If you are reading this at 2am whilst trying to console a baby who is refusing to sleep then you have our sympathies. Night time awakenings are a rite of passage for all new parents, and perhaps one of the hardest aspects of parenting to adjust to, particularly if you previously needed at least eight hours a night just to function. The important thing to remember is that this will pass, and one day in the not too distant future your child will sleep through the night.
There is no set answer to the question “When Do Babies Sleep Through The Night” as it varies so much from child to child. Physically, your child will become capable of sleeping through the night when they are typically around 4-6 months old and no longer dependant on night-time feedings. Some lucky parents report that their babies began sleeping through as early as 8 or 9 weeks old, whereas others are still tearing their hair out at their three year old’s inability to spend the entire night asleep in their own bed.
Furthermore, children never fail to surprise us, and so just when you think that you have this sleep business cracked, your baby will start regular night time awakenings again, particularly around the time when they are reaching important developmental milestones, having a growth spurt, teething, or for seemingly no reason whatsoever other than a need to test your patience.
How To Sleep Train A Baby
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of things you can try to help your baby sleep. In fact, there are a whole myriad of different methods, and plenty of debate over which method is more effective, and better for your baby. You have probably had plenty of advice from friends and family about your baby’s sleep, and no doubt much of it will be conflicting. Since every child is different, what works for one will not necessarily work for another, which is why it’s important that you find a method that works for you and your family without fearing the judgement of those around you.
Establish A Routine
Whatever your preferred method of getting your baby to sleep is, a routine is key. Babies love routine, as it helps them to navigate through their world as they try and understand everything around them. Establishing a bedtime routine will teach your baby that this is now the time for sleep and not play. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant; it could be a simple bedtime story or song that you sing each night, or you could make it more of an event with a bath, a feed, and a story.
This should be a quiet and peaceful time for your baby, as it helps them to relax and settle down ready for sleep. During the day you can try being lively during feedings and encouraging your baby to take interest in toys and other objects around them, as this will enable your baby to understand the difference between day and night.
Ideally, your bedtime routine should follow the same pattern at around the same time every night. For most babies, sometime around 7pm is the ideal time for going to sleep, but you may find that in the early months at least, your baby has a later or earlier sleep pattern. Furthermore, the earlier you start putting this routine into place the better, and most experts agree that babies are able to understand and follow routine from about six weeks old.
As strange as it might sound, day time naps are vital for healthy night time sleep. That’s because an overtired baby will become too cranky and distressed to fall asleep at night. So think about your day time routine as well and make sure that your baby gets enough sleep during the day, even if it means kicking out those visiting friends and family who are desperate for cuddles. Have a look at our article on Baby & Toddler Naps for more information on how much sleep your baby will need during the day.
Sleep Training For 0-3 Month Old Babies
Many of the sleep training methods that are covered in this article are recommended for older babies. That is because until your baby is around 4-6 months old, they are likely to still require night-time feedings as part of their normal growing process. However, you can take small steps in the early weeks to encourage your baby to sleep better.
For the first month, you could try swaddling your baby. This involves wrapping your baby snuggly in a cotton sheet or a muslin cloth to prevent them waking themselves up with their own startle reflex (an involuntary movement that all new-borns have when they feel that they are falling, even if they are safely in a basket or crib).
To swaddle safely, lay down a flat cotton cot sheet or a muslin cloth in a diamond shape and fold over the top corner. Put your baby on their back onto the blanket with their neck on the fold, so that their head is not touching the blanket and can remain uncovered. Put your baby’s arms down by their side and bring the left corner of the blanket over your baby’s body and left arm and tuck it under your baby’s body, with the right arm still not covered.
Bring the bottom corner of the blanket up and tuck it in under your baby’s right shoulder, so that the right arm and feet are now covered. The remaining right corner of the blanket can then be brought over your baby’s body and tucked in under their left side.
Using this method reduces the risk of your baby developing hip problems as a result of swaddling. If your baby regularly wriggles out of the swaddle then you should consider giving it up and you should stop swaddling your baby all together once they are one month old. Always make sure that your baby’s head is not covered by the swaddle and your baby is not getting too hot. Unless your house is very cold, then your baby is unlikely to need additional blankets when swaddled.
