As an infant mental health practitioner, the thing I talk with parents about the most is baby sleep. What is it that makes this such a challenging part of parenting? Why does it seem to be the most important and the hardest thing to get, right?
At the heart of it, our needs and expectations are in stark contradiction to our babies’. The structure and rhythm of baby sleep does not align with ours. To put it simply, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, babies wake up overnight when you’d rather be sleeping. A parent’s need for sleep is so incredibly understandable. But if we rush a baby into longer sleeping before they’re ready, we risk doing so at the expense of normal development. So let’s learn more about what’s going on here and what you can expect. Hopefully, with more of an understanding of what your baby is experiencing, you’ll find it easier each night as they learn to sleep for longer.
Facts about infant sleep
To help understand why babies wake up overnight, here are some facts:
- Babies have tiny tummies, so they wake up to feed, and this means they are limited to short sleep cycles.
- Physiologically, babies can’t soothe themselves when they’re distressed, so they rely on someone to calm them when they wake up.
- Babies need someone else to provide them with a sense of safety and care - so they’re not well adapted to being alone.
Young babies aren’t born with a clear day/night pattern - they have to develop one. Their experiences help them develop that pattern, but so do sleep hormones, such as melatonin, which start to take effect around 5-6 months. These hormones help them be alert during the day and sleepy at night. But this does not mean they’ll immediately start sleeping through; rather, it means they are capable of longer blocks of sleep overnight, i.e. 4 to 5 hours.
But other babies sleep through...
Sometimes we see babies sleep for long periods through the night from an early age. Some babies sleep through the night but then stop as they progress through normal developmental phases. Other babies often wake overnight to feed and return to sleep happily for another short sleep cycle or three. If you think about adult sleep, some adults ‘need 9 hours’ while others ‘survive on 4’.
So where does your baby fit in?
Maybe fewer hours, maybe more, but it is doubtful it will be the same as other babies in your mum’s or dad’s group. Every baby is different, and it all goes to show that even when blocks of sleep happen, it is not guaranteed that they will continue. Don’t lose heart if your baby starts waking; it is probably developmentally appropriate for their age. Also, illness, teething and other social experiences can result in periods of wakefulness.
The other thing that influences the period of time a baby can be without you is their ability to return to sleep, unaided, after one sleep cycle. A baby’s sleep cycle lasts about 30-45 minutes. If they need your help to resettle each time they complete a cycle, then that’s how many times you’ll need to get up overnight. If a baby has opportunities to drift from a calm state without lots of input from you, then they will be more likely to be able to drift back to sleep into another sleep cycle. The trick is making them feel calm and safe when they’re awake - so that next time, maybe they’ll be happy enough to drift off to sleep, or maybe the time after that.
It takes time, consistency and hard work from us though. What happens so often is that our desperate need for sleep drives a belief that our baby must sleep through the night soon. Surely! But this expectation does not always lead to a calm environment. And this expectation usually doesn’t equate to the baby’s need for emotional support and nutrition overnight. For your baby, the sleep isn’t unbroken- it’s just their ‘normal’ sleep pattern, and so it won’t change until the time is developmentally right for them.
Ok, but when will they sleep through?
So we know sleep is determined by a lot of factors including developmental, environmental, temperamental and hormonal. We know babies need nutrition and comforting. That’s all well and good but when will my baby sleep through the night? Right. This is what you’re waiting for:
- Mostly when your baby’s stomach is large enough to hold a volume of milk that will sustain them for many hours;
- They can manage emotionally without your reassurance when they stir after a sleep cycle (if they sleep apart from you);
- Their hormones are flowing and helping them to establish overnight sleep patterns.
With all this in mind, research indicates that many babies can have longer blocks of sleep from around 6 months.
What does ‘sleeping through the night’ actually mean?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean 12 hours sleep. What we’re talking about is fewer wakings in 12 hours at night, but still some waking up. Many older babies will sleep through for 8 hours or more. It is also completely normal for about a third of babies to continue to wake overnight until they are 12 months or even 15 months old, though maybe only once a week or so. The variation is huge.
What is normal?
That is a matter of parental perception. In some non-Western countries, it’s expected that babies will frequently wake overnight, and this is accepted as normal. Some mothers breastfeed 3 or 4 or 5 times overnight but are happy to do so, and no one feels that this is a problem either. If you expect variations and short sleeps, particularly in the first months, then you won’t be disappointed by your babies sleep patterns. If your baby is looking like their sleeps are progressively extending around 6 months, and they are only waking a couple of times overnight, then you are all heading in the right direction.
When to get help?
In my experience, parents feel there is an issue when their baby:
- Can’t easily settle for sleep;
- Wakes up at the end of every 45-minute sleep cycle and needs to be soothed back to sleep;
- Resists sleep altogether.
These scenarios are particularly problematic for parents when it has been happening for several months, and all involved are tired and distressed. If your baby is past the first few unsettled months of life and they’re waking frequently or unable to settle readily, you could consider asking for some professional help. When your baby is distressed, and you are struggling to soothe them, or if you’re struggling to function on continuously broken sleep, it is certainly time to reach out for some gentle, kind support.
It’s a journey
Baby sleep in itself is not a fixed state, it varies, maybe from night tonight, maybe a month to month or year to year. It’s important not to rush your baby into anything. But while you’re waiting for those long luxurious nights of uninterrupted sleep, there are things you can do to promote happier sleep times.
For more information and resources, go to www.helenstevens.com.au
Author: Helen Stevens. Clinician, author and researcher. A Maternal and Child Health nurse and Infant Mental Health specialist with worldwide recognition for her work with baby sleep struggles.