High angle view of a mother lying in bed with her son

What is sleeping through the night? Why is ok if your baby doesn’t?

For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on when a baby is ready to drop all night feeds and sleep 12 hours overnight, but sleeping through the night has a wide range of accepted definitions. Some refer to this as a 5-hour stretch and others consider this a 11-12 hour stretch. Some even believe that the bench mark for sleeping through the night changes depending on the baby’s age.

How does formula feeding and breastfeeding affect a child’s ability to sleep through the night?
How your baby is fed milk may affect the timing your baby is ready to sleep through the night. Breastfed babies may wake for feeds for a longer period of time than a formula fed baby. The average age of a breastfed baby being able to physiologically sleep through is 9 months, whilst a formula fed baby can usually sleep through a little earlier, around 6 months. Formula helps a baby stay fuller for longer, but this is only the case if your baby’s digestive system is used to the formula. It is not recommended to introduce formula with the aim of improving your baby’s sleep. This will most often not help, and will in fact, will likely do the opposite and upset a baby’s digestive system, giving them a tummy ache and prolong settling and contribute to frequent night waking. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t mix feed if you need to, but don’t make the decision to change your milk feeding method based on sleeping patterns.

What are the physiological milestones a baby needs to meet?
Physiologically, a baby needs to be over 7kg and they need to be eating solids well. That means 2 meals a day, each of around ½ a cup of food and protein rich foods at lunch time. If your baby is not taking well to solids, they will definitely be hungry for at least one night feed until you are able to increase their solid intake.

Are there other reasons why your baby may not be ready?
One other important reason your baby may not be able to sleep through the night is that they are not emotionally ready to have such a long time without seeing you yet. The only person that can make the decision about when a child (and their mum) are ready to drop all night feeds, is their mum. This is a very personal decision, and there is no ‘right’ time to do this. 1 feed overnight is not considered excessive feeding, and won’t cause your child to reverse cycle (think that it is daytime), so don’t feel pressured for your child to drop this feed if you don’t think you are both ready. If all you have to do is get up, have a quick feed, and you are both straight back to sleep, there is no problem.

Is it possible for my baby to only have one feed and resettle without feeding at other times?
Yes, absolutely! The circadian rhythm is set by food, light and social interaction. This biological clock tells our body when we should be eating and sleeping based on previous patterns, but it does take 3-5 days to recognise changes. If you only feed at your designated night feed time(s) over several consecutive days, you are teaching your baby that the only time that they will be fed at night is the same each night, and each other waking time, they will not be fed, so will learn to resettle and not wake for milk.

Taking all of this information in to account, there are many aspects to consider before you decide that you would like your baby to sleep through the night. Please don’t feel pressured by others to drop all night feeds when you and your baby are not ready to do so yet. You can certainly have great sleep and maintain night feeds. This is such a lovely time to feed and snuggle with your baby in the night alone together, and is something to treasure of this special time. When you are considering dropping all night feeds, make sure you are really ready. Remember that dropping night feeds is a hallmark of your little one growing up, so treasure the night feeds if they are working for everyone.
Shannon

Certified infant and child sleep consultant