Contributing Expert: Irene Freeman, MD
This post is part of our newborn health and wellness series. For more information from our pediatric experts, visit our Newborn Resources page.
The question that nearly every new parent has is: When will my baby sleep through the night? While there is no single answer, ideally your baby will be sleeping for stretches of six or seven hours by the time they are about four months old.
It can feel daunting to think about several months passing before you can close your eyes for more than a few hours at a time. Indeed, a few days can feel daunting when you first bring your newborn home!
Instead, break the goal of sleeping through the night into smaller goals that your baby can achieve. Thinking in incremental steps can help you set your expectations and make you feel like you and your newborn are making progress toward good nighttime sleep.
Some people are night owls. Some people love the morning. Babies are no different. As they grow and develop, they have their own patterns and preferences, and the rhythm and routine of your household contributes to those preferences.
However, when they are born, it takes a while for those patterns to emerge, because babies often have day/night confusion. In the womb, where it’s always dark, a baby has no cues for day and night. They tend to get lulled to sleep more during the day, when the pregnant person is moving around, which can feel like being rocked. By contrast, at night when all is calm and still, they are more awake in the womb.
Hence, they come into the world with sleep/wake cycles established toward the end of the pregnancy. Your job is to help them understand how sleep works outside the womb.
To do this, make sure they are exposed to light during the day, and dark at night. When they wake to feed and have their diaper changed during the night, keep the lights as low as possible and be businesslike. Meet their needs without playing or socializing.
It may be challenging the first two weeks, when they are learning how to eat, poop and be soothed outside the womb. But if your baby can figure out day and night within the first month of life, that’s a major accomplishment for both of you!
Once your baby understands night and day, you want to help them sleep for longer stretches at night. You can do this while you are training them to understand day versus night.
In fact, you can encourage longer sleeping once they are above their birthweight. A brand-new baby shouldn’t go more than four hours or so without eating. In theory, you may have to wake a sleeping baby in those first days.
But after about two weeks, your baby can sleep for as long of a stretch as they are able. (This is assuming they are growing as they should and your pediatrician hasn’t told you differently.) It’s not that they don’t wake up at all during those four or five hours. Rather, it’s that they learn to fall back asleep.
Breastfed babies tend to eat more frequently and may do cluster feedings. This just means they are feeding more often than every two hours. A breastfed baby may cluster feed before bedtime as a way of tanking up for the night.
However, both bottle-fed and breastfed babies can learn to sleep longer stretches. How you interact with your baby at night when they wake to feed is a bigger factor than bottle or breast. As with sorting out day/night confusion, stay matter of fact at night when your baby wakes to feed. And put them back down as soon as you are finished.
Remember, the safest way for a baby to sleep is on their back, on a firm surface, by themself and with nothing else around (no blankets, pillows or stuffed animals).
The way napping is related to nighttime sleep is that a baby who is getting to be a good sleeper at night will often become a better napper during the day. And vice versa. Your baby learns to wake up and go back to sleep again, a skill that helps with both naps and nighttime sleep.
One way to encourage good naps is to encourage activity during your baby’s daytime awake time. So, in those 90-minute to two-hour stretches between naps, do “activities.” This includes talking to your baby, reading, dancing, smiling, looking in a mirror and clapping their hands together. Anything to help wear them out a bit!
You’ve met each of the goals and your baby is about four months old. You’re ready for a long stretch of nighttime sleep! Some babies follow the progress as planned and start sleeping through the night. Remember, “sleeping through the night,” really just means a stretch of six or seven hours.
But if they don’t, you might consider sleep training. Learn more about how sleep training works.
The other thing to remember about nighttime sleep is that travel and illness can both interfere with progress you’re making. Getting a cold or having to sleep in a new place can cause your baby to backslide a little.
But as with everything, you take a breath and start again. Once the routine returns to normal, your baby will remember.
In addition to expert specialty care, Lurie Children’s offers several primary care locations around the Chicago area for your child's healthcare needs — from infancy through childhood and adolescence. Learn more about our primary care services.