Putting Your New-Born Down To Sleep
Until your baby is about six weeks old, you will probably have to cuddle, rock, or feed / nurse them to sleep. Before the age of six weeks your baby does not have the capacity to learn to fall asleep unaided. After six weeks your baby will develop this ability and you can start to teach them. You can try putting your baby down in their Moses basket or crib when they are sleepy. Look for cues such as eye rubbing and yawning. Make sure that your baby is fed and has a dry nappy before you try this, and if they start to cry you can pick them up and comfort them before trying again.
The Cry It Out Method
There are various methods associated with the idea of letting your baby cry themselves to sleep. These methods are often considered controversial, with many sleep experts claiming that it distresses the baby unnecessarily and that the baby develops a feeling of abandonment as they realise that their cries are not being responded to. On the other hand, many parents swear by the use of Cry It Out and it remains a popular way of teaching a child to fall asleep by themselves with effective results.
Most experts agree that you shouldn’t try a Cry It Out method with your baby until he or she is around five to six months old. That’s because before this point, your baby still needs to wake during the night for feeds that are vital for their growth. Furthermore, you should not try this method if you think your baby is teething or poorly. You will also need to make sure that you are well rested yourself before trying this method, as it can result in a few difficult nights.
One of the more popular Cry It Out methods is known as the Ferber method, named after Dr Richard Ferber, an American paediatrician who developed this technique. His method advocates putting your baby down to sleep in a crib or Moses basket and then leaving the room. If the baby starts to cry you should then wait a few minutes before going back in. When you enter the room you should try and comfort your baby without picking them up, before leaving again after a couple of minutes, even if your baby is still crying. You then keep repeating these steps, but gradually increase the time you wait before going back into your baby’s room. Many parents find that their baby’s sleep improves after three or four nights of following this method.
If you find that this method doesn’t work, or it’s too difficult for you to continue, then try not to worry about it. If friends or family are pushing you to keep trying this method, remember, not every baby responds in the same way and just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it will for you. Some parents might argue that by not following the Cry It Out method you will be making life difficult for yourself later on, on the other hand, many parents do not use this method and have happy children that don’t encounter any sleep problems. This is why it is important to remember that there is no magic cure for the eternal problem of getting a young child to sleep.
The Gradual Withdrawal Method
Using a method that involves a gradual withdrawal can be less upsetting for both you and your baby, although it can take a lot longer to have an effect. The idea is that over time, you gradually move from rocking your baby to sleep to putting them down when they are still awake with gentle steps to move you from one to the other. Some parents prefer this method over those that involve Crying It Out as it also advocates picking up and comforting your baby, which for some is far less stressful.
Start with your usual method of getting your baby to sleep, whether it be feeding, rocking, or simply cuddling. From there, try putting your baby down in their place of sleep in the few moments before they fall asleep (you will become adept at spotting this), but keep your arm under them or your hand on their tummy until they do fall asleep. If your baby starts to cry, pick them up and start again. Carry on with this for a few nights until your baby becomes used to it and doesn’t cry when set down.
Next, do the same as above but this time set your baby down when he or she is sleepy but still awake. Again, pick them up if they start to cry, and keep doing this for a few more nights, until your baby is used to it. For the next few nights you could then try putting your baby down and sitting next to them, perhaps with one hand on their tummy for comfort. Then you could try sitting in the same room but slightly further away, until you are eventually able to set them down and leave the room. Don’t be afraid of picking up your child to give them comfort each time they need it.
Advocates of this method claim that it helps your baby to be reassured that you will always be there when they need you, and that this helps them to calm themselves and fall asleep better. However, this method can also be time-consuming, which is frustrating when you are also dealing with your own sleep deprivation.
Toddlers & Gradual Withdrawal
When your baby is a toddler with a greater understanding of language, you can try a variation of this method. After you have put your child to bed you let them know that you will be back to check on them in two minutes. Leave the room and then pop back in after a short interval (it doesn’t have to be two minutes, it could be 30 seconds, or a few more minutes depending on what your child will tolerate) and give them a kiss etc., then let them know that you will check on them again in two more minutes, but this time increase the amount of time you wait before returning.
Keep repeating this with ever increasing intervals in between the times you go into their room. After a few nights you will probably find that your child is asleep after just one or two “check ins”. Again, this is about teaching your child that you are always there for them, and this method is particularly useful for toddlers whose sleeping habits have regressed for reasons that may include an illness or a big change in their lives such as a new sibling or the start of nursery.
