Cara looked exhausted as she walked into the café, little Louis tucked in his stroller. She flopped down at the table, sighed and looked up at me. “When?” she asked. “When do babies start sleeping through the night?”
We’d met at ante-natal class, and our boys were now six months old. Louis was still waking at least three times in the night, while I appeared to have given birth to some kind of mutant; Adam slept solidly for nine hours each night from the age of five weeks. (Sleeping remains one of his strengths, all these years later.)
If you’re now cursing my name and wishing you could stick pins in my well-rested eyelids, don’t worry. Everyone told me I’d get ‘the good one’ first and they were right; a few years later, along came Emma. I don’t think I got an uninterrupted night’s sleep until she was three years old. There was nothing wrong with her – she just liked to see my face in the wee small hours.
All of which underlines the truth – there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to your baby sleeping through the night. Here’s what you should know when it comes to babies and sleep.
What does ‘sleep through’ mean?
With babies, ‘sleeping through the night’ doesn’t mean they obligingly go out for the count to fit in with our routines. Rather, it means they no longer wake regularly in the middle of the night, that they’ll go for five or six hours without crying for a feed or other night-time attention.
Babies can start to understand the difference between what happens during the day and what happens at night as early as four weeks old. A newborn will generally sleep for anything from 10-18 hours per day, but this can range from a few minutes to a few hours at a time. As the weeks pass, they learn there’s a time for more sleep and a time for less. They can learn to self-soothe – so if they do wake up in the night, they’ll get themselves back to sleep.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. But how you handle the situation will affect how quickly your child will move on.
“There’s a huge range for when babies sleep through the night,” explains Kira Ryan, co-founder of baby sleep consultancy Dream Team Baby. “It could be anywhere from four weeks to four months, but usually around four months is when sleep starts to consolidate.”
This period coincides with a baby’s ability to self-soothe – when they recognise that something like sucking their thumb is comforting and have the coordination to do it. By nine months old, around 70%-80% of babies will sleep through the night.
What can I do to encourage my baby to sleep all night?
The aim is to teach your baby to fall asleep on his or her own, to be happy doing so, and to then stay then asleep. Even if it takes yours longer to get the hang of it, be patient and persevere. You’ll get there in the end. Promise.
1Settle baby properly
Babies should be put down to sleep on their backs. Make sure there are no blankets, cot bumpers or toys that could cover your baby’s face or cause him or her to overheat. If your baby falls asleep in a car seat, rocker chair or swing, move them to their crib or cot as soon as you can.
There are two main approaches – the “no tears” and the “cry it out” methods. Take a look at both before deciding what works for you; many parents go for somewhere between the two. The usual age to start sleep training is four-six months old. Some babies pick it up quickly; others take longer; they are all different.
Don’t be alarmed if your baby has a crying fit at bedtime; it’s the only way they can express any frustration, after all. It’s part of the learning process, as baby figures out what’s going on.
3Don’t rely on formula milk
It’s true that babies who are bottle-fed often seem to go longer at night between feeds. And if you suddenly give your breastfed baby a bottle of formula, chances are he or she will sleep soundly for some time afterwards; think how drowsy you feel after a heavy meal.
But we wouldn’t recommend you change your feeding preference just to try and get more sleep. And even if you did, it would likely be a short-term solution. Your baby will be asleep because of a fuller tummy, not because he or she has learned about sleep. Before long, you’ll need more milk – or something more substantial – to achieve the same result.
Beware of putting your baby to bed on an over-full stomach, too; they need at least half an hour to digest a feed before being put down to sleep.
4The power of a routine
An established bedtime routine is incredibly effective for helping your baby learn to sleep through and can be started when they’re just a few weeks old. It might be a bath, feed, a bedtime story with a cuddle, and a lullaby when you put them to bed – it’s up to you. I know one couple whose ten-month-old daughter insists on patting every animal in her favourite storybook goodnight before she settles down.
“Babies really enjoy having a bedtime,” says Kira Ryan. “So much happens to them every day. They’re taken to different places, experiencing new things. They like having a set time each night when they know what to expect.”
A good trick is to watch your baby for signs of sleepiness, such as rubbing their eyes or playing with their ears. Start the routine so they get used to it being what happens just before sleep. Be careful not to let your baby get over-tired before you start as that can make it harder to settle them down.
Should I wake my baby from a nap?
When baby sleeps, you sleep – it’s a mantra every new mum knows by heart. Even after those exhausting early days, it’s hard not to enjoy the quiet times when your baby takes a nap. But leaving them for too long can be counter-productive; too much rest during the day can mean less sleep at night.
So yes, sometimes you might have to steel yourself to wake your baby. As Ryan says: “Naps give babies little breaks to help their bodies process what they’ve learned. A baby who takes a four-hour nap in the middle of the day isn’t going to be ready for bedtime.”
As a rule of thumb, at the age of around four months, your baby should be awake for at least three hours before it’s time for bed.