Handling your baby’s sleep (or lack of) is probably one of the biggest challenges that new parents face. We become fixated on when they sleep, where they sleep and most of all how long they’re sleeping for.
When meeting other mums at baby groups, conversation will very quickly turn to a comparison of how the babies are sleeping with different, and sometimes contradictory, advice being hurled around by the ones that have ‘nailed it’. If your baby isn’t sleeping through the night when other babies the same age are, it’s really easy to blame yourself or the ‘bad habits’ you have created.
When sleep deprived, it can be hard to think logically at the best of times, but when you’re also looking after the baby all day and wanting to make the best choices for them and their future, the whole sleep routine and process can become really stressful.
In this article we will explore why some babies sleep through the night while others don’t, the consequences of not sleeping through, as well as some tips on how best to handle a baby that isn’t yet sleeping through.
Table of Contents
What does sleeping through the night mean?
Part of the frustration surrounding babies sleeping through the night can be because there is no actual definition for what the term means and therefore it is difficult to measure how your baby compares.
Some claim their babies are sleeping through when their baby stops wanting night feeds or when they sleep for over 5 hours. Others are waiting for their baby to manage 12 hours without needing a feed, cuddle, or pacifier passing to them.
Most experts agree that sleeping through the night refers to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
What skills does a baby need to have to sleep through the night?
Before a baby can sleep through the night, they need to have mastered a number of physical and cognitive milestones:
- Decreased Moro (startle) reflex. This reflex causes baby’s limbs to jerk in response to certain triggers such as a loud noise or change in temperature. When a baby has a strong Moro reflex, their arms may flail and wake them. This reflex usually disappears by 4 months.
- Increased feeding and weight gain. Once your baby increases their feeding in the day and evening, it will allow them to sleep through the night without waking for a feed. For some babies, this may not happen until weaning is established.
- Decreased multiple feedings during the night. One of the biggest reasons baby’s wake during the night, in the beginning, is for a feed. Eight hours is a long time to go without food when their stomachs are so tiny. Once the night feeds have decreased, then babies can start sleeping longer without waking for food.
- Increased ability to self-soothe. This may include sucking their thumb, fingers, a comforter or a pacifier. Once your baby is able to self-soothe it means they can get back to sleep by themselves if they do wake in the night.
Why do some babies sleep through the night and others don’t?
There are many reasons that a baby may be sleeping through or not, we will explore the main three:
1. Breast v Bottle.
One of the big factors impacting how long your baby will sleep for at night is how they are fed. The Sleep Doctor explains that, when comparing babies in the first few months of life, formula-fed babies wake less often at night because formula takes more time and effort to digest.
Breast milk, on the other hand, is very easily absorbed and thus babies tend to wake from their sleep and cry when they feel hungry. If you have a breastfed baby who is struggling with sleeping through it’s important to remember that breastfed and formula-fed babies still get the same amount of total sleep and by eight months, any and all differences in sleeping habits disappear.
2. Daytime Routine
Some babies don’t sleep through the night because of their daytime routine. If your baby doesn’t sleep in the afternoon then they may become too tired to feed enough or eat enough which can cause them to wake hungry in the night.
Additionally, if your baby becomes overtired in the afternoon it can become more difficult for them to get to sleep and fall into a deep enough sleep to remain settled through the night. Be attentive to your baby in the afternoon and try to identify when they are first getting sleepy before they become overtired.
3. Night Time Routine
Establishing a nighttime routine can help baby to:
- know what to expect and feel soothed and comforted
- feel safe and relax
- get sleepy and trigger their body’s natural sleep hormones
The key to an effective night time routine is consistency so that your baby starts to learn what’s happening next and feels safe. One idea for a nighttime routine is: begin with a bath; get dry and a clean nappy; apply baby lotion; new pyjamas; feed; swaddle or sleeping bag; sing a lullaby; turn on white noise; lay down awake but drowsy.
If my baby doesn’t sleep through the night is it a bad thing?
It can be so easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong if your baby isn’t sleeping through. When you’re already tired and then you hear that a baby younger than your own is sleeping through it can be quite overwhelming and you may be questioning if you’re to blame or that there’s something to be concerned about.
In fact, infant health and development psychology studies have found that human infants are not designed to sleep for long periods and it isn’t actually a good thing if babies are sleeping for long lengths of time. Better yet, some studies have even found a link between very high levels of developmental and intellectual achievement and not sleeping through the night.
It’s important to stop and think about why we want babies to sleep through – it’s generally to fit in with societal expectations. Babies are born with natural instincts to want to be close to their parents throughout the night with lots of feeding. If your baby is doing that it’s perfectly healthy and natural and actually a really positive sign.
When do babies sleep through the night?
Babies sleep through the night once all 4 developmental milestones have been reached: decreased startle reflex; increased feeding and weight gain; decreased night feeds; increased ability to self-soothe.
Between 4 and 6 months of age is when babies start getting most of their sleep during the night.
As they get older, the number of daytime naps will decrease and thus the number of hours slept at night will increase. Studies have found that 70-80% of babies are sleeping through the night by 9 months old.
