I am going to start with the bad news first. There is no one "system," product, elixir, or gizmo that will make babies sleep magically through the night. Babies will sleep between 12 and 16 hours per day and some will sleep for significant portions of the night even as young as 4 months of age. Many others do not. Now, we don't want you to think that we are suggesting that it is good or healthy for babies to wake up constantly. Healthy babies will slowly but steadily stretch out the time they spend sleeping. All babies are different but here are some guidelines of what parents might reasonably expect:
- Newborns (birth to 6 weeks) wake frequently and erratically. Parents of newborns must be realistic, prepared, and ready to ask for help!
- By 2 months, most babies are sleeping longer stretches, but waking 2-3 times during the night.
- By 4 months, many babies start to sleep more like their parents, falling asleep into a deeper sleep and sleeping for 4-5 hours at once. Unfortunately, teething and changing routines can increase waking intermittently around this time.
- By 6 months, some babies sleep for 6 hours while others are still waking more frequently, though not every night. There are so many changes typically occurring at 6 months, new skills, new activities, new travels, new teeth...older babies sleep well for a few nights, then wake again. It is no wonder that "sleep training" is so popular among parents of babies around this age.
- About 80% of babies sleep through most nights by 1 year of age.
Once past the newborn period, waking that consistently exceeds these rough guidelines might indicate that something is interfering with your baby's ability to sleep. The first step is to check with your doctor to make sure that your baby is healthy and growing well. Some common (non-health- or feeding-related) triggers for waking include:
- Lights from TVs or video games flickering on the wall (steady nightlights are usually ok)
- Caffeine in the breastfeeding mother's diet
- Changes in daily routine or no consistent routine
- Baby is overstimulated or overtired
- Too much sleep during the day
- The need to practice new motor skills
- Noise, but only if it is sudden and quite loud (babies quickly get used to familiar noises)
So what can be done to help older babies sleep longer if sleep training isn't likely to work?
- Establish routines! Repeated activities and experiences are calming to babies and help them establish body rhythms that are closer to those of their parents. Bedtime routines allow babies time to shift naturally from a drowsy state into sleep. Babies will differ in how much time they need to become ready for sleep; many take at least 20 minutes. Believe it or not, you'll miss the bedtime routines when your children outgrow them.
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine for breastfeeding mothers (don't worry, you'll get to have that morning mocha again). Babies' bodies take a lot longer to get rid of caffeine than we do. Remember there is caffeine in tea, sodas, energy drinks, and other products. Read labels.
- Make sure that baby isn't overstimulated close to bed time (this is easy to do if parents typically get home late from work). Watch for indications that your baby is drowsy and start your bedtime routine right away. If you wait too long, you might end with a screaming, overtired baby who will be less likely to sleep than a baby put to bed earlier.
- Make sure that baby spends plenty of time awake during the day. Give babies plenty of chance to be active, moving, and practicing their new skills during the day.
- Include a special bedtime toy in your bedtime ritual, something that is safe to leave with baby as he drifts into sleep.
- Don't end your routine with baby being completely asleep. When babies are put down when they are very drowsy but before they are asleep, they may be better at putting themselves back to sleep if they wake in the night. This doesn't work with babies who hate feeling drowsy and resist sleeping at all costs! I had one of those! The trick is that the baby must be very drowsy or very accustomed to this as an end to the night time routine.
- Recognize that most babies make noise when drifting to sleep or they are dreaming, don't assume that intermittent noises mean your baby needs you immediately. Give your older baby a few moments to fall asleep or get back to sleep on his own.
We understand what it is like to be sleep deprived working moms. We also realize that families need to make their own decisions about how they deal with their infants' sleep patterns. But, unrealistic expectations about infant sleep may lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, and insecurity for parents who already are under enough stress. Infant sleep duration is not an indicator of parenting skills. Gaining understanding of how babies sleep patterns evolve, using cues, and developing consistent day- and nighttime routines can result in less stress, more sleep, and much happier babies and parents.
Next time: Answers to more reader questions.