Sleeping through the night is an ambiguous term. If I polled 100 different people, I would probably get 100 different answers.
Some may consider 4-6 hours sleeping through the night, some may consider 10-12 hours with feedings sleeping through the night, and others would say that it is 12 hours of sleep without feeding.
Of course, sleeping through the night is also age-dependent! What that looks like at 2 months old is very different than what it looks like at 12 months old.
Sleepless nights as a parent are not fun, but unfortunately, they come with the job sometimes!
This is not to say that you will be sleep deprived forever, but that the sleep deprivation comes in waves due to newborn sleep habits, sickness, travelling, etc. It is not unusual to google “when do babies start sleeping through the night” at 2 am (or 3 am, 4 am, and 5 am…)!
We will cover some important points in this blog including:
- What does sleeping through the night mean
- When babies should sleep through the night
- When babies can sleep through the night without feeding (and that covers breastfeeding too!)
- How to get your baby to sleep longer at night
- What might be keeping your baby from sleeping at night
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is a very common challenge among parents. We might have to redefine what sleeping through the night means though!
The good news is that your baby will get there! Some education in the meantime may be helpful.
Here is a good review on safe infant sleep practices before we get started!
What does sleeping through the night means?
It is important to note that absolutely no one sleeps through the night without waking up. Scientifically speaking, we all wake up frequently throughout the night as a safety check.
Often, it is just part of normal biological sleep cycles since it is normal to come up closer to the surface (light sleep) before then heading off into the next cycle of sleep.
If something disturbs sleep when we are at the end of a sleep cycle, we can wake up and feel quite awake.
We may feel frustrated that we wake up at the same time each night or at the same intervals, but be reassured by this! It means our internal clock and sleep mechanisms are working.
Imagine going deeper into sleep early in the night in waves. You dip deeper before midnight and the waves become more shallow as you get closer to morning hours.
This is due to hormones; our sleep hormones gradually decrease as the night goes on and cortisol rises to wake us up closer to morning.
Typically around 4-6 months of age, your baby will get the majority of their sleep during the night which means it starts to consolidate into longer stretches of sleep.
This is because the number of naps they take decrease as they get older. That does not mean they are “sleeping through the night” at those ages though.
It just means they are developing more adult-like sleep patterns and may not signal to you every single time they wake throughout the night.
When should babies sleep through the night?
There is no definite answer to this. Anything a baby “should” do is absolutely baby specific! When a baby is able to sleep through the night is also dependent on your baby’s specific development!
For really young babies, it is hard for them to sleep in longer intervals during the 4th trimester because of things like:
- The Moro reflex
- Needing to gain weight
- Having tiny tummies
- Difficulty adjusting to life outside of the womb
If you do have a baby that is sleeping for long stretches at night from a young age and your paediatrician clears you from having to wake them to eat, then enjoy that sleep!
If this is a baby-led situation, then you have nothing to worry about. A baby will start to sleep in longer stretches when they are starting to lose their Moro reflex, are gaining weight well, taking in more calories during the day, and are starting to learn independent sleeping habits.
To read more about the Moro Reflex, you can check out this blog. To summarize, this is involuntary reflex newborns have that looks like they have startled.
This “startle” will wake them often (unless they are swaddled and in that case, they may sleep for longer stretches of time).
For weight gain, a lot of babies will lose 10% of their body weight after birth. Some lose more and some lose less, but most paediatricians like to see them regain their birth weight within the first 2 weeks.
Because of this initial weight loss, it is important to wake for feedings and not allow them to go for more than 2-4 hours without eating.
Once they’ve regained their birth weight, you can discuss allowing baby to wake you for feedings instead of the other way around!
In the first few months, you probably did a lot of extra soothing as babies have difficulty regulating their emotions. Babies are not crying out of want or to manipulate you.
They are crying to have their needs met, whether that’s because they need a diaper change, hunger or sleep!
As they get older though, when you have built a lot of good sleep associations, you will find that your baby can naturally settle themselves to sleep because they have a good routine that signals it is time to sleep!
When that skill is developing/in place, they will be able to settle back to sleep if their other needs have been met.
When can babies sleep through the night without feedings?
Most of the time, we assume that a baby is waking during the night out of hunger. So we feed them and they go back to sleep; repeat however many times throughout the night.
If we assume they are waking out of hunger, and you want them to sleep through the night without feedings, then the majority of paediatricians will agree that a baby can take in adequate ounces or calories during the day time without needing feedings overnight.
