What does it really mean to sleep through the night? Should you be worried about what other babies are doing? Sleeping through the night is often a myth but many parents feel pressure when this question arises.
Without a doubt “sleeping through” is one of the most commonly asked questions of Caroline’s Angels Baby Sleep Specialists. Caroline McMahon and Caroline Radford are Carolines Angels and the authors of 5 Steps to Sleep and their short answer is: there is no proven or specific age.
Here, Caroline and Caroline, talk us through some of the reasons why babies wake up at night:
“In the early 2000’s the question of when a baby should be able to sleep through the night was reviewed and our profession found that we had no evidence or proof to answer this credibly from an age related perspective.
For many years we had always told parents from 6 months your baby should be sleeping through and when we couldn’t prove it – it threw our profession into a spin. Over the years however, we have been able to learn to look at each baby as an individual and our long answer to this age-old question is to think about the following points:
Where does my baby sit on their growth chart?
If you have a bigger baby, usually their stomach capacity is a little larger and their intake at a meal can be a bit bigger. This may mean that a bigger baby might be able to sleep longer periods at night, sooner than a smaller baby could. This makes sense really!
Does my baby have full feeds during the daylight hours?
We recommend that you wake your baby by 7am each morning. Then, between 7am and 6pm ensure they are having full feeds no wider spaced than 3-4 hours. Closer together (snack feeds) that are about 1.5-2.5 hours apart can decrease the volume taken at each meal and overall, decrease the daily intake of milk. This could lead to a need for more feeds at night. So, snack feeding in the day can in turn, lead to a need to feed at night for longer than necessary. Alternatively, a baby who isn’t interested in feeding in the day (the distracted baby who pulls off and turns their head to the slightest sound) or who isn’t keen on solids may be feeding too much at night. The night feeds decrease day milk and solid food intake which then means they are hungry and need night feeding the next night and so the cycle continues.
If your baby is feeding better at night rather than during the day, keep a diary to begin with and consider settling without feeding overnight. You could do this for all or part of the night to try to increase day feed intake.
Does my baby fall asleep feeding?
Feeding to sleep or sucking to sleep is one of the most common reasons why a baby will persist in night waking and night feeding for longer than needed.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, when a baby feeds to sleep, the quality of the feed intake may be lower as the feed is sleepy. Therefore, that baby then needs to wake and feed more frequently through the night to compensate for the lower feed intake earlier.
Second, as the baby settles feeding and sucking, they build a memory bank that falling asleep involves sucking, warm milk and skin to skin contact (and all that goes with that). Babies stir each 45-60 minutes during the night and ‘remember’ what they were feeling to fall asleep and need these elements again to fall back to sleep. This becomes the baby who falls to sleep feeding who then needs frequent feeds to go back to sleep.
This then goes full circle and takes us back to the first point mentioned above – the quality of the night feeds are not as effective and filling as the feeds that should take place during the day. This leads to the baby who has fed often during the night, having smaller and more distracted feeds during the day.”
As you can see, Caroline’s Angels can confirm from their vast experience that there is no real set age when a baby should sleep through the night. There are some key steps that you can put into place for your baby to reduce night wakenings and get that sleep through at the earliest age possible for your baby.
- Wake your baby at 7am if they’re not already awake
- Offer full feed opportunities in daylight hours
- Aim for feeds between 3-4 hours from 7am to 6pm
- Settle your baby away from feed times
As your baby develops you can also try to help your baby learn to fall asleep independently at bedtime and settle by herself if she wakes during the night. Some further suggestions for helping your baby to sleep longer are:
- Identify what is causing baby to wake at night (is it sucking, feeds, warmth etc)
- Try to phase out the habit by separating feeding from sleeping or weaning baby off their dummy.
- Set up a positive bedtime routine such as feeding separate to bed time, then give your baby a bath, read a book, put their baby sleeping bag on and then calm them down for bed before popping them in their cot awake.
- Try to help your baby to settle to sleep independently. This is easier if you try to get them to sleep when they show a sign of tiredness and have not gone past the point of no return. Some common signs of tiredness are:
– rubbing eyes
– clinginess and demands for constant attention
– grizzling or grumpiness
– refusing to eat or fussy with food
– thumb/finger sucking
– resting head/snuggling
– boredom with toys
– not breastfeeding/bottle feeding well
– ear pulling
You can read more in our blog about “tired signs” here.
Of course the suggestions above are for older babies not newborns. A newborn or younger baby will need your help to fall asleep and adjust to life outside of the womb. They also can take a while to adjust to patterns of day and night.
As much as we adults crave our own sleep, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is completely normal for a healthy, breast-fed baby to wake through the night to take a feed. Breast milk is easily digested and therefore breastfed babies need to feed more often. Waking in the night is also a good sign developmentally – as it could mean your baby’s brain is developing during the active sleep phase. Baby sleep patterns can also change as the baby goes through developmental milestones. So a baby who was sleeping through the night, may suddenly stop sleeping through as their brain adapts to a new learned skill. This is all good news, even if you’re feeling a little tired!
According to Gwen Dewar in Baby Sleep Patterns: A Guide for the Science Minded, babies experiencing active sleep can awaken more easily. Active sleep might not sound pleasing to the sleep deprived parent, but it means that the baby’s brain is developing which is just what the baby is meant to be doing! Dewar also explains that “when some parents boast that their baby is sleeping through the night, what they’re really saying is that they are not aware of their baby’s night-time arousing. Their baby, in other words, doesn’t make enough noise to awaken them”.
If your baby is sleeping (albeit with a few feeds) and is a good weight, growing and showing all the signs of meeting the milestones for their age then things are going well! The reason why we want them to sleep through is because tired babies are harder to handle and tired parents find it harder to deal with their babies when they’re exhausted. If you’re the main caregiver for your baby, an idea is try to have some rest in the day if your baby is waking at night. If this is not possible, see if your partner could try to settle the baby for the first shift during the night so that you can catch up on a few zzzs.
As always if you’re concerned about your baby’s health or your gut instinct is telling you something just isn’t quite right then please seek help from a health-care professional. I know both my kids suffered from middle ear issues and this impacted on their sleep when they had regular ear infections which can be very painful and unfortunately babies can’t tell us what is wrong with them so we need to try to interpret!
Parenting is a journey so remember that there is no pass or fail on when your baby sleeps through – it will happen eventually, naturally. You may be surprised that just when you least expect it, your baby may start to sleep through.