When I was navigating the newborn stage with my first baby, I couldn't believe how many times people would ask me, is she sleeping through the night yet?
When Do Babies Start Sleeping Through the Night?
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”. Emma lives in Melbourne with her three daughters and fur baby.
"When I was navigating the newborn stage with my first baby, I couldn't believe how many times people would ask me, is she sleeping through the night yet?
Everyone from family, friends and particularly the mother’s group seemed so interested, even obsessed, with this idea when our babies would sleep through the night. And believe me, I was pretty keen to know when this would happen as well!
Is it any wonder though? The first few months of having a newborn are so wonderful yet so tiring. I will never forget 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’. The sleep deprivation was ongoing, and it really started to take its toll. The benefits of unbroken sleep should never be downplayed. I definitely knew that I would be able to cope a lot better the next day and everything that would be thrown at me if I had had a decent night’s sleep. I’d be happier, not so overwhelmed and I could see that my baby would also be happier when she’d had a better night’s sleep. So, I totally understand the urgency in trying to understand what helps our babies sleep through the night.
Let’s first chat about what actually constitutes sleeping through the night. There’s a lot of different definitions out there. Broadly I define sleeping through the night 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 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 to drift off into the next one, sometimes silently and sometimes with a bit of noise.
But how can I get my baby to sleep through the night and at what age can I expect this? I hear you ask.
Well let’s have a look at the different age groups and what we can expect along the way…
Newborn Baby Sleep
I consider newborns to be from birth to three months of age. These little beings are growing and changing rapidly, and overnight feeds are all part of the package. Depending on their birthweight, two, three or sometimes even four feeds overnight is normal. We can definitely do things in the newborn stage to encourage healthy sleep habits, but those night wake ups are completely normal.
Three to Six Month Old Baby Sleep
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 is perfectly normal for babies to be having two feeds overnight. Towards six months one feed overnight is not an unrealistic expectation (weight dependent). It is also during this age group that some babies sleep can change. 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 hours 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, feeding your baby back to sleep whenever they wake up overnight and for every wake up. Pretty tiring right?
Six to Nine Month Old Baby Sleep
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 solids and slowly and 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. 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. I like to think at this time, just like adults, give or take that one feed for some babies, that food is for day, night is for sleep. The other major factor now is whether or not your baby can self-settle. Babies will persist with many overnight wake ups at this stage if they cannot link their sleep cycles independently.
9 to 12 Month Old Baby Sleep
Now we can be pretty certain that our babies can drop all night feeds and as long as there are no health issues that 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. It will also 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/baby’s age, the amount of night feeds needed and their ability to self-settle during the night. Think about what is 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 a period of 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 themselves. By that I mean 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 really 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 really 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 sleep for your baby and yourself are really wonderful and as long as its an age appropriate goal then it’s really worth investing in achieving it!"