What does sleeping through the night really mean?
By Cradlewise Staff
What does sleeping through the night really mean?
By Cradlewise Staff
Shortly after a friend of mine had her first baby — and while I was fresh in the trenches of no sleep after having two babies under 2 years old — the friend casually shared how her baby had been sleeping through the night since coming home from the hospital.
I stared at her, not comprehending.
“You mean, like, the first night?” I asked, confused. “But not anymore, right?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Nope!” she responded. “She’s slept through the night since day one!”
Listen, here’s the truth: there are some — very, very rare — babies that sleep through the night from an early age. There are even some babies who sleep through the night or in long stretches completely on their own. They do exist. But for most of us, broken and interrupted sleep is just part of life with a baby.
The good news is, eventually, most babies do start sleeping through the night, although that can look a little different than you might think. Here’s what sleeping through the night looks like for babies and how we can all try to be more like my well-rested friend with our little ones.
What does sleeping through the night really mean anyways?
The American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics defines sleeping through the night for an infant as sleeping for six to eight consecutive hours without waking.
And while that might sound well and good, it’s important to point out that for many babies, those consecutive hours may not align with the hours that you, as the parent or caregiver, are sleeping too.
For example, if your baby goes down to sleep at 7 p.m. and then wakes up at 2 a.m., they are technically “sleeping through the night” by the AAP’s definition. It’s probably not an ideal time for you, of course, but your baby is still technically sleeping through the night.
Eventually, of course, your goal is to get your baby to sleep longer stretches and to better align their sleep times with your own. Over your baby’s first year, their brain will develop more and set patterns that mimic sleep-and-wake cycles like adults, which will allow them to sleep more consistently.
But for now, it may be reassuring to know that if your baby is capable of sleeping a six-hour consecutive stretch at once, they do have the ability to sleep through the night. Hooray!
What to do when your baby won’t sleep through the night
If your baby is not sleeping 6 to 8 consecutive hours at any time and you are exhausted, it’s perfectly normal to feel frustrated. Sleep deprivation is incredibly challenging and can affect everything from your physical to your mental health.
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution that will address every situation when a baby won’t sleep through the night, but here are some places you can start.
1. Establish the problem
First things first: it’s important to assess the situation based on your child’s age and determine if there is a real problem. If your child is still a baby, toddler, or even a preschooler, it may be perfectly normal for them to be waking up at night.
A 2021 Pediatrics study found that a significant number of babies — 57% — were still waking up at night even at 12 months old.
While babies over 6 to 8 months old generally do not need to wake up at night to eat, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that frequent nighttime awakenings are very normal: “Frequent waking is developmentally appropriate and allows the baby to wake up when he is in a situation in which he is not getting enough oxygen or is having problems breathing.”
In fact, even adults wake frequently during the night! We have just trained ourselves to go back to sleep. That should be your goal with your child too — teaching them how to put themselves back to sleep.
2. Talk to a pediatrician
Next up, talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns. If you truly suspect there might be something more going on other than “babies just don’t sleep well,” be persistent.
There could be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, such as allergies, food intolerances, or even sleep apnea contributing to your child’s sleep disturbances. It is important to rule out any medical conditions that could be playing a role.
3. Avoid melatonin unless ordered by a doctor
If you’re tempted to turn to melatonin, it’s important to understand how it works: Melatonin is not a sleeping pill and it won’t stop your child from waking up at night — it’s only used to help cue the sleep signals in the brain to fall asleep in the first place.
The AAP cautions parents against using melatonin because it can be easy to overdose a child, and while melatonin may be “natural,” it can still be deadly.
Always, always talk to a doctor before turning to melatonin. Boston Children’s Hospital explains that melatonin should be especially avoided for kids under the age of three, although again, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about your own child.
In some cases, the AAP explains that melatonin can be a useful tool to “reset” a sleep/wake cycle in children or teenagers, but it should not be used without careful consideration and a long-term plan.
Tips for getting your baby to sleep through the night
Again, while you should always talk to your doctor and rule out any possible medical concerns for a baby who is not sleeping, here are some expert-recommended tips for how to get your baby to sleep longer stretches at night.
1. Phase out feedings
The Cleveland Clinic explains that by 6 months old, most babies do not have a physical need to eat overnight.
That means that for the 6 to 8 hour consecutive stretch that makes up your baby’s “night” (remember, that could be from 7 p.m. – 2 a.m.!), your baby does not need to nurse or have a bottle.
Providing your baby has no medical needs that warrant a feeding, if you have a 6-month-old or older baby that’s still demanding overnight feedings, you can start phasing those out and incorporating other ways of getting your baby back to sleep without eating.
2. Encourage self-soothing
Remember our earlier conversation about self-soothing? The goal with baby sleep is not necessarily to ensure that they’re sleeping eight hours straight – it’s to ensure that if and when (because wakeups are usually inevitable!) they wake up, they can go back to sleep on their own.
Babies do not develop consistent sleep/wake cycles until around six months old, so you should not start sleep training until at least that age.
However, you can start encouraging your baby to learn to self-soothe very early on. Some babies are naturally better at this, while others may need more encouragement.
You can encourage self-soothing by:
- Laying your baby down drowsy but awake
- Giving your baby a few minutes before you pick them up when they wake up
- Waiting to see if your baby goes back to sleep when you hear them wake up instead of picking them up immediately
- Offering plenty of love and attachment during waking hours to form a secure bond
3. Create a consistent sleep routine
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: consistent sleep routines are key in establishing healthy sleep habits for babies and children.
Again, your baby may not be able to regulate sleep and wake like an adult until they’re six months old, but you can set up a sleep routine at any age.
Having a consistent sleep routine with the same steps, special items and behaviors teaches your baby when it’s time to go to sleep. It also helps physically cue their bodies and brains for sleep as well.
A sleep routine could consist of things like:
- Dimming the lights
- Giving your baby a bath
- Massaging your infant with lotion
- Putting on pajamas
- Reading a book or singing a special song together
- Rocking or cuddling
- Using white noise, like a fan or machine
- Removing screens from the sleep environment
And lastly, lay your baby down drowsy but awake so they get in the habit of falling asleep without you.
The AAP also recommends sticking to a consistent daytime and awake schedule as well so that your baby can better adjust to sleep/wake cycles and have the proper amounts of stimulation and wind-down times that will promote better sleep.
You can check our month-to-month sleep guides for more specific schedules for your baby’s age.
Q: What does sleeping through the night mean for babies?
A:Sleeping through the night for a baby generally means the baby sleeps for six to eight hours consecutively.
Q: What age is normal for a baby to sleep through the night?
A: Some babies will sleep through the night starting around 3 to 4 months, but the majority of babies will be sleeping through the night by 6 months old. However, all babies are different and it’s also very normal for babies and toddlers of all ages to wake occasionally during the night.
Q: When can a baby sleep through the night without eating?
A: By 6 months, most babies can sleep through the night without eating.