Trying to get babies sleeping through the night is a huge challenge that many parents face. If you speak to any parent I'm sure they will tell you that they can't wait to see their baby sleeping through the night - but when will that happen?
Truth is, every baby is different and they will sleep through the night when they are ready, but you can take comfort in the fact that many babies start sleeping through the night from 6 months old.
What Is ‘Sleeping Through the Night’?
When we talk about infant sleep, what do we mean when we say sleeping through the night? Contrary to popular belief, sleeping through the night isn't when a baby sleeps from 7 pm to 7 am, it's actually when a baby falls asleep and stays asleep for six hours or more.
Your child may wake briefly, but they are able to self-soothe and fall back to sleep.
Developmental Milestones and Sleeping Through the Night
Before your little one can sleep for an uninterrupted six hours or more, they have to pass a few developmental milestones first.
Decreased Moro (startle) reflex
The Moro reflex (commonly known as the startle reflex) causes babies' arms and legs to jerk for a variety of reasons including loud noise, change in temperature, and even a nightmare. If your little one still has an active startle reflex, their arms may jerk and wake them from their sleep.
The reflex usually fades out by 4 months old.
Little need for nighttime feedings
If your baby is gaining weight and is on the appropriate centile line for their age, they may show signs that they can go for longer stretches at night without the need to feed so often. This will vary from baby to baby and feeding preference will factor here. Breastfed babies will retain feeds overnight for longer.
Ability to self-soothe
The ability for your baby to self-soothe is a skill your little one will need to help them get back to sleep if they wake up during the night. This is something that parents can start working on with their children in a developmentally appropriate way from 4 months old.
How Can Parents Help Their Babies Sleep Through the Night?
Creating good sleep habits such as a consistent routine will help support your baby with sleeping through the night.
Just like with adults, what happens during the daytime and in the hours before bedtime affects nighttime sleep. Research shows that babies who follow a consistent bedtime routine are more likely to go to sleep earlier, take less time falling asleep, sleep longer, and wake up less during the night.
To create a regular nighttime routine with your baby the National Sleep Foundation recommends that you should create a consistent routine that has 3 or 4 elements that you follow regularly. These include:
- Bath or diaper change
- Reading a book or singing a lullaby
- Dimming the lights and eliminating loud noises
- Putting white noise on in the background
- Massage, cuddling or rocking gently to encourage sleepiness
The bedtime routine should follow with a goodnight kiss and lights out. You should aim to put your baby to bed drowsy and ready for sleep but awake as this helps your child learn how to fall asleep independently and helps to avoid infant sleep challenges.
A good bedtime routine is important for healthy sleep habits and the good thing is it's never too early to implement one.
In addition to a consistent bedtime routine, there are two strategies that have been proven effective in helping babies sleep better.
The bedtime fading sleep training method is a strategy based on the idea that if your baby isn't ready to sleep, they won't go down willingly. The fading approach tweaks your little one's sleep schedule and involves paying attention to their sleep cycle and cues so that you adjust their schedule to find the optimum bedtime.
The bedtime fading strategy can start as your baby grows and gains weight - usually between 4 and 6 months.
Self Soothing Strategies
We encourage parents to follow their parenting style when trying to choose ways to support your child in increasing their ability to self soothe. Parents can work on this with their children from 4 months and we support parents doing this via our Sleep Series programs. We offer 5 different strategies that you can choose. From low to high parental involvment, you choose what feels right for you. Some parents will choose Graduated Extinction style methods whereas others will feel that in-room methods such as the Chair Method is what is best for them. One size does not fit every family so choosing what feels right to you is very important.
What Prevents Babies From Sleeping Through the Night?
There are a few factors that can prevent your baby from sleeping through the night, including:
Once babies reach a certain developmental point they can sleep through the night without a feed. But, if they haven't met their daily nutrition requirements in the daytime, this will have a knock-on effect on their nighttime sleep and may see them retain feeding overnight for longer.
As babies get older they can develop separation anxiety. This is a very normal developmental stage for all children. During this stage children require support and reassurance for their parents and caregivers.
By being consistent to your general bedtime routine and established family sleep norms your little one will feel reassured and continue to sleep as you have established with them. If however they are unsettled every night and no amount of reassurance is helping it may be worth considering if it is a day time routine tweak that is needed to get things on track. Through our Sleep Series programs we provide ongoing sleep support to parents seeking day to day guidance about their childrens sleep.
Babies require balance in their day time sleep in order to sleep well overnight. By understanding and trying to put in place a developmentally balanced day time sleep routine for your little one you will be taking a step in the right direction towards sleeping through the night.
How to Help Your Baby Sleep Longer
If your baby is showing signs that they're ready to sleep through the night (often by sleeping for longer periods at night), you can do many things to help.
Start by putting them down in their crib at the appropriate bedtime for their age, for children under 1 this is usually around 7 p.m. The later your child stays up, the more likely it is that they will become overtired and this will have a significant impact on their nighttime sleep and cause them to start waking early too.
Parents should also create a consistent bedtime routine for children over 4 months old. Consistency is key after all, so if you want the best chance of your baby falling asleep and staying asleep you need to make it as routine as possible. Anything different may upset the process.
For more information on how to support your child in sleeping through the night check out our Sleep Series courses. These video-based sleep courses are being used by thousands of families globally with 95% of them reporting better sleep as a result. Not only will you get the information you need to achieve your family sleep goals but you will also get support via the Sleep Series Community on Facebook where Erica answers questions & hosts weekly live Q&A sessions.