It’s so common for mothers to worry when their babies don’t sleep through the night. After all, everyone knows they’re “supposed to.” Some doctors recommend nighttime weaning and “cry it out” methods if your baby is not sleeping through the night by 6 months or even earlier. Even when the mom herself has no problems with baby nursing at night, she still worries that this is a problem, since American society seem to consider it one. There are books all over the bookstores with advice on solving so-called “sleep problems.”
First, please ignore what everyone else says about your baby’s sleep habits and what is “normal.” These people are not living with you or your baby. Unless your doctor sleeps in the next room and your baby is keeping him awake every night, he has no reason to question a healthy baby’s sleep habits. If you and your baby enjoy nighttime feedings, then why not continue? It’s a great way to have time with her, particularly if you are apart during the day.
Every baby is different, and some sleep through the night earlier than others (schedules or food usually have nothing to do with this). Your baby may be hungry (keep in mind that breastmilk digests in less than 2 hours) or she may just want time with you. Babies whose mothers work during the week often nurse more at night and on weekends, perhaps to reconnect with mom.
Many doctors tend to look at night nursing only from a nutritional standpoint, but this is only part of the story. After the first few months, your baby will begin to associate the breast with far more than just a way to satisfy hunger and thirst. It becomes a place of comfort, security, warmth, closeness, and familiarity. The act of nursing is not just nourishing; it is nurturing. Keep in mind that these needs are every bit as real as baby’s physical ones, and having them met is every bit as needful to baby’s overall development.
If the amount that your child sleeps and nurses at night isn’t a major problem for you, then there’s no reason to try to change anything. You are NOT doing a bad thing by nursing on cue; you are doing a wonderful thing for your baby. When you comfort baby at night, you are not teaching her a bad habit: you are teaching her that you are there for her when she needs you — Is security a bad habit?
It is common for breastfed babies to not sleep through the night for a long period of time. On the other hand, some breastfed babies start sleeping through the night when a few months old.
Your baby will begin to comfort herself and to sleep for longer stretches at her own developmental pace. If your baby wants to nurse at night, it is because she DOES need this, whether it’s because she is hungry or because she wants to be close to mom. Beginning to sleep through the night is similar to a developmental milestone (like walking or toilet training) that your baby will reach when she is ready. Trying to force baby to reach this before her time may result in other problems later on.
If you can try to take a more relaxed approach and trust that it will come in time, you’ll see your baby eventually become a good sleeper. You’ll be able to rest peacefully in your heart and mind knowing that she reached this in her own time when she felt secure enough to do so, not because he had no other choice but to quiet herself because no one would come.
Probably one of the main reasons that night-waking babies are such a big issue is that parents don’t have realistic expectations of the sleep patterns of babies. We are bombarded with magazine articles and books that perpetuate the myth that babies should not have nighttime needs. Babies were designed to wake up often at night to feed and cuddle– keep in mind that many adults wake during the night, too. If our expectations for babies were not so different from our babies’ expectations for themselves, much of this “problem” might disappear.
See Studies on normal infant sleep for more information on what is normal.
Babies wake at night for many reasons, and they often start waking at night after sleeping through for a few weeks or months. Some of the reasons for night waking (in no particular order) are:
- baby wants more time with mom
- developmental advances (for example: waking more often right before or after learning to turn over, crawl or talk)
- illness, allergy, diaper rash, eczema
- hunger (including growth spurts)
- reverse cycling: Some babies whose moms are away during the day prefer to reject most/all supplements while mom is away, and nurse often during the evening and night. If mom is very busy during the day or if baby is very distracted, this can also lead to reverse cycling.
When your child nurses more often at night, go through this checklist to see if you can figure out what might be going on. Sometimes there may be more than one thing causing the night waking.
See Night Weaning, which also includes many suggestions for maximizing sleep in younger babies who still need to breastfeed frequently.
Remember that night waking in babies and young children is normal and temporary!
Children grow out of night waking, even when we do nothing to discourage it. This period of time will be a very tiny part of your child’s years with you.
Your goal is to maximize sleep for everyone in the family, while respecting the needs of your child.
If you’re meeting this goal, then ignore anyone who suggests that you do things differently. If your sleep situation is not working (or stops working) then you can always do things differently. All parents find that they change the way they do things as their child grows older and reaches different developmental stages – sleep is just another thing that changes as your child grows.
- Wakeful 4 month olds by Jan Barger, RN, MA, IBCLC
- Studies on normal infant sleep
- Night Weaning
- Nursing to Sleep and Other Comfort Nursing
- The Family Bed
- Read excerpts from Good Nights by Dr. Jay Gordon
- Review of The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp, MD
(and other reviews)
What is normal when it comes to night waking?
- Do Older Babies Need Night Feedings? by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA
- The myth of baby sleep regressions – what’s really happening to your baby’s sleep? by Pinky McKay, IBCLC
- Is Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night Yet? by Jennifer Rebecca Thomas, MD, FAAP, IBCLC
- 5 Cool Things No One Ever Told You About Nighttime Breastfeeding from Breastfeeding Chicago
- Night Waking: or, “Will I Ever Get A Good Night’s Sleep Again?” by Anne Smith, IBCLC
- Pillow Talk: Helping your Child Get a Good Night’s Sleep By Paul M. Fleiss, author of Sweet Dreams: A Pediatrician’s Secrets for Baby’s Good Night’s Sleep
- FAQ on Sleeping through the Night from LLL
- Why are nursing babies often night owls? by Kathy Kuhn, RN, BSN, IBCLC
- Myth: Good Babies Sleep Through by Linda J. Smith, BSE, FACCE, IBCLC
- Rethinking “Healthy” Infant Sleep by James J. McKenna, Ph.D.
- Sleeping Through the Night by Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D. Babies and toddlers should not be expected to sleep through the night.
- Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape– an interesting article that discusses sleep research and “normal” sleep patterns