weight to be able to reduce their night time feeds. Always check with your GP if you are unsure.
- Do not withhold an entire feed from a baby.
- Do not leave a baby to cry for extended periods of time.
- If you do start to reduce night time feeds, then remember to monitor baby’s milk and (if weaning) food intake during the day. You want to be sure that they are making up for the missed milk feed at night during the day. The most important thing for baby is that they are well nourished and thriving.
- You could any one of these gentle techniques for 3-5 days to give baby time to adapt to them. If however these methods aren’t working for you after a few days then you can abandon that approach and trying a different one that may work better for you and your baby.
- Having a good baby routine of feeds and sleeps throughout the day before starting to use any of the above can be helpful. A regular routine means baby eats and sleeps more consistently and it can help you to keep tabs on baby’s feeding and sleeping needs. A regular routine can also be generally helpful for baby having those longer sleeps at night time.
- “How To Get Your Baby To Sleep Through The Night, According To The Experts”, by Emily Blatchford, Huffington Post
- “Long naps lead to less night sleep for toddlers”, by Laura Sanders, ScienceNews
- “How and Why to Get Babies on a Consistent Nap Schedule”, by Carlos Mejia, Fatherly
- “Helping your baby to sleep”, NHS
- “When can my baby start sleeping through the night?”, Babycenter
- “Teach your baby to sleep (in just 7 days)”