Getting your baby to sleep through the night: The good (and maybe not-so-good) news

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Getting your baby to sleep through the night: it’s the milestone all parents of infants long for.

It’s understandable, given how precious and elusive a full night’s sleep can be for new parents. The quest for a full night of sleep becomes so important that many a book has been written on how to achieve it, and it’s a common topic of conversation among new parents. Those whose babies sleep through the night feel like they have accomplished something important — and those whose babies don’t sleep through the night are often wondering if there is something wrong with their baby or their parenting. This is especially true because among Western cultures, there is a perception that by around 6 months of age, if not sooner, babies should be sleeping through the night.

This perception, it turns out, is not exactly correct. And that’s where the good news/bad news thing comes in. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night at 6 months, or even at 12 months, it’s perfectly normal.

It’s always good news to hear that your baby is normal — but for some parents, it may understandably feel like bad news that a full night of sleep is further out on the horizon than they had hoped.

Researchers from Canada studied 388 infants at 6 months, and 369 infants at 12 months. They defined sleeping through the night as six or eight hours of sleep without any waking. They found that at 6 months, 38% of the babies couldn’t make it six hours without waking — and a full 57% didn’t sleep eight hours at once. At 12 months, those numbers were better but still not great: 28% didn’t sleep six hours straight, and 43% didn’t sleep eight hours.

It’s not a baby problem and it’s not a parenting problem — it’s not actually a problem at all

As cranky as being woken up at night can make a parent feel, the researchers did not find a correlation between waking at night and the “postnatal mood” of the mothers. They also found that babies that woke up at night didn’t lag behind the sound sleepers when it came to their cognitive, language, or motor development. The babies did fine either way.

They also found that babies who woke up at night were more likely to be breastfeeding. This makes sense, given that breast milk is more easily and quickly digested than formula, causing breastfed babies to get hungrier sooner. Given that breastfeeding has known health benefits, a little extra waking could end up working out for baby (and for the mother, given that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers too).

Now, for some parents waking up at night is a problem, and that’s where sleep training comes in. There are certainly various techniques and methods that can help teach babies to sleep longer and more independently. Many of them, though, involve letting the baby cry for a while — and while studies have shown that this doesn’t harm babies, it can be hard and stressful for many parents.

What this study shows is that if your baby is waking during the night and you’re doing okay with it, you don’t need to do anything. With time, it will get better. While those first few months of life can feel like an eternity, they aren’t. Before you know it you will be up at night for an entirely different reason: waiting for them to get home from a night out with friends. And when that does happen, those days of waking up with them as babies won’t seem so bad at all.

Comments:

  1. Sarah

    There are no-cry methods of teaching a baby to self-sooth. I can recommend Susan Urban’s guide with her HWL method. I used that with my second child and was super-amazed with the results! Seriously gentle and working pretty fast. You can easily find it on amazon.

  2. Muhammad Ilyas

    Midnight wakening of babies is better with reference to their future to compare with the preference of the sleep with out the disturbance in the night of the new parents. Very useful motivational information.

  3. Terry Goldman

    OK, it’s ‘normal’, but why? What evolutionary advantage did it provide?

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