When parents ask whether your baby sleeps through the night, the answer you give can feel like a rite of passage for being a ‘good’ parent! However, don’t worry because it is normal for babies to wake overnight for many years. The issue is really more about what babies rely on to get back to sleep. Sleeping through means when your baby wakes he doesn’t need any help to get back to sleep, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t wake up. There are a variety of factors that prevent babies and toddlers sleeping through the night. Many are learned behaviours, which could have been prevented and can be fixed.
Newborns that are jaundice (yellow discolouration of the skin) or weigh less than 3000gms need to be fed about four hourly overnight. There are also medical conditions and metabolic disorders that require babies to have regular milk feeds overnight.
Adults can easily achieve and function well on six to eight hours of unbroken sleep a night (before children!). A newborn requires around 16 – 17 hours sleep in a 24 hour period, which needs to be broken up with milk feeds. As babies get older, the amount of sleep they require for good health and development slowly decreases and the spacing of feeds increases.
The natural day/night sleeping pattern takes a couple of months to develop. Parents can help this process by focusing on feeding newborns at regular three to four hourly intervals during the day. Feed and sleep babies in the daylight for the first six weeks but after this they often appreciate dimmer lighting to settle to sleep. Pull the blinds or curtains while sleeping but make sure you raise them when they are ready to get up. Feed during the night with soft lighting and minimal stimulation. To keep them secure and comfortable swaddle for sleeping—it encourages sleep by preventing the startle reflex (throwing arms out) disturbing them. This reflex disappears around three to four months old making it easier to transition out of a wrap and into a baby sleeping bag.
By eight to ten weeks old, babies are able to sleep longer stretches at night of four to six hours and shorter naps of one to two hours during the day. Night sleep between 6.30pm and 6.30am is still broken with the need for milk feeds two or three times until six to eight months old. By this age, babies are able to sleep much longer (10 -12 hours straight) with two day sleeps (one in the morning and one in the early afternoon). This pattern of sleep is not impossible for most babies but there can be several reasons why this is not happening for some.
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One reason why many older babies continue to wake and get milk feeds overnight (more than they require) is because they have been programmed from birth to have milk feeds to go off to sleep. Continuing to feed whenever babies wake overnight becomes an expectation even if they are not hungry. One way to avoid this happening is to help babies to fall asleep naturally during the early months and as they get older avoid rushing in when they wake overnight. Set up positive sleeping cues early and allow babies the opportunity to self-regulate good sleeping patterns without the dependence on milk feeds.
From four months old neurological development causes babies to wake and chatter—they are not asking for anyone and it’s usually not hunger. If they know how to settle, they will go back to sleep when they are ready. If babies wake erratically it could be a sign that they need more nutrients during the day. This can be fixed either by increasing breast milk, adding some infant formula feeds or introducing solids. Seek advice from your child health professional for the best option for your baby.
From nine months old poor sleeping patterns can become worse. Babies who enjoy feeding during the night usually can’t eat much during the day, which then hinders a good night sleep. Poor sleep then reduces their energy levels needed for physical activities, which further reduces the need for eating. This lack of activity makes babies less physically tired, reducing the need for sleep and the lack of ‘fuel’ can make babies drowsy and in need of a quick nap.
They may be teething but teething doesn’t usually cause night waking but it can prevent babies going back to sleep if they wake.
Parenting styles, family environments and settling techniques vary. Consider the best options for your family to function well and ensure babies and toddlers get a good night sleep for their optimal development.
A ‘Suggested Daily Routines’ eBook is available to help sort out night and day patterns of sleep.
Read this different perspective from the babies side! Awake Training for Parents
This article was brought to you by Jan Murray, Private Child Health Consultant who is an internationally renowned expert in her field. Jan encourages parents in the area of infant sleep, nutrition, activities and family balance. Jan publishes regular ezine and blog articles to provide free parenting tips, tools and resources to educate and support those caring for young babies and children.