One of the hardest parts of being a parent is figuring out what we can expect from our children. What is “normal”? “When can my baby sleep through the night? “
The first thing to define is the term “sleeping through the night”.
- My definition is 11+ hours without feeding or fully waking up and needing attention
Depending on your source, there are different definition of “sleeping through the night”.
Often parents refer to sleeping through the night as a 6-7 hour stretch. That definition puzzles me since all babies and toddlers need to 11 – 12 hrs of overnight sleep to be considered well rested. In my world, sleeping through the night means 11-12 hours of sleep.
So whenever you are reading an article, or eavesdropping on another mom at Starbucks, make sure you understand what the source’s definition of sleeping through the night.
There are different opinions on when your baby is ready to sleep 11+ hours without a feed. Dr. Weissbluth of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child  says “when your baby is 6 months and solids are well established” then your baby is ready to sleep through the night. I believe this to be true for formula fed babies but not necessarily breast fed babies.
In my experience, I don’t expect breastfed babies to sleep through the night until closer to 8 months, as solids are usually not well established until the child is eating 3 meals and 2 snacks, which often doesn’t occur until about 8 months. This is probably conservative and I’m okay with that. You can read more about this topic: Will Starting Solids Help My Baby Sleep Through the Night?
When coaching a Mom on getting baby sleeping through the night, I want to know about a few things including:
Is baby gaining weight consistently and in an appropriate weight percentile compared to her parents size?
Obviously if parents are petite, then baby will likely be petite and lower on the percentile scale. I really want to know if she’s been gaining weight well and not had any issues with calorie intake and weight gain. I wouldn’t want to encourage a Mom to drop all night feeds if she was insecure about baby’s weight in anyway.
Is baby formula fed or breast fed?
Food alone will not dictate if a baby will sleep through the night. Sleep habits and the ability of a baby to put himself to sleep is a HUGE factor. However, with formula there is a known entity. Mom can track the caloric intake over 24 hours to make sure baby is getting enough to eat, and formula has a slower transit time through the digestive system which will leave baby feeling fuller for a longer period.
With Breastfeeding sometimes that is an unknown and we don’t want to remove a night feed if we’re not sure baby is fully satiated. Your milk supply is the highest in the early morning between 12 am and 2 am, when the hormone prolactin peaks. Again, if Mom is feeling insecure about reducing night feeds in any way, we work together on that.
Are solids well established?
Again, food alone will not dictate if baby will sleep through the night, however I follow Dr. Weissbluth’s recommendations from “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”, that indicates that solids need to be well established to sleep through the night.
Why formula fed babies sleep through the night earlier than breastfed babies:
- It takes longer to prepare formula than whip out a boob in the middle of the night
- Delayed gratification for the formula fed baby vs the breast fed baby which influences baby’s behaviour
- The formula feeding Mom has a tracked history through the day of how many oz her baby is getting and has less self doubt that it is hunger waking her baby in the middle of the night and is more comfortable dropping night feeds earlier and shifting those night calories into the daytime
- Slower transit time
- Formula takes more time to pass through the digestive track, leaving your baby feeling slightly fuller for longer
Formula alone will not get your baby sleeping through the night. I work with plenty of formula fed babies who are still waking plenty. Good sleeping habits are the most important factor so don’t give up on breastfeeding!
When I coach parents, I suggest that a 4 month old breastfed baby needs 2 night feeds over 12 hours. However, on the other side of things, I talk to many Canadian moms who are still getting up 3-4 times per night at 9 months and older to nurse their children back to sleep as they get caught in a “this is my job” guilt trap. We are given that year off so should we not be jumping up to answer every cough, grunt or cry?
What should your expectations be?
Let me help you manage your expectations of night feeding. From my experience, here’s my general guideline for the number of night feeds for a breast fed baby who is gaining weight well and maintaining a healthy weight curve percentile.
|Age||Night feeds for an Exclusively Breast Fed Baby|
|0 -3 months||Babe will feed every 4 hrs or so at night. You might be so lucky as to get a 6 hrs stretch of sleep in the earlier part of the night.|
|4 -5 months
|1-2 night feeds. Bedtime moves earlier to about 7 pm. Look out for that 4 month sleep regression where your child will likely start to wake up more frequently at night and take shorter naps during the day.|
|6 -9 months||0 -2 night feeds
|9-12 months||0 -1 night feeds|
By 12 months, most toddlers are sleeping through the night.
Having a baby who sleeps 12 hrs + is the result of the following factors:
- baby’s age
- baby’s ability to put himself to sleep independently
- baby’s ability and opportunity to consume the necessary calories during the day
- Mom’s readiness to have baby sleep 12 + hours
Is it time to sleep train?
If your child is waking up every 3 hours at night, she is coming out of a night time sleep cycle and looking for whatever helped her to fall asleep in the first place, to help her back to sleep. This may be being rocked, a pacifier or nursing to sleep. You can read more about sleep associations here: Is it time to sleep train my baby?
I once worked with the mother of a 9 month old who was sure her baby was legitimately hungry overnight. He was waking up 4 times per night and feeding each time. She told me that he ate at least 10-15 minutes at each waking.
My analogy for this was like going to a buffet dinner after having a few drinks. You’re not really that hungry but the food is there and you’re feeling pretty good, and so it is easy to overindulge. In addition, at this point, this little fella has probably shifted many of his daytime calories into the night and likely not eating much during the day. We worked on his sleep associations and moving those calories into the day and in a week he was sleeping 11-12 hours overnight without feeding.
My most recent client was a 6 month old baby who was co sleeping and nursing every hour through the night. After 7 days of working with this family, their baby boy was sleeping from 7:00 pm until 7:00 am and feeding once at 9 pm before Mom went to bed.
My personal experience
My son didn’t sleep well for the first 3 months, I was feeding him every 2 -3 hours and was totally exhausted. I taught him to put himself to sleep at 3 months. He started to sleep through the night at 6 months, but not consistently until about 7 months.
I taught my daughter to fall asleep independently from the day she came home. She started sleeping through the night around 6 months but not consistently until 9 months. There were some colds along the way, some teeth popped up, and honestly I was more reactive to her than I was with my son. So you can see that every child is different, and Mom’s feelings play into it all too.
I hope this article helps you on this journey. Remember that this is a journey, no one has all the answers and that YOU are doing a great job on this parenting thing. If you want some comfort and feel good about yourself, you can read my blog about How I Failed at Attachment Parenting which is one of my most commonly read blog posts.
I have so much more I want to teach you about baby sleep and how you can help your baby!
Come join my online class and community and never feel alone or unsure on your journey for more sleep.
 Weissbluth, M. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.