There is so much joy and excitement that comes with bringing home a newborn baby. Those first weeks are filled with loving care as you gradually learn new routines and discover that life has changed significantly. This baby has changed your world. Exhaustion has gradually stepped in and the jokes friends and family make about sleepless nights are no long funny. This is when you start to seriously wonder when your baby will sleep through the night so that you can finally have some much-needed uninterrupted sleep.
Sleeping through the night
First of all, it’s important to understand what people mean when they say that a baby has slept through the night. I had always thought it was that long stretch of sleep from bedtime to morning. Little did I appreciate that what I was waiting for would take a LONG time to materialise.
In fact, when people talk about babies sleeping through the night, what they mean is that the baby has dropped a feed and can sleep continuously for a 5 hour stretch at night. That may sound disappointing, but it’s a start, particularly if you’re used to being woken every couple of hours for a feed. However, what all parents really want to know is how long realistically it might take for their baby to sleep without interruption for the whole night from bedtime to morning.
It’s all about rhythm
We all have an internal biological body clock which creates a day to night rhythm making us feel tired or alert at regular times during the day and night. This is called our circadian rhythm. It’s the reason you feel jet lagged for the first couple of days if you go on holiday to a country with a very different time zone.
A baby’s circadian rhythm isn’t well developed and so they will wake frequently during the night. However, as they grow and the brain starts to latch on to signals (such as daylight, temperature change and feeding times), this helps establish a stronger circadian rhythm. It takes at least 3-4 months before your baby will start to develop some signs of a daily rhythm. By the time babies reach one, the rhythm will be stronger and by 4 years old the circadian rhythm will fully dominate. So, in those early months, the best you can do is give their circadian rhythm an extra nudge by helping to establish a good routine of feeding and sleep times and giving your child plenty of time outdoors. Getting your child outdoors, particularly in the morning, will strengthen their circadian rhythm and help improve their sleep. You want to aim for as much time outdoors as possible, but if that’s not practical for you, aim for at least 2 hours of daylight. To read my blog article on how to strengthen your child’s circadian rhythm see here.
How night feeds affect sleep
The truth is that your baby won’t sleep through the night until they are physiologically able to. When your baby is born, it has a tiny stomach needing frequent small feeds. As babies grow, so too, thankfully, do their stomachs! This means that they can fit in larger feeds which sustain them a bit longer… and so it goes until their little stomachs are large enough to make it through the night without feeds. So when, you ask, will that happen? Well, that I’m afraid depends on your baby! Not just their age but also their size, how much energy they expend, and so on. Every parent wants their child to thrive and they will need night feeds for a good few months at least. Expecting night feeds to magically stop when your baby is only a few weeks old is unrealistic. To read more on night feeding see my blog here.
Now, some babies will start their 5 hour stretch sooner than others and there isn’t too much you can do to push your baby to do the same if they aren’t ready. You can of course ask your partner to offer your baby a bottle during the night (either of expressed milk if you’re breastfeeding, or formula) and that will help you get a decent stretch of sleep. For some parents, a baby will drop their night feeds quite unexpectedly – you just wake up and when you look at the time you realise your baby has slept through the night without a feed.
Weaning is often the beginning of sleeping for longer
Once your baby starts to eat solid foods (which is recommended from around 6 months), this is the point when you may notice a change in their sleep. Solid food will fill them up more than milk feeds as the food is harder to digest. In many cases, solids can help babies sleep through the night. For both my children, I found that once they were firmly established on solids, they no longer needed to be fed at night. I realised that those night feeds had become comforting opportunities rather than a genuine call for hunger. Sometimes you can tell when your child is ready to drop their night feed and some children can take longer – particularly those who take a while to become established on solids or who are fussy eaters. Be patient with your child and ensure they get the nutritional intake they need to thrive.
So, if they aren’t hungry, why won’t my baby sleep?
I remember a point in time realising that it wasn’t hunger that was causing my baby to wake up at night. I was confident they were eating well during the day and didn’t need feeding at night. So why were they still waking up? What was going on?
There are all kinds of reasons, hunger aside, why your baby may be waking up at night. First there are the things you can do nothing about like a growth spurt or an illness. Then there are the things which are under your control like your child’s bedroom environment. But worst of all are the bad habits parents get into, such as rocking, bouncing or feeding to sleep. From personal experience, it is these habits that are so hard to break.
So, what can you do about it? First, don’t be hard on yourself. We do our best as parents and you have to have patience and perseverance. Sometimes there is little you can do. If your baby is going through a bad phase – perhaps a sleep regression (see my blog article on ‘Baby sleep regressions’) there is no escaping that this will be a very difficult period for you. But quite often, there are things parents can do to improve their child’s sleep.
Acknowledging that you need help is a sign of strength not weakness.
If you need support with your child’s sleep, Sleep Superstars is here to give you assistance in a variety of ways. Not only do we provide tailored sleep welfare packages, but we have also developed a Sleep Support Hub full of tools and resources to answer all your questions. All our packages are personalised to your child and your preferences so that you only have the information that is relevant to your family. To find out how it works see here or read our testimonials.