How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night
Since bringing home our daughter, Olivia, two years ago, I've become more familiar with our bedside clock than I ever dreamed I would be. I've witnessed it display hours no human being ever should -- ghastly times like 2:33, 4:01, and 5:17 AM It's no coincidence that when my bleary eyes have seen those red numbers, there's been a baby howling in the next room.
The jokes about sleep deprivation start before you've even purchased your first pair of maternity jeans, but nothing can prepare you for the hell that awaits you. Best-case scenario, you'll be getting up at 6 AM on a regular basis, so you'll need to try to sleep soundly during the wee hours. But how can you do that? What's the best way to get a baby to sleep through the night?
Unless you're one of a lucky few, you can forget about getting anything close to six to eight hours of uninterrupted snoozing for at least the first three months of your baby's life. "Infants aren't wired well neurologically," says Charles Pohl, M.D., director of the Network of Apnea and Pediatric Sleep Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia. "They have what we call disorganized, or fragmented, sleep." That means that newborns don't sleep for long periods the way we do (or did), nor do they necessarily do most of their sleeping at night. They also require two or three nighttime feedings, since their tiny stomachs can't hold enough to keep them full for long periods. Though some babies are capable of sleeping through the night as early as 6 weeks old, for many it won't happen until age 4 to 6 months.
By then most babies should be learning to fall asleep on their own in their own crib, without being rocked, nursed, or otherwise coddled into slumber. "At the age of 4 to 6 months, most babies are also capable of sleeping for about six to eight uninterrupted hours and putting themselves back to sleep several times during the night," says James Lemons, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. By 9 months, he says, most can sleep a full 12 hours. However, Dr. Lemons and other experts say that the age at which a baby actually does sleep through the night can vary a great deal and is often related to a particular infant's weight or how satiated he is from his feedings.
Even if your baby is younger than 5 months, you can start helping her develop healthy sleep habits: "I don't think it's ever too early to get an infant used to a regular schedule, so that she starts to know when sleep time is approaching," says Deborah Givan, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Disorders Center at Riley Children's Hospital, in Indianapolis. "Another good idea is to minimize stimulation prior to bedtime. A warm bath, a book, or a song can help a child wind down." Other simple approaches endorsed by most (but not all) sleep experts are to cut down on your baby's napping and to move her bedtime to a later hour.
If most of your nights are still being interrupted once your baby reaches 5 or 6 months -- if she still isn't sleeping for six- to eight-hour stretches or can't get herself back to sleep when she awakens -- consider trying one of these techniques. Each method has its proponents and detractors, but there's a good chance that one could work well for you and your baby.
Christina Frank writes for several national magazines and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.