Shortly after experiencing the miracle of birth, parents across the world all begin wondering the same question: Will I ever sleep again? Thankfully, the answer is a yes (though it may not feel like that now), but not so thankfully, it might not be for some time, depending on your baby. Every infant is different, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, 70 to 80 percent of babies are able to sleep through the night (6- to 8-hour stretches) at around 9 months old. Some of you lucky parents will even be blessed with children who will start sleeping through the night as early as 4 months old ... and some of you not-so-lucky parents will have little bundles that don’t make it through the night until 12 months or later (our condolences).
But, despite the fact that your most recent fantasies likely now involve a down comforter and a peaceful slumber, as opposed to Matthew McConaughey, it's important to understand that newborns (babies 0-3 months) should never be allowed to sleep through the night. "This is because they are growing very rapidly, so they have very high caloric demands," says Jennifer Gardner, MD, a pediatrician, and founder of the Healthy Kids Company. "They also have very small tummies, the size of a hazelnut at birth. It’s easy to see that newborns cannot take in enough milk to go more than a few hours without a feed!"
Some experts believe that formula-fed babies can go longer between feeds than breastfed babies since breast milk is highly digestible and leaves the stomach faster than formula, making breastfed babies hungrier more often. A few key things to remember during those first bleary-eyed few months:
- Newborns, particularly those who are breastfed, should feed at least 8 to 12 times a day, or every 2 to 3 hours, so don't expect too much sleep. This continues for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life, when feeds decrease to 7 to 9 per day, or about every 3 to 4 hours. Bottle-fed newborns may be able to eat every 3 to 4 hours by 1 month old. Some parents wake their baby up before they go to sleep in hopes of getting at least 2 to 3 hours of sleep for themselves.
- Two- or three-month-olds typically sleep for about 5- to 6-hour stretches at a time (5- to 6-hour stretches!). Most 3-month-olds still need at least one feeding during the night, though, especially if they're nursing.
- At around 4 months old (or 11 to 12 pounds), babies can begin to sleep through the night for 6- to 8-hour stretches. When babies have reached the weight of 11 to12 pounds, they don't really need a nighttime feeding anymore -- need and want are a different story, though. If your baby is still waking up to eat during this time, some experts recommend decreasing the amount of each feeding a bit over the course of a week in hopes that this will encourage your baby to ditch the nighttime feedings.
- At around 5-6 months, babies usually aren't very hungry when they wake up during the night. They may just be looking for that tasty midnight snack they've become accustomed to or the comfort of their mama. When this happens, don't jump up and rush to feed your baby. See if simply caressing or singing to him will help him go back to sleep first.
Many parents are tempted to add rice cereal to a bottle to encourage deeper sleep for longer stretches, but Dr. Gardner advises against this practice. "Not only is it choking hazard, children who are fed rice cereal before 4 months old are more likely to be obese," she notes.
After the hectic newborn period, parents can begin to encourage sleeping for longer stretches. "An important step in establishing good sleeping habits is learning to fall asleep without rocking, holding, or feeding," says Dr. Gardener.
Also, now's the time you can begin a "going to sleep" ritual. This may begin with a warm bath. Next, dress the baby in comfortable PJs and give the bedtime feed in a dim, quiet room. You can even sing a lullaby if you're so inclined. Finally, place the baby in the crib, say goodnight, and leave the room. Be sure the room is a comfortable temperature and not too light. Most experts agree that putting baby in bed when they're drowsy but not asleep is crucial in teaching them how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.
That said, sleep routines take time to establish. "The baby may cry when you first put him in his crib, and this is normal," says Dr. Gardner. "After 10 minutes of crying, go into the room and speak soothingly, but do not pick up the baby. Leave after a few minutes and do not return for another 10 to 15 minutes. This is hard, but after a few days (up to a week), the ritual is established and the baby associates the crib with bedtime. While establishing the ritual, increase the interval allowed to cry by five minutes." Of course, if you're uncomfortable with this method, also known as sleep training, or are committed to cosleeping, skipping this step is completely fine. It's important to realize that there isn't one "no fail" ritual or technique when it comes to getting a baby to go to sleep. Each child is different, and a lot of figuring out what works for your family is merely trial and error. It's also key to understand that even well-established sleeping patterns will change over time -- so don't think you're out of the weeds once your little one has a few solid nights of shut-eye. Teething, nightmares, feeding patterns, or the birth of a sibling can all affect baby sleep.
Many babies (and adults!) wake up several times throughout the night, so there rarely is a reason to be concerned if your child isn't going a full night without waking. But feel free to speak with your child's doctor if your baby isn't sleeping through the night at 12 months. If nothing else, it may give you comfort to know that you're not the only sleep-deprived parent out there.
Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?
Image via Raul Hernandez/Flickr