This is something you would need to discuss with your specific paediatrician as they follow your child’s growth curve and nutrition to ensure adequate calories are being taken in during the day in order for you to wean feedings overnight.
Again, it is important to note that babies wake up throughout the night for other reasons as well, and not just hunger.
They could wake up because of sickness, developmental milestones, inability to return to sleep without assistance, too hot/cold, or a dirty diaper to name a few things.
The majority of people believe that breastfed babies will not sleep through the night because breastmilk digests quickly. While that may be true, babies take in a certain amount of calories during a 24 hour period.
It can be distributed in a way that they take all of their needed calories in a day during the day time and are able to sleep through the night. Not eating during the night is not taking away calories, it is just shifting calories to the day time.
It is important to note that babies who are formula fed are not necessarily better eaters. This study found there was no difference in sleep for breastfeeding or formula feeding babies.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “by six months of age, nighttime feedings are usually not necessary and many infants sleep through the night; 70-80% will do so by nine months of age. Infants typically sleep 9-12 hours during the night and take 30 minutes to two-hour naps, one to four times a day – fewer as they reach age one.”
If we assume that babies wake because their brain is cycling through light and deep sleep cycles per normal biological function, then there are definitely things you can do help them sleep longer at night.
That would include things like a good bedtime routine, adequate daytime sleep, and independent sleeping skills at bedtime. You can read more about that below!
When can I let my 2-month old sleep through the night?
Since “sleeping through the night” is an ambiguous term, on average, you can expect a 2-month-old baby to sleep about 4-6 hour stretches. Some will sleep more and some will sleep less. Make sure to ask your paediatrician how often your specific baby needs to eat during the night!
“Will adding cereal to my baby’s diet help them sleep longer at night?” According to this study, feeding infants rice cereal in the bottle before bedtime does not appear to make much difference in their sleeping through the night.
How do you get your baby to sleep longer at night?
The biggest things that affect night-time sleep are:
- Adequate daytime sleep
- Consistent routines
- Great sleep environment
- Encourage baby to fall asleep with less assistance from you
Adequate daytime sleep is a huge contributor to sleeping through the night. Babies that do not sleep well during the day are often overtired at bedtime.
Overtired babies generally have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep, leading to interrupted nighttime sleep for everyone!
Check out this blog to learn more about naps!
Routine, routine, routine! Babies thrive on consistency in their daytime and nighttime routine. They will accept sleep more when they know it is coming.
Think of their sleep routine like a cool down after a workout. Generally, you would not be able to fall asleep immediately after a heart-pumping workout, right?
You do a short cooldown to help prep your body for post-workout activities. This is what a nap or bedtime routine does for your little one. It helps them transition from one activity to the next!
Doing the same thing for most sleep will result in those good sleep habits that lead to longer stretches of sleep each night.
Studies that reference the importance of a bedtime routine show that implementing a routine before sleep will result in shorter sleep onset latency, reduced night wakings, and increased sleep duration.
Decreased parent-perceived sleep problems and daytime behaviour problems were also related to the institution of a regular bedtime routine.
A bedtime routine can contribute to an array of positive developmental outcomes beyond improved sleep, inclusive of language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioural regulation, parent-child attachment, and family functioning, among other outcomes.
This study also found that sleep disturbances in infants and toddlers can be quickly ameliorated within just a few nights after implementation of a consistent bedtime routine, including a bath, massage, and quiet activities.
A good sleep environment is a cool, dark, and white noise. The AAP recommends a room temperature of 68-72 degrees.
Darkness is important because babies are not motivated sleepers! Anything they can see can be a distraction from sleep.
To test the darkness, you will want to sit in your babies room for about 5 minutes (enough time for your eyes to adjust) and then hold your hand in front of your face. If you can see your hand, it is not dark enough!
Having independent sleep habits can encourage your little one to return to sleep on their own when they wake throughout the night without needing you to come to do it for them.
This means if you put your child down awake at bedtime, they fall asleep completely on their own from awake, then when they wake at night, baby can return to sleep without signalling to you that they were ever awake!
Again, we can not train them to not wake up at all- that is not how sleep cycles work. But you can give them the tools to return to sleep if they are not hungry, sick, or in a dirty diaper for example.
This study states, “infants who were consistently put into the crib awake were more likely to be self-soothers than infants who were consistently put into the crib asleep.
Infants who required parental assistance to fall asleep at the beginning of each night were more likely to require parental assistance upon awakening in the middle of the night.”