The Cuddle It Out Method
Some parents and child sleep experts argue that the idea of needing to “train” a child to sleep is very much a construct of Western society, and that there really isn’t any need for it. Indeed, in many cultures, children are cuddled to sleep and share a bed with their parents well into their early childhood. The idea of cuddling your child to sleep is fairly straightforward, and for many parents this is a lovely way to bond with their children. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that babies who are held more tend to be more content and fuss less. Remember, when it comes to getting your child to sleep, do what works for your family. So, if cuddling your child to sleep every night makes you and your child happy, then there is no reason not to.
Of course, as with the other methods there are some downsides, for example, if you have a toddler and a new-born, you might find it difficult to manage the needs of both children at bedtime. Your child may also find it difficult if they are ever left with a babysitter or need to spend the night at Nana’s house and you are not there to cuddle them. Some people argue that you are simply making more problems for yourself as your child gets older, and that they will become too dependent on you for falling asleep.
Where Should My Baby Sleep
In the early days, it’s easy to let your baby sleep in a variety of different places, including in the pram, the car seat, on your lap, or in a swing seat. However, when trying to establish some sort of sleeping habit and routine, it’s a good idea to try and get your child to sleep in the same place each time. However, you might want to have a different place for naps and for night-time sleep, to encourage your baby to learn the difference between night and day. So, for example, you could have a carrycot or Moses basket in your living area for day time naps, and a crib for night time.
If your baby falls asleep somewhere that is other than your designated sleeping places and you want to try and encourage good sleeping habits, consider trying to move them to the sleeping place so that they are there when they wake up and start to associate that place with sleep. Of course, for some children this is easier said than done. One tip is to get a cotton nightshirt that you have worn and use as a sheet for the Moses basket, so that your baby can still smell you.
Alternatively, you can try putting some breastmilk on a soft toy or sheet. You could also use a hot water bottle to heat up the sheet before putting your baby down so that he or she is not being placed on a cold surface, which would waken most people, although it’s important not to get the sheet too hot and to remove the hot water bottle completely before placing your baby.
Your baby should be placed on their back for sleeping, and their head should remain uncovered. Make sure your baby doesn’t get too hot or too cold, and you could purchase a room thermometer to help you to see whether or not your baby needs more or less blankets. All of this will help reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), often referred to as Cot Death. For more information on SIDS and how you can reduce the risk, check out our article on What Is SIDS (Cot Death)?.
Co-Sleeping with a New-born
Some parents choose to co-sleep with their baby. Breastfeeding mothers in particular find it useful as the baby can feed whilst the mother dozes off. Furthermore, it can also lead to more sleep for the whole family. However, there are risks involved and experts agree that babies, particularly those under the age of six months, are safer when sleeping in their own crib or Moses basket.
There are certain factors that significantly increase the risk of harm to your baby when co-sleeping and this is why the Department of Health advise that co-sleeping should not be used if you are affected by these factors. These include:
- Where one or more of the parents is a smoker
- Where one or more of the parents is under the influence of drugs (prescription or otherwise) or alcohol
- Where one or more of the parents is so tired that he or she is unlikely to respond to the baby’s movements
- The baby was born prematurely or had a low birth weight
- The baby is poorly (fever, etc.)
If you do decide to co-sleep then you should do so on a firm mattress and use blankets instead of a duvet. The mother should sleep between the baby and the father / partner, as mothers are more likely to respond to a baby’s movements. The same applies for any older children that may wander into your bed at night, as they could roll over and hurt the baby. You should never fall asleep with your baby on the sofa, as your baby could fall down between the cushions and suffocate. For the same reason, your baby should be clear of pillows and prevented from falling into cracks in the bed (for example, between the mattress and frame.
One way to co-sleep safely is to attach a co-sleeping crib to your bed, such as this one from Mothercare, as this allows you to sleep next to your baby whilst giving them a safe space to sleep of their own.
You can carry on co-sleeping for as long as you prefer as your child will grow to eventually want their own space. However you might find that it is more difficult for you to sleep with a wriggling toddler in the bed especially as they get bigger, and many couples struggle with finding the time and space to be intimate when bed-sharing with children. These are all factors to consider when deciding where your child should sleep.