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When navigating the newborn stage with their first baby, many parents can't quite believe how many times people ask, are they sleeping through the night yet?
Everyone (from family and friends to strangers on the street) seem so interested, even obsessed, with when babies will sleep through the night. And understandably, parents can be pretty keen to know when it'll happen as well!
Is it any wonder though? The first few months of having a newborn are so wonderful yet so tiring.
You may find yourself thinking, "If I could just have a week of getting a good night's sleep then I will be able to face the next couple of months of this".
Emma O'Callaghan is a qualified midwife, nurse and infant and child sleep consultant. With over 20 years' experience in both hospital and community settings, Emma knows about sleep. She has helped thousands of families reclaim sleep and is particularly passionate about supporting new and first-time parents. She is the Founder of Baby Sleep Expert, and with a common sense, compassionate approach is often referred to as the ultimate "baby whisperer". Here, she guides us through what to expect when it comes to getting your baby to sleep through the night.
If sleep deprivation is ongoing, it can really start to take its toll and the benefits of unbroken sleep should never be downplayed. You'll almost certainly be able to cope a lot better the next day and with everything that can be thrown at you if you had a decent sleep the night before.
You'll be happier, not so overwhelmed and you'll notice that your baby's also happier when they've had a better night's sleep. So, it's totally understandable that we try to understand what helps our babies sleep through the night.
Let's first chat about what actually constitutes sleeping through the night. There are a lot of different definitions out there. Broadly, sleeping through the night can be defined as a baby going to sleep somewhere between 6-7 pm and sleeping through to somewhere between 6-7 am.
Depending on their age, there may be one night feed in there somewhere as well. But with this definition, it clearly shows that there are really long chunks of unbroken sleep for your baby and in turn, you're not having to get up one, twice or multiple times a night to resettle your little one.
But sleeping through the night does not mean your baby will be completely silent all night. Babies are noisy little beings, and many times cry out, grizzle or fuss during the night in between sleep cycles and sometimes even when they are actually asleep.
Just like when we wake during the night we may turn over, adjust our position, and drift off into the next sleep cycle, our babies do this as well. So, sleeping through the night does not mean silence for 12 hours straight. It means that your baby can be left to it, to wake from their sleep cycles and then drift off into the next one, sometimes silently and sometimes with a bit of noise.
But how can you get your baby to sleep through the night and at what age can you expect this? Well, let's have a look at baby sleep broken down by age, and discuss what to expect along the way.
Newborns (from birth to three months of age) are growing and changing rapidly, and overnight feeds are all part of the package. Depending on their birth weight, two, three or sometimes even four feeds overnight are normal. We can definitely do things in the newborn stage to encourage healthy sleep habits, but those night wake-ups are completely normal.
Now here is where it gets interesting. During this time our babies can really begin to consolidate their sleep. Longer stretches of, say, five or six hours are common as their sleep begins to mature. At the younger end of this age group, it's perfectly normal for babies to be having two feeds overnight.
Towards six months one feed overnight is not an unrealistic expectation (weight dependent). It's also during this age group that sleep can change for some babies. It can become more disrupted, with more wake-ups due to the biological changes happening in their brains as their sleep cycles mature. This is a permanent progression in your baby's physiology. Their sleep structure is now more adult-like and clear sleep cycles are emerging.
What we need to be mindful of at this stage is how our babies are going back to sleep during the night. This isn't just a phase, and babies will need to learn how to go back to sleep by themselves and lessen any strong dependence they have on you for settling.
We can assist them a bit, but all too often, parents who are just in the 24-hour cycle of doing whatever they need to day-to-day, night after night, to just get some sleep, end up assisting their babies too much. What this looks like is rocking, holding, and feeding your baby back to sleep whenever they wake up overnight and for every wake-up. Pretty tiring right?
Here is where the two major components of night-time sleep really come into play.
These are their nutritional intake during the day and their ability to self-settle at night. Babies at this age are now on weaning and slowly but steadily establishing solids across this time is important.
You want your baby to be having a good daily intake to support their growth and their sleep, and it's also important that the vast majority of calories are now taken during the day.
At around eight or nine months, many babies are on just one overnight feed or none at all.
At this time, just like adults (give or take that one feed for some babies) food is for daytime, and nighttime is for sleep. The other major factor now is whether or not your baby can self-soothe. Babies will persist with many overnight wake-ups at this stage if they cannot link their sleep cycles independently.
Now we can be pretty certain that our babies can drop all of their night feeds, and as long as there are no health issues, they can sleep through the night.
Supporting their sleep with good attention to their nutritional intake is important here. A good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats for optimal nutrition is important and will ensure that their iron levels are adequate and that their blood sugar levels are stable further supporting healthy restorative sleep.
So, the road to a great night's sleep is a combination of time and baby's age, the number of night feeds needed, and their ability to self-settle during the night.
Think about what's reasonable to expect of your baby depending on their age. And then if they are thriving and healthy, assess the amount of night feeds that they are getting. Could it be that you are feeding say three times a night when all they really need is two or one feed? If that could be the case, then let them resettle for one of those feeds and encourage some independence here. Be really consistent with this over two weeks and your baby will begin to get the hang of linking their sleep cycles.
Pay attention to good sleep hygiene. The basics of having their room nice and dark, a comfortable even temperature and using white noise to create that comforting cocoon of sound are all important. They are the foundations on which good sleep can be built.
Give your baby a chance to resettle. That means when you hear them cry, don't rush in right away. Just wait a bit. Say just three minutes. Just give their little bodies and brains time and a chance to calm themselves. And you know what? They may just surprise you by going back to sleep by themselves! Babies do learn what you practice with them the most, so give them lots of chances to practice this.
So, when your child can sleep through the night is a combination of different factors and may take a little bit of help from you along the way to step back where you need to and hand some independence over to them. But the benefits of a great night's sleep for your baby and you are really wonderful, and as long as it's an age-appropriate goal, then it's really worth investing in achieving it!
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