One of the burning questions that concern young parents is when they will finally get themselves some good night’s sleep and have their baby sleeping through the night. The truth is that there is a lot of information online that speaks of age marks (i.e. babies sleep when they reach the 4-month mark). However, the term sleep through the night is a bit of a misnomer, and I will explain why right now.
What does “Sleep Through the Night” REALLY Mean?
Each baby is different and nobody can tell you for sure at what age you can expect your baby to sleep the whole night through, including your paediatrician, doctor, or a baby sleep expert.
That aside, the term sleep through the night simply means that the baby is going through a sleep cycle transition when he sleeps at night, roughly every 90 minutes or so. Then, the baby experiences a stage where he is slightly awake. So, for a child, sleep though the night refers to when he undergoes a sleep cycle transition that he can place himself back to sleep without needing a sleep prop (i.e. rocking, bottle, etc.).
Below is a chart showing the amount of sleep children need (naps and night sleep), according to the National Sleep Foundation.
As you can see, for infants up to 11 months old, who take 2-3 day naps of around 2 hours each, their night sleep is quite less than the 8-hour sleep many parents have in mind. So, technically, the term “sleep through the night” relates to approximately a 5-hour stretch without waking. Quite a bummer, right?
But, when parents come to me for help with their babies’ sleep, they understandably need more than a 5-hour stretch of sleep so they can be a tad more functional during the day. They need a solid 8 hours (at least) of uninterrupted sleep. Before we get into ways to train your baby to sleep through the night with minimum assistance from you, let us bust some myths related to baby sleep.
Baby Sleep Myths
Myth #1: All babies sleep the night through by 4 months.
Sorry to disappoint you but my experience has shown otherwise. Don’t get me wrong here. I mean, some babies will sleep for 8, 10 or even 12 straight hours by the time they reach the 4-month mark or earlier. However, it is not safe to assume that this applies to all babies. Usually, babies need to be fed at night to about 12 months – I do recommend to try to wean from night feeds at around 9 months, though, because many 9-month-old babies are ready to sleep the night through without feedings.
In addition, we need to take into consideration several important factors that make each baby unique like family situations, feeding (for example, breastfed babies may sleep for shorter stretches than bottle-fed ones), developmental delays, health history, and, of course, the baby’s temperament.
Myth#2: You should skip day naps to get the baby tired and sleep through the night.
I cannot stress enough the importance of day naps. It may make sense to keep the baby awake for long stretches during the day to make her tired at bedtime and sleep through the night but, in reality, it will bring you the exact opposite results. You see, the majority of babies cannot fall asleep on their own swiftly and easily (though some small percentage of them do). And, bearing in mind that they tend to become overtired very quickly, keeping them awake too long will make them cranky and fussy. By bedtime, chances are you will have a baby screaming and wailing, in their effort to fall asleep. When that happens, trust me, there is very little you can do to soothe him, and put him to sleep.
On the contrary, well-rested babies do tend to fall (and stay) asleep longer than overtired ones. This doesn’t mean that you can’t wake the baby up if you feel that he is taking too long naps during the day and is not getting enough sleep at night. But, no matter what, do not keep him awake for hours non-end or completely cut out naps.
Myth #3: Breastfeeding the baby makes it wake up at nights for more feeding.
Technically, this concept is true. Breastfed babies tend to want more often feedings than formula-fed babies, because breast milk is more quickly digested than formula milk. Nonetheless, we cannot say that all formula-fed babies sleep better than the ones that breastfeed. The key here is to teach and then help sharpen the baby’s independent sleep skills. And, it CAN be done to both formula-fed and breastfed babies alike (more details below).
Myth #4: Feed the baby solids to start sleeping the night through.
No health professional that respects what she or he is doing will tell you that this is true. There is no evidence whatsoever that shows any connection between feeding babies solid foods and sleeping through the night. It is considered best to give the baby solids when she is around 6 months old; not sooner. Otherwise, you put her health at risk. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that babies are not fed with solids before the 6-month mark; they should be exclusively breastfed.
You may hear parents making claims that their baby started sleeping through the night all by themselves at an extremely young age (i.e. as early as 8 weeks old). Although some of these claims may actually be true, this is not usually the case. For one thing, you and them may define “sleeping through the night” differently. Then, these parents may also be stretching the truth a bit in an effort to appear like more perfect parents. One on every three parents, does, according to a study.
Teaching Sleep Strategies
There are some tactics that indeed help us all to relax and fall asleep quickly. With adults, this comes easy. We have mastered sleeping through the night over the years. With babies, this will have to be taught. And, despite what you may think, it only takes a little encouragement to pull things through with the little ones!
So, how do you help your baby find ways to get him or herself to sleep well and develop their own self-settling strategies? Take a small step back and think about your own sleep strategies. You may wash your face, brush our teeth, slip into your pyjamas, and climb to bed every night to get yourself ready for bed. Then, chances are you also have a routine after you get into bed, which is the same every night (i.e. have music playing or put a glass of water by the nightstand). After that, you take your favourite sleep position and close your eye lids. Those are your sleep strategies. And, when things are a little off (i.e. you go sleepover at your parents’ house), you have trouble falling asleep or sleep more poorly.
Your baby can also be taught to develop his own sleep strategies so he can fall asleep easily and quickly and sleep the night through, with very little help from you. Start by putting him in his crib awake. At first, it may be difficult for him to fall asleep (you have always put him into the crib asleep) and he will probably not know what to do with himself. Yell? Sit? Bang his little feet on the crib rails? Don’t worry. Give him some time, and he will gradually get more and more comfortable with the tactics he needs to get himself to sleep.
If your toddler falls asleep in a bizarre position (i.e. standing or sitting), there is nothing to be alarmed for. It is just that he has not yet found the sequence of events (i.e. you need to lie down to sleep). In this case, lay him down yourself, as gently as possible. Sometimes, this may fuel his fire and make him angry. He may probably want to get right back up again. It is perfectly normal. If you think that what he is doing may hurt him, gently lay him down again. You may feel you are entering a non-ending cycle, but I guarantee that this will pass and he will soon realize that it is much more comfortable to lie down to sleep than sit. Then, a new journey will begin for him, where he tries to find the best positions to make sleeping even more enjoyable. And so on and so forth, until everything has been worked out.
Children have their own special ways to put themselves to sleep. They may play with their favourite blanket for a while or slam their legs down on the crib or make a repetitive banging motion with their arms or do a rhythmical back and forth with his bodies. Some babies also bang their crib mattress with their heads. That head rocking only means that they are searching for the comfiest ways to sleep. Unless it is vigorous and puts the baby at risk of injury, worry not.
Finally, let’s not forget that it is okay for an infant to wake up several times through the night to take a deep breath or stretch. When that happens, you can help her learn to settle herself back to sleep. To achieve that, avoid sleep props (i.e. rock her to put her back to sleep). Instead, try to figure out what is going on (Is she cold? Does she need a diaper change? etc.) and respond appropriately, without overstimulating the child. If she only needs reassurance, you may rub her back and talk to her in a gentle and calm voice. She will get the message that it is sleep time and more likely start sleeping the night through without expecting too much comforting on our behalf!