It’s so common for mothers to worry when their babies don’t sleep through the night. After all, everyone knows they’re “supposed to.” Some doctors recommend nighttime weaning and “cry it out” methods if your baby is not sleeping through the night by 6 months or even earlier. Even when the mom herself has no problems with baby nursing at night, she still worries that this is a problem, since American society seem to consider it one. There are books all over the bookstores with advice on solving so-called “sleep problems.”
First, please ignore what everyone else says about your baby’s sleep habits and what is “normal.” These people are not living with you or your baby. Unless your doctor sleeps in the next room and your baby is keeping him awake every night, he has no reason to question a healthy baby’s sleep habits. If you and your baby enjoy nighttime feedings, then why not continue? It’s a great way to have time with her, particularly if you are apart during the day.
Every baby is different, and some sleep through the night earlier than others (schedules or food usually have nothing to do with this). Your baby may be hungry (keep in mind that breastmilk digests in less than 2 hours) or she may just want time with you. Babies whose mothers work during the week often nurse more at night and on weekends, perhaps to reconnect with mom.
Many doctors tend to look at night nursing only from a nutritional standpoint, but this is only part of the story. After the first few months, your baby will begin to associate the breast with far more than just a way to satisfy hunger and thirst. It becomes a place of comfort, security, warmth, closeness, and familiarity. The act of nursing is not just nourishing; it is nurturing. Keep in mind that these needs are every bit as real as baby’s physical ones, and having them met is every bit as needful to baby’s overall development.
If the amount that your child sleeps and nurses at night isn’t a major problem for you, then there’s no reason to try to change anything. You are NOT doing a bad thing by nursing on cue; you are doing a wonderful thing for your baby. When you comfort baby at night, you are not teaching her a bad habit: you are teaching her that you are there for her when she needs you — Is security a bad habit?
Why do babies wake at night?
Babies wake at night for many reasons, and they often start waking at night after sleeping through for a few weeks or months. Some of the reasons for night waking (in no particular order) are:
- baby wants more time with mom
- developmental advances (for example: waking more often right before or after learning to turn over, crawl or talk)
- illness, allergy, diaper rash, eczema
- hunger (including growth spurts)
- reverse cycling: Some babies whose moms are away during the day prefer to reject most/all supplements while mom is away, and nurse often during the evening and night. If mom is very busy during the day or if baby is very distracted, this can also lead to reverse cycling.
When your child nurses more often at night, go through this checklist to see if you can figure out what might be going on. Sometimes there may be more than one thing causing the night waking.
What is normal when it comes to night waking?
- Do Older Babies Need Night Feedings? by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA
- The myth of baby sleep regressions – what’s really happening to your baby’s sleep? by Pinky McKay, IBCLC
- Is Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night Yet? by Jennifer Rebecca Thomas, MD, FAAP, IBCLC
- 5 Cool Things No One Ever Told You About Nighttime Breastfeeding from Breastfeeding Chicago
- Night Waking: or, “Will I Ever Get A Good Night’s Sleep Again?” by Anne Smith, IBCLC
- Pillow Talk: Helping your Child Get a Good Night’s Sleep By Paul M. Fleiss, author of Sweet Dreams: A Pediatrician’s Secrets for Baby’s Good Night’s Sleep
- FAQ on Sleeping through the Night from LLL
- Myth: Good Babies Sleep Through by Linda J. Smith, BSE, FACCE, IBCLC
- Rethinking “Healthy” Infant Sleep by James J. McKenna, Ph.D.
- Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape– an interesting article that discusses sleep research and “normal” sleep patterns
- Resources: Controlled Crying @
Why You Need to Put Baby Down Awake
Read this carefully. Don’t skim it, ACTUALLY read it. What I’m about to tell you is the single most important thing you need to know about why 99% of babies older than 6 months are crappy sleepers. What I’m about to tell you is the answer to every post on every desperate new-baby forum where desperately exhausted parents are asking questions like:
- My baby used to sleep great and now is up all night. I think he’s teething – help!
- My 8 month old is hungry all night long. I’m afraid my milk is drying up. What can I do to increase milk production?
- 7 month old used to sleep great in the crib but now will only sleep while being held. My back is killing me. How do I get her back into her own bed?
- 9 month old is having terrible separation anxiety and now demands that we come back into his room and rock him all night long. We’re soooo tired. Anybody know when things will get better?
- How do I get my 14 month old baby to sleep through the night?
The answer to all of these questions/challenge is actually THE SAME. The following 2 pieces of information are the missing links that most parents don’t understand and that fundamentally hinder their ability to help their child sleep through the night.
#2 – Baby Sleep is Fundamentally Different from Yours
Most nights adult sleepers will wake up ever so slightly ~4 hours after they fell asleep. Usually you fluff your pillow, roll over, and aren’t even really aware that it happens. Unless you’re pregnant in which case this is probably when you make your nightly trip to the bathroom.
Babies wake up all night long. Sometimes they may need your help or a quick meal to fall back asleep. But I promise you that between bedtime and morning your baby wakes up far more often than you know. Beyond the times when they wake YOU up they also cycle into light sleep far more often than adults do. This is roughly how your baby sleeps from 0-6 months of age:
Babies who have not yet developed object permanence can be happily rocked, bounced, or nursed to sleep without issue. They’ll wake up 2-4 times each night to be fed and/or rocked back to sleep. It’s not the most fun thing you’ve ever done but it’s to be expected of newborn babies. So you clutch your coffee with white-knuckled hands and dream of the day your baby sleeps through the night. But putting your baby down 100% asleep will seem like it’s a winning strategy. For now.
But once your baby develops object permanence putting baby down while asleep will almost always blow up on you. Now your baby remembers that when they fell asleep you were there. When they move into light sleep where they used to simply fall asleep on their own, they wake themselves up fully. Because you were there, and now you aren’t. Worse, they’re generally pretty upset. In their own baby world they’re yelling at you saying, “Hey! Where did you go! What happened?”
Let’s put this in perspective. Imagine going to bed in your bedroom. A few hours later you wake up on your front lawn. Would you simply roll over and go back to sleep in the grass? Or would you stand up and start screaming? Would you demand loudly to be let back into the house so that you could sleep in your bed? Do you think you would be freaked out by the mysterious force that somehow carried you out to the lawn?
Your baby is reacting to the surprise of finding out that the circumstances they observed when falling to sleep is no longer the circumstance they are finding when they wake up. There are lots of different surprises that can result in a baby who wakes up all night long.
- Putting baby down 100% asleep
- Pacifier use – fell asleep in mouth, wake up not in mouth
- Mobiles or other timed devices – on when fell asleep, off when wake up
- Music used at bedtime but not played all night long
- Mommy/Daddy stay in room till baby falls asleep but then sneak out
Now you and your baby are up all night. Even worse, their longest window of uninterrupted sleep probably occurs before you even go to bed so now you are literally up all night.
Thus, in children, the first three or four hours of the night are spent mainly in very deep sleep from which the child is not easily aroused. Parents are often aware of this fact, because the period of lighter sleep that follows, with more frequent wakings, may begin at about the time they are going to sleep themselves.–Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems Dr. Ferber