Do your baby's sleep habits (or lack thereof) have you feeling like a zombie? Be patient. A full night's sleep is on its way. Learn when babies start sleeping through the night and what it means for your baby's physical and cognitive development.
As much as you enjoy spending time with your little one, it's very likely you have had one of those "Argh, why won't he let me get more than two hours of sleep?" moments. "Babies need good 'sleep nutrition' -- both the right amount and the right quality of sleep -- for optimal physical, cognitive, and emotional development," says Jennifer Waldburger, M.S.W., co-creator of The Sleepeasy Solution book and DVD. When and how your baby will achieve good sleep nutrition depends on a lot-his age, weight, temperament, and environment, and your family's routine. The good news is, with a little work and a lot of patience on your part, your baby will eventually snooze the night away.
Type of Development: Physical and Cognitive
Before your baby can sleep through the night, she has to have bypassed a number of physical and cognitive milestones:
- Decreased startle (or Moro) reflex. The startle reflex causes your baby's limbs to jerk in response to certain triggers: a loud noise, a change in temperature, sudden movement, even a bad dream. If your baby still has a strong startle reflex, her arms may flail and wake her from her sleep. The reflex usually drops significantly and disappears by 4 months.
- Increased feeding and weight gain
- Decreased multiple feedings during the night
- Increased ability to self-soothe (by sucking on her fingers, hands, or a pacifier), a skill she'll need to help her get back to sleep if she wakes during the night
When to Expect Sleeping Through the Night to Begin
Some babies will begin to sleep for longer stretches between 4 and 6 months, but sleeping through the night for more than an 8-hour stretch typically occurs after 6 months, says Danny Lewin, Ph.D., associate director of pediatric sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The ability to sleep through the night is helped by the elimination of nighttime feedings, which the infant is ready for after six months. This may be delayed for breastfeeding babies because they metabolize breast milk relatively quickly and require more frequent feedings. Also, just because your baby is capable of getting (and giving you) eight hours of uninterrupted sleep doesn't mean he will. Every baby is different and will do things on her own timeline.
If you think your baby is ready, there are things you can do to help him along the way. Put him down at the proper bedtime for his age, usually 7 or 7:30 p.m. for kids under age one, Waldburger says. If your baby is up late, he may become overtired, which can cause him to take longer to fall asleep, to wake up more often during the night, and to wake up in the early morning. Routines matter, too. You don't need a strict one with a baby under 4 months because he isn't ready to sleep through the night anyway, but once your baby is older, establish a bedtime routine and keep it every night. Babies need consistency to help them feel safe and secure, so don't read a story one night and then skip it the next. And though it may seem easier to transfer your little guy to the crib after he's already sleep, it will make the process more difficult.
"After four months, put him down fully awake, so he learns how to put himself to sleep at bedtime," Waldburger says. This way, he'll be more likely to do it again if he wakes up during the night. There are many techniques parents use to help their babies sleep through the night. Choose the method you think fits your family best, but remember that consistency is key. The sleep-learning process can take several weeks, depending on the method, Waldburger says. Some common methods include the Ferber method, the "cry it out" method, the "fading" method, and the "no-cry" sleep training method.
What Sleeping Milestones Parents Should Expect
Once your baby is sleeping through the night, a quiet room doesn't necessarily mean a sleeping child. "There is evidence that infants are often awake for extended periods of time during the night," Dr. Lewin says. This is normal. Fortunately, some babies don't cry out or alert the parents. But if your child is dependent on you to fall asleep, she'll also be dependent on you to put her back to sleep each time she wakes up, Dr. Lewin says.
Even if your baby has been sleeping through the night for weeks or months, she may still have trouble at times. Some developmental milestones can be associated with disrupted sleep -- you may find your baby perfecting her crawling or sitting skills in the middle of the night! To reduce her need for nightly drills, make sure she gets lots of time to practice during the day. Other issues, such as illness, teething, traveling, and changes in the home may also affect baby's sleep. But don't be surprised if your baby picks up other milestones soon after sleeping through the night. "So often, I see babies suddenly begin to roll, crawl, walk, or reach other developmental milestones as soon as their sleep improves," says Waldburger. Inadequate sleep might affect a baby's growth and development, which could cause some delays, so once the baby starts getting enough shut-eye, milestone achievement may soon follow.
Red Flags to Watch Out For
If your baby isn't sleeping through the night by 12 months or by the time he's a year old, talk to your pediatrician to determine if there is a root cause. Other reasons to chat with the doc: if your baby snores, has a hard time breathing, or seems extremely fussy at bedtime and after feedings (which could be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD).