One of the most common questions I hear from parents is, ‘when will my child sleep through the night?’ The answer to this question is not straightforward unfortunately, as there are many things to take into consideration. One major factor that I’d like to share with you from the outset is that day sleep affects sleep at night, so addressing both days and nights is really important. In addition, in order to answer this question, you need to have a basic understanding of the biology of sleep, a little knowledge about developmental ages and stages and an appreciation of how your mindset can affect how well your child learns to self-settle.
No child, or adult for that matter, lies down to sleep for the night and sleeps soundly without moving or waking during the night. It’s normal for every child to wake overnight as they move through their sleep cycles. At night, your child’s sleep cycles last about four hours, with two hours usually signifying the middle of a sleep cycle or ‘partial cycle’. Every child and adult naturally wakes either after a partial sleep cycle (approx. 2 hours) or a full cycle (approx. 4 hours). For a child, these wake ups can be brief and insignificant where the child wakes briefly and goes back to sleep independently, or the wake ups can lead to a very drawn out process of stress and frustration if they wake and can’t find whatever it was that helped them to get to sleep at bedtime (breast, bottle, rocking, cuddling, dummy, TV or I-Pad).
What about feeding overnight?
Whether or not your child needs a feed overnight comes down to age and is very individual and there is a great deal of debate and variation around night feeding. From my research and experience, I can confidently give you an overall indication of what is the average:
4 to 6 months = one to two feeds overnight between 7pm and 7am (over 24 hours)
7 to 9 months = zero to one feed overnight between 7pm and 7am
After 9 months = baby can safely go from 7pm to 7am with no feeds
Whether your baby needs a feed or not depends on the solids baby is consuming and the timing of feeds amongst other things, so it’s really more a case-by-case scenario. Once on solids, ensuring your baby is eating plenty of protein rich foods as well as complex carbohydrates at lunch and dinner will help your baby feel full for longer, and sometimes simply by increasing these foods during the day, baby may reduce the need for feeds overnight. Generally speaking, if your child is eating approximately half a cup of these foods over at least two meals a day and your child is over 6.5kg, they may be ready to sleep through the night.
Positive mindset is imperative
Teaching a baby to link their sleep cycles by putting themselves back to sleep has a lot to do with you as the parent believing that you are in control of whether or not your baby sleeps. If you want to be in control, you will most likely continue to assist your baby to sleep and that’s perfectly fine if it works for you. If It’s not working however, you might need to think more along the lines that it’s not about you trying to make your baby sleep but it’s more about you teaching your child how to go back to sleep themselves after they’ve woken up. It’s about changing your mindset to put the onus more on your child; otherwise it’s often a recipe for failure because you simply can’t make your child sleep.
Sure, you can assist your child to sleep if you are happy to do that, but it can actually be kinder for you to teach your child how to sleep independently (with your comfort and support), as it’s a skill that will last through childhood and will allow everyone to get the sleep they need. Children are definitely capable of learning how to go to sleep on their own if age appropriate; they just need to be given the opportunity. I challenge you to try and picture yourself being your child’s role model, teacher and loving support more so than their ‘controller’, because it’s when you try and control your child’s sleep situation that things can go pear shaped. Of course it’s natural that we want to protect our children no matter how old they are from discomfort, stress or failure, which is why we instinctively insist on doing everything for our children. Interestingly, this idea can actually be applied to more than just sleep and it is also relevant to your children in general right up until they leave home, so why not start when they are young? As a parent, allowing opportunity for our children to try things for themselves is one of the hardest jobs we are given in our lifetime but one that is so very important.
Now that you understand a little about the science of sleep, how many feeds your child may need overnight and about the importance of adopting the right mindset, I want you to think about the following things that need to be put into place to ensure a strong foundation for sensational sleep. When you can tick these things off, you’re probably ready to go.
1. Ensure your baby’s sleep environment is very dark and use some white noise to mask any annoying external noises that might wake your baby. Make sure your baby is warm, especially in the early morning hours, by dressing baby in appropriate layers under a swaddle or using a sleeping bag.
2. To sleep through the night, your baby needs to know how to resettle, but before this can happen, baby needs to know how to self-settle first. This means that whatever routine you are using at bedtime to help your baby get to sleep is going to be what they look for overnight when they wake. The key is to teach them to self-settle at bedtime first and then work on resettling.
4. Newborns up to twelve weeks old need a lot of hands on settling and help to sleep which is normal, but after this time, it’s a good idea to start to gradually back off the assistance you are giving. After around four to six months, you can be confident that your baby can begin to learn to sleep independently, although they may still need some hands on assistance from you the younger they are. After around four or five months, you can confidently begin to put baby down in the cot awake, to try and self-settle with your support.
5. For baby to learn to self-settle, it may be necessary to look at any sleep props that your baby is reliant on and change sleep associations with some sleep training (depending on age).
6. A consistent nap routine ensures your day flows smoothly and your baby is not waking overnight because of overtiredness.
7. Establish a fifteen minute wind down routine, which is the same every night and involves some positive sleep associations like a swaddle, sleeping bag or white noise. Use the same routine for day naps as well, although this routine may be a little shorter during the day because you may not include things like a bath or massage.
8. Learn to wait for a few minutes when your baby wakes because they might just need some space to get back to sleep themselves before you intervene.
Is my baby ready to sleep through the night? Use this checklist:
☐ my baby is six months of age or older
☐ baby’s sleep environment is spot on: pitch black darkness, white noise and not too hot or cold
☐ my baby is not hungry: is having good milk feeds during the day and is well established on solids
☐ my baby’s bedtime routine is consistent and for long enough
☐ my baby is napping well during the day and is not overtired
☐ my baby can self-settle at bedtime