The official word on sleeping through the night
I would hazard a guess that most parents have lost track of how many times they’ve been asked if their child is sleeping through the night. It’s considered the holy grail of sleep, and it’s plain to see why.
But first, confusion abounds as to what actually constitutes sleeping through the night; everyone seems to have a different definition. We define sleeping through the night as a child going to bed between 6-7pm and getting up between 6-7am, with zero to one feeds or resettles in between.
That’s right – sleeping through the night doesn’t always mean you just walk out of their room at bedtime and don’t hear from them until the morning. Every child ‘wakes’ at some stage throughout the night as their sleep cycles emerge and, in many cases, it’s still age-appropriate to have a feed in a 12 hour period.
However, they’re not sleeping through the night if they wake excessively (every 1-2 hours) and need your help to settle back to sleep each time. These frequent wakings start to interfere with the quality deep sleep most beneficial to the brain. It is in this sleep state that the brain rests, moves things to long term memory, and forms new synapses; key reasons we should be helping our children work towards healthy sleep hygiene.
BENEFITS OF SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT
Alongside the brain benefits above, why is it so important that we help our children to sleep through the night? Firstly, there’s the obvious fact that, as parents, we then get enough sleep to function the next day. This benefit shouldn’t be downplayed. I meet lots of parents who feel guilty about wanting their baby to sleep through because they’re not coping; this is a legitimate reason. You matter – as does your health and wellbeing, which depend on sufficient quality sleep.
However, there are also significant benefits to your baby of sleeping through the night when they are ready to do so. For starters, they wake up happy and well-rested and are more content throughout the day.
When children (or any of us) wake up tired, we’re starting the day on the back foot, which can quickly spiral into overtiredness. The other, related benefit is that good solid night-time sleep means your baby will nap better throughout the day, so the cycle continues to combat overtiredness.
The other major benefit of a baby starting to sleep through the night is that they’re making important moves towards the age-appropriate structure of their sleep. As newborns, a baby’s sleep occurs about 50% during the day and 50% at night; there’s very little distinction in those early days. However, by three years old, your child will be relying almost solely on the quality of their night sleep and not depending on day-time naps to get them through. Getting to this point is a process.
SO, WHAT ARE THE AGE-APPROPRIATE STEPS ALONG THE WAY?
Newborn (0-3m) – At this age, it is common to wake during the night for feeds. Depending on the newborn journey that you and your baby have had, this may happen multiple times. That’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do at this stage to lay the foundation for better sleep; it just means that it’s entirely normal to wake during the night at this point.
3-6 months – During this time, most babies start to consolidate their night sleep. According to the research, they do this in the earlier part of the night first – which is good, as this is the most restorative. While some babies will start to sleep through at this stage, lot of others will still be working to consolidate sleep cycles. Regardless, it’s a reasonable goal to have at this age. Whether your baby is breastfed or formula fed and when they’re starting solids will have an impact on how soon they can go through the night and how many night feeds they need.
6-9 months – By this stage, every baby has started solids and, if they haven’t already, can cut down to just one feed overnight. If you are happy with what you’re doing and it’s working for you, then stick with it – but if you want to change things, this is something you can aim for. At this stage, the ability to sleep through becomes at least as much about learning the skills around settling as nutritional intake. The ability that your child has to link their sleep cycles becomes vital.
9-12 months – At this stage parents can be fairly sure that they can drop all night feeds, as long as there are no health or growth concerns. The ability your child has established to settle here is important, as is their nutritional intake. It’s vital to make sure that children get the right quantities of carbohydrates, protein, and fats throughout the day to avoid a hypoglycaemic dip that causes them to wake hungry. Children also rely on their daily intake of iron as their body’s stores deplete at this stage. Unlike with adults, where we equate low iron to tiredness, in children low iron causes them to wake frequently – so making sure they’re getting enough is a factor in whether they sleep well.
CONSOLIDATING NIGHT SLEEPS
Starting from around the four month mark, your baby goes through biological changes and we see their sleep cycles emerging. Waking more often here is normal. Unfortunately, parents often get stuck using survival techniques, thinking that it’s just a phase and that their child’s sleep will sort itself out.
In reality, this is a permanent progression or change in your child’s physiology. They’re not just going to grow out of it – instead, to work through it, they need to develop the ability to resettle themselves when they’re not hungry. So how can you consolidate night-time sleeps and deal with the changes in your child’s sleep cycles?
SOME OF THE THINGS THAT CAN HELP
- Trying out new strategies in the evening – You may feel that you need to address night wakings and daytime naps, and you will, eventually. However, starting with working on night-time sleep is easier. In the evening, we have a stronger physiological drive to sleep and our hormones encourage this, so new strategies are more successfully adopted at night-time and sleep issues at night resolve quickly with consistency.
- Make sure you’re not reverse cycling – Reverse cycling occurs when your baby is consuming more calories overnight than during the day. We explore more about it here, but suffice to say you’re in for more night-time wakings until you can remedy this.
- Make sure they’re rested before bedtime – This might seem counter-productive and we’re not suggesting pre-dinner naps (unless they’re still newborns!) but make sure that your child has their age-appropriate awake time before bedtime. Putting them to bed overtired can make it harder to go to sleep and stay asleep; their little bodies produce adrenaline, which makes for a more fragmented sleep.
- Keep the environment conducive – The basics of sleep hygiene apply here. Make sure the room is not too hot or too cold, that it’s dark enough, and that it’s quiet and free from distractions. White noise can help to drown out other household or neighbourhood noise.
- Stop and listen before responding – A study found that waiting just three minutes before you go into your child’s room upon them waking is the single biggest determinant of whether they will be sleeping through by 12 months. Waiting before responding gives your child a chance to go back to sleep themselves (and sometimes they might surprise you!)
- Teach them to resettle independently – As you’re starting to do with waiting before responding, teaching them to resettle themselves when they wake often involves backing off a bit and moving past strategies like rocking or holding them to get them to sleep.
Even once your child seemingly masters the art of sleeping, remember they are not a robot. There are always likely to be minor regressions along the way. Some babies, when they learn a new skill – like crawling or walking – have a minor sleep setback, as they’d rather be practicing their new skill.
What’s important for parents to remember is that your child hasn’t forgotten how to sleep; they just need you to be consistent. Stick to the normal routine and they will go back to sleeping through when they are ready.
Lastly, give yourself a break from the perception that your child is broken if they are waking up every hour overnight. No child is sleeping 12 hours straight – and the ‘unicorn’ ones that seemingly are have simply learnt the ability to go back to sleep independently. Your baby can too. Good luck!
Sleeping Through the Night: A Developmental Perspective
Thomas F. Anders, Leslie F. Halpern, Jenny Hua
Pediatrics Oct 1992, 90 (4) 554-560;
Burnham, M. M., Goodlin-Jones, B. L., Gaylor, E. E., & Anders, T. F. (2002). Nighttime sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 43(6), 713–725.
Sleeping Through the Night: The Consolidation of Self-regulated Sleep Across the First Year of Life
Jacqueline M. T. Henderson, Karyn G. France, Joseph L. Owens, Neville M.Blampied
Pediatrics Nov 2010, 126 (5) e1081-e1087; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-0976
Help Me Make It Through the Night: Behavirol Entrainment Breast-Fed Infants’ Sleep Patterns
Teresa Pinilla, Leann L. Birch
Pediatrics Feb 1993, 91 (2) 436-444;