Remember also that even once babies are able to sleep through the night – teething, teeth grinding, sleep regression, growth spurts and illness can impact sleep patterns once again so it isn’t a clear and steady process for all.
How much sleep does a baby need in a 24 hour period?
As you know, all babies are so different but below is a table outlining roughly how much sleep you can expect babies to have at different ages as well as how this is divided up into daytime and nighttime sleep durations.
The duration of sleep can vary greatly depending on each baby’s individual sleeping pattern as wells external influences. If your baby appears to need less sleep for their age, then look at how many naps they are having in the day. It may be that your baby is sleeping too much in the day which is preventing them from sleeping longer at night as they are not tired enough.
|Total Hours of Sleep (24-hr period)
|Daytime Sleep Duration
|Nighttime Sleep Duration
|Awake Time Between Sleeps
|15 minutes-3 hours (3-5 naps)
|30 minutes – 1.5 hours
|30 minutes – 3 hours (3-4 naps)
|1-3 hours (3 naps)
|1-3 hours (2-3 naps)
|1-2 hours (1-2 naps)
|1-2 hours (1-2 naps)
How can I cope with a baby that doesn’t sleep through the night?
We know it’s so hard when your baby isn’t sleeping through. Being sleep deprived and then raising a baby is both mentally challenging and physically demanding. These are our tips that may help you to cope:
- Sleep when they sleep. When your baby falls asleep at night you have two options: enjoy the baby-free time or sleep. It is so tempting to go and sort the house, catch up with friends and family, watch TV or scroll through social media! But if you know your baby is going to wake in two hours and then several times in the night then we recommend getting your head down as soon as you can.
- Rest when they sleep. If going to sleep at the same time as your baby isn’t an option for you then at least use the time to rest and take care of yourself. Try meditating, yoga or even a warm bath. If you need to stay in the same room as your little one to allow them to sleep then swap screen time for a book or listening to a podcast so that when you are ready to sleep you will be able to a bit more easily.
- Share the night feeds. If your partner is willing to help then you could explore ways of sharing the night feeds. Whether its a bottle of expressed milk or formula, it may help you to get a few extra hours if your partner can do a feed.
- Switch rooms. Depending on you, your partner and your baby it might be an option for you to sleep in another room until your baby needs a feed. Some mums claim their baby wakes more when they are present because of the smell of milk and other mums have said they simply don’t sleep well in the same room as their baby because every sound concerns them.
- Rest in the day. If you’ve had a particularly rough night don’t stress about doing much the next day. Cancel that baby sensory class and enjoy resting (or maybe even napping) when your baby naps. Use the time in the day to regain your energy.
- Monitor your caffeine and sugar. When you’re sleep deprived it is so tempting to have that extra coffee or sugary treat to get you through but remember that doing this regularly will have a more negative impact on you and your sleep. Stay hydrated and eat well to help you better cope with the exhaustion.
- Ask for help. As mums we like to do it all ourself and even when someone is watching after your baby we often find ourselves sorting washing or doing the dishes instead of looking after ourselves. Don’t be afraid to take up that offer of help or even ask for help and use the time to rest: nap, lie down, meditate or simply have a shower. Do something for you to help you recharge.
Should I be sleep training to get my baby to sleep through the night?
Sleep training involves helping your baby learn to settle themselves to sleep. Depending on their age and temperament, sleep training may be a short process of just one or two attempts or a longer process requiring patience and modifications.
There are two main sleep training approaches: controlled crying (where you leave your baby to cry it out for set intervals of time before comforting them) or the no tears method (comforting your baby as many times as you wish before they doze off).
If neither method of sleep training feels right for you then don’t feel pressured. It is worth doing your research to decide what is best for your baby and you, as it can be an emotional process for all involved. However, it doesn’t have to be if you fully agree with the decision you have made for your family.
Tips on getting a better nights sleep when your baby doesn’t sleep through.
Bedtime routine: create a bedtime routine that works for you and your baby. This will help your baby to know that it is bedtime and may encourage them to have a longer feed before they sleep which will encourage a longer rest before they wake again.
Create the right environment. Invest in a blackout blind and a white noise player. Make sure it’s not too warm or cold. These can be key in helping your baby to get back to sleep when they do wake up without your intervention.
Experiment. If your baby is currently in a crib or moses basket then you may want to try co-sleeping to see if you and your baby sleep better in this way. Alternatively, your baby may be getting woken by you if they are currently co-sleeping and putting them in their own crib may help. Be open to trying different set-ups to find what works for you.
Handling your baby’s sleep is one of the toughest aspects of becoming a parent. Waking to feed, nurse or change a baby in the middle of the night is a shock to the system and so many months it is exhausting. When you add in social pressures and compare to other babies that sleep through you can be left feeling like a failure but you really shouldn’t.
Remember that it is natural (and healthy) for babies to wake regularly for food and comfort and that your baby has to master a number of milestones before they can even attempt to sleep through. In the meantime, you can help the situation by ensuring that you rest or sleep when they do and that you’re taking care of yourself in the day and accepting help if you’re offered it.
The day will come when your baby sleeps through but until then try to enjoy the middle-of-the-night cuddles… you might actually miss them one day!