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Sleep is something that many of us take for granted, and we often don’t prioritize sleep like we should. Most adults need approximately 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Within this time, an adult’s sleep cycle is generally 90-120 minutes long. Therefore, most adults will need approximately 5 completed sleep cycles each day in order to be alert, energized, and healthy. But what happens to our sleep when we have a baby? Suddenly, everything about our daily schedules gets turned inside out and backwards. Becoming new parents is about learning how to adjust to the changes in our sleep patterns as we respond and care for our babies. This discussion around sleep continues to be one of the most popular topics parents seek to learn about.
“When will my baby sleep through the night?” is one of the most commonly asked questions from new parents. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always simple or straightforward. Instead, parenting experts would like to reframe this answer in order to help new parents have more realistic expectations of their baby’s sleep patterns. Here are a few reasons why our goal is to normalize baby sleep and wake routines for new parents.
Now that we better understand the reasons why our sleep and wake, let’s focus on the topic of feedings through the night and when to expect your baby to sleep without multiple feedings.
Feedings throughout the night are important for your baby’s growth and development, especially in the first few months of life. A newborn needs to eat every 2-4 hours day and night in order to get enough calories for their body’s developmental needs. Therefore, we should expect that most babies will continue to wake multiple times during the night throughout the first 4 months of age. This is because most babies will double their birth weight by about 4 months of age. That is an incredible amount of growth, so that explains your baby’s demand to consume calories at this exponential rate.
Nighttime feedings are important for several reasons. During your baby’s growth spurts, nighttime feedings help to ensure that your little one is getting the extra calories needed to grow. Lactation and breastfeeding are also impacted by nighttime feedings in that a mother’s hormone levels shift during nighttime hours resulting in higher prolactin levels. Nighttime feedings are important in establishing and maintaining a breast milk supply. Therefore, we typically recommend that families should plan to breastfeed or pump during the night time in order to protect a milk supply.
It is also important to note that if your baby wakes up and is hungry, you should feed them. Babies’ hunger should not be ignored or pushed off in an attempt to get longer stretches of sleep. If your baby is hungry, they need to eat. A full and satisfied baby will get more sleep, and a better quality of sleep if their nutritional needs are met.
Once your baby gets to be about 4-6 months of age, you may begin to see longer stretches of sleep that happen more consistently. To optimize this to occur during the nighttime, it is important to feed your baby frequently during the day time. Therefore, continue to feed your baby approximately every 3-4 hours during the day, or on demand when your baby shows hunger cues. Babies who consume breast milk may want to eat more frequently than babies who consume formula, so continue to pay close attention to your baby’s behaviors and hunger cues, as this will help to determine your particular feeding routines with your baby.
If your baby is getting enough daytime calories, you will hopefully begin to experience more night time sleep. However, this does not usually mean that your baby will consistently sleep 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Instead, you may experience 5-6 hours of sleep occurring in one stretch followed by a wake up to eat, with another shorter stretch of sleep until morning. During this period of your baby’s development, it is also important to revisit those terms progressions and regressions.
By progressions, we mean periods of time when your baby seems to make progress towards developmental milestones. Sleep progressions are when we see babies stretching out their sleep in more consistent patterns. These are also aligned with the change in your baby’s sleep architecture and their development of self-soothing skills. As young babies' sleep cycles change, they are able to sleep longer, and connect sleep cycles more effectively if they also have some self-soothing skills in place that help them to fall asleep on their own.
By contrast, sleep regressions can happen when your baby is impacted by changes like teething, illness or a developmental milestone such as sitting or crawling. These events are a normal part of your baby’s development, so although they may cause sleep regressions, you should still try to remember that we expect all healthy babies to have both progressions and regressions as part of normal healthy development.
As your baby moves beyond 6 months of age and closer to 1 year old, you may begin to notice longer sleep stretches that continue to emerge on a consistent basis. As babies get closer to 1 year of age, they are also more likely to develop the ability to go without a night time feeding, so long as they are getting adequate calories from daytime feedings. Many babies will continue to wake 1-2 times during the night even past their first birthday, and some parents will also continue to feed their baby during the night. These are personal choices based on your family’s decisions about what is best for your baby.
Most babies can make it through a 6+ hour period of time at night without a feeding. However, just because they can make it through the night does not mean that they will want to consistently do so. Sometimes choosing to wean also comes down to what feels right for the parent. For example, some breastfeeding mothers do not want to wean their baby during the night for specific reasons, and it is important to reiterate that these are personal choices. Before deciding to wean your baby from the breast or a bottle through the night, it is important to talk with your baby’s pediatrician to determine if your baby is growing adequately and getting enough daytime calories to make it through the night without feedings.
Parenting through the night can be just as demanding as during the day time, so if you are struggling with multiple nighttime wakings and feedings with your baby, you may be looking for support. Talk with your partner and your support system, or consider a community-based group for parents where you can openly discuss concerns and questions to get peer support. As you adjust to the challenges of irregular sleep patterns with your baby, it is critical that you also pay close attention to your own sleep habits and needs. If you are not consistently getting enough completed sleep cycles for yourself, you will also need a plan to nap during the day or go to bed earlier at night to make up for lost sleep.
When you are ready to wean your baby’s nighttime feedings, take it slow and begin by decreasing the amount that you feed during the nighttime over a period of several days. This may help your little one have an easier transition than stopping cold turkey. Most importantly, it is important to honor your intuition about what feels right for your baby and your family.
Regardless of how many people are asking you if your baby is sleeping through the night, you should feel confident about normalizing your baby’s experience with sleep. Your little one will sleep when they are developmentally ready to do so. We all eventually develop the skills and abilities to sleep well independently, and your baby will too.