If you start to notice your little one finding their hands/thumbs, rubbing their face or rubbing their head on the mattress, those are self-settling behaviours and may indicate your baby is able to settle themselves to sleep at bedtime as well as throughout the night.
It is very important to start recognizing your baby’s sleep cues early on so that you are not trying to put a very overtired child to bed; we know that will result in less sleep overall, not more!
Some common sleep cues are:
- Red eyebrows
- Staring off/disengaging
- Rubbing eyes
It is important that you do not see multiple sleep cues and that you anticipate your little one’s need for sleep.
Once you see multiple ones, you may be past their optimal sleep time and you will have a hard time settling your little one or they will have a hard time settling themselves!
If your baby is a newborn and is not rolling yet, using a swaddle can be beneficial in getting longer stretches of sleep at night too! Here are some resources to learn more about swaddling:
- How to feel completely prepared for a newborn
- The difference between a swaddle and a sleep bag
- When to stop swaddling your baby
What is keeping your baby from sleeping through the night?
It is not realistic to think that your baby who is sleeping in 2-3 hour stretches will suddenly begin sleeping 10-12 hours at a time.
Sleeping longer stretches at night will come gradually for most babies. The long stretch of sleep at night generally happens an hour a time, every week or two at a time.
That means it may look something like: sleeping a 4-hour stretch at 4-6 weeks old and then sleeping a 5-7 hour stretch around 8 weeks old.
That stretch of sleep is usually because their bedtime is moving earlier as they begin to produce sleep hormones and establish a circadian rhythm. So their night feed will stabilize around the same time (like 2 am) and their bedtime will move from 10 pm to 9 pm, to 8 pm until it settles around 7 pm.
That means that not adjusting your little one's bedtime as they get older and keeping it too late can interfere with your child’s ability to sleep through the night eventually.
Some other things that may interfere with your baby’s ability to sleep through the night are:
- Sleep regressions
- Growth spurt or illness
- Not having independent sleeping skills
- Not having a great sleep environment
- Separation anxiety
You can read about sleep regressions in this blog, but the common theme with sleep regressions is that your little one is going through a huge developmental change.
Those developmental changes can interrupt sleep for a lot of reasons, but mostly because night time is when they want to practice those skills!
The most common ones happen around 4 months, 8 months, 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months. Your baby may suddenly refuse naps, have difficulty falling asleep, wake more often at night or wake earlier in the morning.
Growth spurts or illness can cause your little one to be fussier and have erratic sleep patterns. Always consult your paediatrician as interrupted sleep can be the only sign of an ear infection for some babies!
If it is a growth spurt, you will see increased intake both day and night and their sleep will generally go back to normal within a few days.
If your little one is unable to put themselves to sleep at bedtime, they may have difficulty returning to sleep when they wake during their normal light sleep cycles throughout the night.
If they are waking every 45-90 minutes at night, this is when a lot of families would choose to sleep train.
Sleep training is conditioning your child to fall asleep in a certain way. If your baby is conditioned to fall asleep with feeding for example, then they may continue to need that at night to return to sleep when they wake out of a light sleep cycle.
If you condition them to fall asleep on their own, then night wakings where they signal a need to you may become less and less as they return to sleep on their own and will then signal when they can not return to sleep without your help for whatever reason that may be!
Not having an optimal sleep environment may interfere with your little one’s sleep. If they’re expected to sleep in a bright environment, they are too hot, or their room is too quiet, then they may wake more often because of that.
Using things like blackout shades, sleep bags or bamboo clothing to keep them cool, and continuous white noise can improve sleep!
Separation anxiety peaks just when sleep is starting to come together for a lot of babies! They may cry more often, refuse to go to sleep without you right there with them, or wake more often at night for your company.
This is a phase and with a lot of reassurance, spending quality time together during the day or during your bedtime routine, and consistency, your baby will return to their normal sleeping habits.
In summary, when babies start sleeping through the night is dependent on a lot of factors and is achieved at different times for each child.
If you practice good sleep habits, consistency with day time sleep, a good sleep environment, assist your child through developmental milestones and encourage independent sleeping at bedtime, you will find your little may start sleeping through the night very soon!
Author Bio: Ashley Olson is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, owner of Heaven Sent Sleep, and passionate about helping new parents, experienced parents, desperate and sleep-deprived parents form healthy sleep habits for their children.
She has over 3 years of experience in working with families and has completed over 150 hours of coursework plus continuing education related to infant and toddler sleep. The focus of her work is on fostering a routine that grows your bond with your child while improving their sleep habits. She specializes in custom sleep plans and one on one support in changing sleep practices!