A question that new parents often get from friends and family is, “Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?” But honestly, no one “sleeps through the night.” Everyone experiences nighttime arousals, but most of the time people go right back to sleep after these brief awakenings. Babies experience the same nighttime arousals.
In the first few months, a number of biological factors impact these awakenings. For example, new babies need to feed every few hours — including at nighttime — because although their stomachs are tiny, they’re growing fast and they need frequent feedings to sustain their growth and development.
As babies get older, they’re able to consume and retain larger amounts of calories during the day and require fewer feedings at night. At the same time, their biological rhythms are acclimating to day and night cycles. By 4 to 6 months, their sleep patterns are becoming more and more like those of adults.
During this process of getting used to the “real world,” babies are learning many things based on the repetition of patterns — such as making connections between the sound of your voice and loving attention, for example, or the smell of breast milk or a fresh bottle and the satisfaction of being fed. Likewise, your baby is also developing certain associations with falling asleep. Maybe every time you nurse your baby or give him or her a bottle, your baby falls asleep. Or you snuggle together in a chair until your baby falls asleep. Or you rock your baby to sleep.
There’s no denying that having your baby fall asleep on your chest can be deeply fulfilling. But if this happens every time your child falls asleep, it can become a condition your child needs in order to fall asleep. So, at 6 months, when your baby wakes at night, as any person would, he or she needs your chest to feel “right” about falling back to sleep. This is referred to as a sleep association.
You can help your baby develop positive sleep associations over time that allow him or her to fall asleep without your help. This is called self-soothing — a skill that can be especially useful in the middle of the night! Here are steps you can take that have proved to help babies and toddlers get a good night’s rest.
Develop a bedtime routine
Bedtime routines, which can start in the early months, become very important to a child. A winding down of the day’s activities signals that it’s time for bed. Your routine could include soothing activities such as having a bath, reading or making up stories, and a good night hug or kiss. Avoid watching TV or using electronic devices with your baby before bed, as these activities can be overly stimulating. Finish the bedtime routine before your child falls asleep. The whole process might last 20 to 45 minutes.
Stay consistent at bedtime
The more consistent you can be with when you begin and end your bedtime routine — and all the steps in between — the easier it will be for you and your child. Children thrive on structure, so it’s OK to do the same thing every night. Consider a rule — for yourself and your child — that your child should not leave the crib at night unless he or she needs to feed or have a diaper change.
After age 2, a healthy child doesn’t need to leave his or her bedroom on a typical night except to go to the bathroom.
Drooping eyelids, rubbing the eyes and fussiness are the usual signs that a baby is tired. When you notice these signs, put your baby in his or her crib while he or she is drowsy but still awake. If your baby can fall asleep in bed without assistance when first laid down, it’s more likely that he or she will fall asleep on his or her own after waking in the middle of the night.
It’s common for babies to cry when put down for sleep, but if left alone for a few minutes, most will eventually quiet themselves. If you leave the room for a while, your baby will probably stop crying after a short time. If not, try comforting your baby and allow time for him or her to settle again.
During sleep, babies are often active, twitching their arms and legs, smiling, sucking, and generally appearing restless. And while sleeping, infants may cry and move about when entering different sleep cycles. Parents sometimes mistake a baby’s stirrings as a sign of waking up, and they begin unnecessary feeding. Instead, wait a few moments to see if your baby settles back to sleep.
Adopt a security object
Once your child is a year old or more, he or she has likely developed enough motor skills to have a small blanket or stuffed animal nearby at night without the danger of suffocating in them. A favorite teddy bear or other safe object can help comfort and soothe your child when you’re not present. Offer a simple, breathable blanket. Choose soft toys without decorations, such as buttons or ribbons, that might come off and pose a choking hazard.
Pay attention to naps
Naps are just as important to young children as a good night of sleep. Napping helps your baby get the total amount of sleep he or she needs and helps prevent exhaustion before bedtime. At nap time, you can use some of the same steps you use for your bedtime routine. For example, read a story, tuck your child in, and leave the room.
Allow a few minutes for your child to settle and fall asleep. Some babies sleep for a long time, but they take fewer naps during the day. Other babies take more, short naps during the day. If your baby sleeps well at night, it’s fine to let him or her nap for as long as desired. If your baby isn’t sleeping at night as long as you wish, it may help to shorten the nap time. Or if baby takes three naps a day, try to change the habit to two naps a day. Most children between the ages of 12 and 18 months shift to taking one midday or afternoon nap a day. As early as age 3 years, many children drop naps entirely, and most do so by age 5.
Transition to separate bedrooms
As babies grow into toddlers, parents and kids often find both parties sleep better if they’re in separate rooms. If you’ve had your child sleeping in your bedroom for the first six months to a year, you might be ready to transition your child to his or her own bedroom by about the first birthday. Here are some suggestions to make this change easier.
Start with naps. Place your child in his or her own bedroom at each nap time. Close the child’s bedroom door when you leave the room. This keeps most household noise out of the room so that your child can sleep better. Using a monitor can help you hear or see how your child is doing.
After a week or two of successful napping in the child’s own room, begin to put your child to bed at night in his or her bedroom. If your child is older than a year, make it a grand occasion. Tell the child, “Starting tonight, you get to stay in your own bed during the night. You’re old enough to do that now!” Kids are usually very happy to “grow up.” Invite your child to help you make the bed. Let him or her choose which blanket or stuffed animal to use on the bed.
Give a small reward if needed when a toddler or older child has stayed in his or her room overnight. Some examples are reading a new book together, going to the park, or doing a puzzle or game together. Try to avoid using sweets or extra treats as a reward. Be sure to tell your child why he or she is getting the reward.
Switch from crib to bed
It’s time to switch from a crib to a bed as soon as your child learns how to climb out of a crib with the mattress at its lowest setting. This is usually around age 2 or 3. If you keep your child in the crib and the child falls as he or she tries to climb out, your child could get a serious injury.
Some parents choose to switch to a special toddler bed or a bed they think their child can grow into. For example, some toddler beds are designed to adjust in length or width as your child grows. But you also can put a mattress on the floor until you decide on a more permanent arrangement.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years, Second EditionShop Now