Your baby’s sleep cycles can vary. While we love our new baby, the lack of sleep due to midnight feedings, late night fits, and more can make for a very exhausting bedtime routine.
From one exhausted mom to another, I could not wait until my baby boy started sleeping through the night! Running around like a Mombie was taking its toll! If your baby has not quite gotten the memo on sleeping through the night – they are not the only ones. Below, I explain why sleep matters for all of us, as well as some expert advice on helping your baby sleep longer at night.
Before we get into when baby should start sleeping all night, let’s talk about why sleep duration matters. Not only do mom and baby need sleep, but they both need quality sleep. (After all, aren’t we all a bit fussier when tired?)
When you sleep, your brain is active. For newborns and children, however, it is even more so. This activity helps with both mental and physical growth and development. Why?
When you fall asleep, your body and brain goes through multiple Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles. These cycles help your body to relax, repair, and reenergize itself. (Consider sleep your nightly reboot!) For kids, growth hormones are released as well.
Sleep is important for anyone, but it is essential for babies and children. In an ideal world, your youngsters would be follow the below sleep cycles:
However, we do not live in an ideal world and every baby and child will be different from the others. (My son, Oliver, certainly helped prove that fact to me!)
Circadian rhythms, which is the fancy label doctor’s use to describe your sleep-wake cycle, are naturally regulated by light and dark. Newborns and infants, however, are not born with this innate light-cycle sense. It takes time to develop, typically beginning around 6 weeks.
Between 3 and 6 months, your baby should fully develop their circadian rhythm. This means that, while some babies as young as 3 months may sleep through the night, nearly all 6 month-old babies should be able to sleep for 6 to 8 hours straight. (For some, this may take longer. It may even last until 12 months. However, the National Sleep Foundation states that approximately 70% of all babies 9 months and older should be able to sleep through the night.)
Recognizing the signs of a sleepy baby are important. (After all, your baby probably cannot recognize it themselves, which can make it hard to establish their natural circadian rhythm.) Rubbing their eyes, yawning, looking away, and fussing are typically queues of a tired baby. However, you know your baby best. During the first few months, it is important to take note of how your baby indicates that they are tired. This can help you to carefully craft their nighttime and naptime routines. For example, my son would start rubbing his eyes more and more as he got tired. Once the yawning started, though, I knew it was only a matter of time! If I missed the signals, it made for one very fussy little boy!
During the daytime, these signs can also help you to recognize when your baby needs more activities to help prevent accidental non-nap sleeping! (After all, we have all experienced the consequences of an unplanned nap. Not only can they throw off your day, but they can also cause problems with nighttime sleeping. This then leads to issues the next day too and so forth.)
There are plenty of myths to be found when it comes to getting a baby to sleep through the night. Often related to size or diet, these myths lack the evidence and consistency needed to be actual methods.
For starters, some believe that bigger babies, who are eating solids, are better sleepers. This is simply untrue. Age is the primary factor when it comes to sleeping. (Solids do not induce the natural circadian rhythm. Only time can develop this.)
Another common myth involves adding rice cereal to your baby’s nighttime bottle. First, it is important to point out that the American Academy of Pediatrics highly recommends that babies are fed only breastmilk until they are 6 months old. While this is not always possible, it is considered by medical experts to be the best source of nutrients for your baby. That being said, introducing rice cereal to your baby’s formula or milk does not provide nutritional value at this stage. Additionally, these elements can be choking hazards as your baby has not yet developed the skill to swallow non-liquids at this point.
Everyone is born capable of being able to sleep for long periods of time. We all typically experience short waking periods throughout the night after completing a sleep cycle as well. Whether to take a deep breath, startled by the end of a dream, or just to stretch – these slight stirrings are often followed by falling immediately back to sleep. However, babies are not quite able to do this as they have not yet developed the ability to settle themselves back down. This, amongst other reasons, is one of the primary factors that prevents your baby from sleeping through the night.
According to pediatrician Judith Owens, the director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic located at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital, you can help to encourage your baby to be more self-reliant. (I know – it sounds crazy, but there is a method to the madness!) By the time your baby is 4 months, Owens recommends you begin to put him or her to bed once they are drowsy but still awake. This will allow your baby to avoid developing the tendency to rely on you in order to fall asleep. Why does this matter? Because, as they filter through their sleep cycles, your baby will be better able to fall back to sleep on their own. Babies who are used to having mom or dad help them fall asleep are more prone to separation anxiety, as well as crying to help going back to sleep at night. (Understanding this helped me get through the Oliver’s first sleep training cycle. It is also helping me through his 18-month re-training cycle as well!)
Another way to help encourage natural sleep cycles is to establish a daytime and nighttime routine. To help newborns to be more alert throughout the day, exposing them to light, noise, and activities can prevent unintentional periods of sleep. As the evening starts, a reduction in these things can help to encourage a calmness that soothes your baby and fosters a natural circadian rhythm.
Sleeping with a pacifier is another issue. Many experts agree that a pacifier at night actually helps to reduce the risk of sudden instant death syndrome, or SIDS, during the first 12 months. The issue is that most babies do not develop the motor skills necessary to pop their pacifier back into their mouth when it falls out until they are 8 months old. Being unable to reclaim their pacifier often leads to midnight cries for help. Janet K. Kennedy, Ph.D. and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, advises you stop responding to cries. While it may take a few nights of sleeplessness, your baby will eventually be able to adjust and sleep throughout the night even when the pacifier falls out of their mouth.
Slight noises and sounds are another reason your baby may wake at night. Investing in a white noise machine can help. By playing a quiet white noise while preparing your baby for bed, he or she will begin to associate the noise with sleep. This can help sooth them, while preventing other sounds from waking your baby.
Ongoing cries at night can be frustrating for everyone. After all, if you cannot get the quality sleep you need, it can make it hard for you to focus on caring for the baby. (It can also impede milk production as the body becomes more and more fatigued!) However, mom may not be the only other person in the house. If you have other children, their sleep is equally as important to their growth and development. Talk to them about what to expect as the baby grows. If you are working to establish something, like the pacifier strategy above, explain that the baby may be fussy. Perhaps start your pacifier plan for a weekend or upcoming holiday week, to allow your other children to sleep longer the next day.
Speaking with your pediatrician can help too. Not only can they ensure your baby is developing at a healthy rate, they can also provide tips and tricks to help encourage baby to sleep.