Sleeping through the night
The official definition of sleeping through the night is a 5 hour stretch without waking. Raising Children Network defines ‘independent sleep’ as when baby can sleep for 6 to 8 hours during the night, and can settle back to sleep without assistance. Approximately 60% of babies can do this by the time they are 6 months old, and newborns (less than 3 months old) need to be fed every 2-4 hours. This can come as a surprise to new parents who might have been told anecdotes by well-meaning family and friends about when a baby should start sleeping through the night.
There is no way to know when your baby will start sleeping through the night, and it may never happen! Every baby is an individual, and even toddlers and preschoolers sometimes need help at night. However, there are some strategies you can use to assist your baby to become an independent sleeper.
Sleep and settling strategies
During the first 3 months (at least) your baby will need a lot of help with sleeping and settling. I call this the fourth trimester, when they are still getting used to being out of the womb and missing the comfort of sleeping in there. Most people find wrapping or swaddling their baby for sleep helps them to feel safe and secure during this time. If you find your little one is an escape artist, try a wrap that is larger and stretchy.
This is also the time when you can start preparing for independent sleep, with research highlighting some key strategies:
• Help them to understand the difference between day and night.
• Put baby to bed drowsy but awake, so they can learn to fall asleep without assistance.
• Follow a feed, play, sleep routine so that sleep does not always follow feeding.
• Develop a consistent night time routine – for example feed, bath, feed, stories, cuddles and bed.
• Make bedtime relaxing – for example using infant massage after bath.
To help them understand the difference between day and night adjust your night feeds so that the room is as dark and quiet as possible, and keep play for daytime.
Sleep associations are the routines, habits and patterns that we all connect with feeling sleepy. There are a range of sleep associations that can lead to more or less independent sleep. Often these are presented as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However the best techniques are the ones that work for you and your baby. Many parents enjoy rocking or feeding their baby to sleep. Some like to use dummies, some don’t. Some use co-sleeping, some don’t. There is no right or wrong. As with anything related to parenting, a flexible approach is a must. You might find you get very creative during the day between baby carrier, pram and car!
I couldn’t write this post without busting a few myths around sleep for babies:
• Routines differ for every family, depending on your needs and the needs of the baby. Follow your instinct and do what feels right for you and your family.
• The type of milk they drink has no impact on their ability to sleep through the night.
• Rigidly following any routine is a recipe for increased anxiety and frustration. Be wary of any ‘expert’ (at either end of the spectrum) who outlines specific rules for approaching sleep.
• Sleep begets sleep for small babies. Don’t be tempted to tire your baby out with less sleep during the day, as overtired babies are very difficult to settle.
Always keep in mind the SIDS guidelines when your baby sleeps. These are:
• Sleep baby on the back from birth, not on the tummy or side.
• Sleep baby with head and face uncovered.
• Keep baby smoke free before birth and after.
• Provide a safe sleeping environment night and day.
• Sleep baby in their own safe sleeping place in the same room as an adult for the first six to twelve months.
• Breastfeed baby.
Help and support
For more detailed information on sleep strategies have a look at this and read Robyn Barker’s Baby Love. If you are struggling with helping your baby sleep contact your local Maternal and Child Health Nurses, Tresillian on 1300 2 PARENT, or other similar services in your area. Tresillian also offers online support 5pm-11pm Monday-Friday.
Importantly, don’t feel like you are alone. If you’re struggling, reach out to your partner, a family member or friend. Or talk to your GP or community nurse or even a Hills District Mum – there are over 10,500 mums in the Facebook group there to listen!
Sarah Tooke is a registered nurse, midwife, childbirth educator at the Mater Hospital and a mum. In addition to her clinical work as a delivery suite and post-natal midwife, she has a keen interest in childbirth and parenting education. It was this interest that prompted her launch her business ‘Sarah Tooke Childbirth & Parenting Education’ in 2012. Sarah provides tailored antenatal childbirth & parenting education to expectant parents in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Sessions are designed to meet the individual needs of those parents and are done at time that suits them.