It’s the holy grail of all infant mile stones: sleeping through the night!
But exactly when can you expect your little angel to bless you with that desperately longed for shut-eye? And is there anything you can do to help things along?
What does science say?
Despite all parents being desperate for their baby to reach ‘the age’ when they can sleep through, there are no prizes for guessing that all babies achieve this at different ages.
The National Sleep Foundation says that 70% of babies sleep through by the time they are 9 months old, although this can vary from 3 months to over a year old. Yikes!
Many parents may also have an unrealistic expectation when it comes to infant sleep, possibly coming from our misunderstandings about adult sleep. Dacia F Narvaez (a professor of psychology at Notre Dame University) explains how adults do not sleep for a continuous 8-hour stretch, but simply forget they have woken up throughout the night.
Professor Peter Fleming of the University of Bristol, points out that babies are not designed to sleep through the night at an early age, and that there is no benefit to their well-being and development in doing so.
So perhaps we expect too much, too soon of our little night-owls!
Sleep myths busted.
Many of us would try almost anything for a good night’s sleep after a few months with a newborn. Here are a few things not to try!
- Formula vs. Breast milk: People often think that formula will ‘fill up’ a baby more so than breast milk, and in turn will allow them to sleep through the night for longer. This is not the case, as numerous studies have shown.
- Adding cereal to a bottle: Contrary to popular belief, it has been shown that this does not help babies sleep longer through the night. In fact, it is actually dangerous to give cereal to babies below the age of 4-6 months since they may not be able to safely swallow and digest solid foods at this point.
- Wakeful days = Sleepy nights: It’s a common misconception that by keeping your baby awake all day, they will be tired out when evening comes and sleep through. Not true! Babies can easily become overtired and then find it far more difficult to settle in the evening.
- Late bedtimes: Similarly, keeping your baby up late in the hope that they will sleep further in to the night (or even through to the morning) is a none-starter!
- Weighty-baby: Simply reaching a certain weight will not allow your baby to sleep through the night. This depends on many factors, including their individual emotional development, their need for night feeds and their ability to soothe themselves back to sleep upon waking.
So what can you do to help your little one float off into dreamland?
Get some air. Studies have now confirmed what many old wives’ have known for years: a day time walk does wonders for a good nights’ sleep! A 2004 study found that babies who were exposed to more light in the day showed improved night time sleep.
Plus, an afternoon walk will do wonders for your own health and state of mind- so go grab that buggy!
Lay the foundations. Daytime napping lays the foundation for a solid night’s sleep. If your baby is overtired, then they will find it decidedly harder to settle in the evening. In her book ‘Your Baby Week By Week’ Dr Caroline Fertleman advises three-hours of naps per day.
Spot the signs. Try to spot your baby’s first signs of tiredness and put them down to sleep before they become agitated and cranky. These may include yawning, rubbing their eyes, glazed eyes, turning their head away, whining and flailing limbs.
Routine, routine, routine! From as early as six-weeks old, it’s possible to start establishing some form of routine with your newborn- though don’t expect them to run like clockwork straight away! Look for signs of when your baby starts to appear sleepy and work backwards from there.
You can devise a routine that works for you, but bath, milk, lullaby and bed is a good place to start. Aim for the whole thing to last 30-40 minutes and try to stick to your baby’s bedtime as much as possible, even at weekends.
Set the scene. For the first six to eight weeks of their lives, babies can be expected to get their days and nights mixed up- after all, they have spent the last nine months in near-darkness!
To help your baby understand the different between night and day, keep daytimes bright and fun, with lots of play, chatter, light and everyday noises (think washing machine, radio etc.)
In the evening, turn the lights down low and keep talking to your baby at a minimum. For night-feeds, limit eye-contact with your baby and use a dim night light if needed.
Hold back. If your baby wakes in the middle of the night, do you jump up to their cry the minute you hear them? It can often take between 1-3 minutes for a baby to settle themselves so try to leave them for a few minutes .
Just make sure that your baby’s murmurs and cries don’t progress to howls, or you’ll find it more difficult to get them back to sleep.
Help them to self-soothe.
To help your baby learn to settle themselves without your attention, there are several methods you can try.
- Some are advocates of the ‘cry it out method’ or ‘controlled comforting.’ This involves leaving the baby to cry for a specified amount of time each night until they gradually learn to settle by themselves.
- A softer approach is a ‘gradual retreat’ where you lay your baby in his cot, with one hand on his belly so he knows that you are there whilst he falls asleep. Each night, move yourself further from his cot until he can manage to fall asleep without you in the room.
- If all of the above seem fruitless just yet, then simply start by lessening your current ‘soothing routine.’ Do you spend an hour vigorously rocking your baby to sleep? Try changing to a gentler sway.
The longer your baby is allowed to expect a theatrical bedtime performance, the harder you will find it to take it away from him!
One final think to consider might be this: Everyone has a different perception of what ‘sleeping through’ actually is. I have met mums who consider it to be 12am to 5am: certainly not my idea of good night’s sleep!
So don’t believe everything you hear! Try not to give yourself a hard time and remember not to pay too much attention to those ‘super moms’ who seem to have it mastered already. You ARE a super mom and you WILL sleep again- I promise!