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Why Won't My Baby Sleep Through The Night?

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

You've been hoping for that time when your baby will drift on into a peaceful slumber for hours on end, nighttime to morning of uninterrupted sleep. Not just for baby, but uninterrupted sleep for you, too! Oh how blissful that sounds. A mama can dream right? (No pun intended!)

When I was a first time mom, I was hoping that my baby would just learn to sleep on his own, or that I would luck out and have an "easy" baby. (Boy was I wrong!) Babies learn many things as part of their development... how to crawl, walk, talk, and yes, maybe they do sleep, but how's the quality of your baby's sleep? Does your baby sleep well?

Learning how to fall asleep independently, and putting yourself back to sleep when you wake in the middle of the night (we all do it!) is a skill. A skill that needs to be learned!

This is the heart of what I do with my clients; teaching your baby to fall asleep independently initially, and when they have wakings in which they must put themselves back to sleep. Together with parents we will be helping your baby to accept these wakings as a non-event.

At what age is it appropriate for my baby start "sleeping through the night"?

A good accompanying question to this is, "when is it appropriate for my baby to start weaning night feeds?" If your little one is in overall good health, has been maintaining a healthy weight, and meeting milestones, they may be capable of sleeping through the night (or close to it) at 3-4 months old without needing any feeds. If you are unsure, definitely reach out to your child's pediatrician! Because of constantly needing to feed around the clock, newborns may have multiple night wakings.

A newborn cannot self-soothe and needs to eat frequently to support healthy growth and development those vital first few months. A newborn cannot and should not be sleep trained.

If you have been practicing good sleep habits from the beginning, and your baby has mastered their self-soothing skills, chances are they'll start sleeping through the night on their own around 12 weeks. It's not unheard of for younger babies around 10 weeks to start consolidating nighttime sleep! Keep in mind that every baby is different.

The truth is, your baby technically will never sleep straight through the night!

Now before you get into a panic mode, I am not saying that you will have to suffer endless nights forever because you became a parent! No ma'am!

I am referring to the biology and natural part of the human sleep cycle. Your baby will never really sleep through the night, and neither will you or anyone else! Waking up in the middle of the night is normal, and as adults we rarely notice when it happens to us.

You may have heard critics of sleep training say "Babies are supposed to wake up at night!" Yes, they are absolutely 100% correct. Babies, like adults, naturally wake up at night. But that doesn't mean we can't teach your little one to stay calm and content when these wakings occur.

Simple science and sleep cycles

So why does this happen? I won't go too deep into sleep cycles, but it may help to understand a little bit how the sleep cycle works. There are four stages in the adult sleep cycle:

When we start to fall asleep, we spend some time in two different stages of light sleep, and gradually progress into deeper stages of sleep. We stay in deep sleep for a while, before gradually re-emerging back into the light stages, starting a new sleep cycle. This transition from deep to light sleep is when we have high chances of awakening. We are also more prone to wake from a disturbance (i.e. someone calling out your name) during light sleep, and highly unlikely to wake during deep sleep.

The average adult sleep cycle is 90-120 minutes, and ideally we should experience this process five to six times in a row in the night. We may wake for a minute or two and fall right back asleep, or we might not even really break the surface at all.

Why am I talking about adult sleep cycles? Because around 3-4 months, your baby's sleep cycles start to change and develop into the same sleep cycles we have. Well, luckily for us our sleep cycles repeat themselves pretty easily, and we hardly notice when we wake after a sleep cycle. But for a baby without self-soothing skills? Not so much... they are more likely to wake after sleep cycles and don't know how to put themselves back to sleep!

The 4-month sleep regression

Honestly I could dedicate an entire separate blog post on this topic! But since we are focusing on why your baby isn't sleeping through the night, I’ll just touch on this notable regression briefly because it does have a significant impact on sleep.

What is it?

Compared to the four stages of adult sleep cycles, newborn sleep cycles only involve two stages: light sleep and deep sleep. Newborn sleep cycles are also shorter; around 45-50 minutes:

Sleep patterns naturally shift around four months old (this is why the dreaded four-month sleep regression occurs!) when babies start sleeping in more stages and cycles, similar to the adult sleep cycle. This is a developmental milestone and although it causes (inconvenient) disruptions in sleep, it is actually a positive sign of normal and healthy growth!

When does it occur and how long does it last?

Typically around 16 weeks you may notice more wakings and disruptions, but the regression can occur as early as 3 months and as late as 5 months. The good thing is that this is only temporary. The regression usually lasts for 2-4 weeks.

So, how does this regression impact my baby’s sleep?

As your baby’s sleep cycles mature there will be a brief period of wakening after each cycle. It’s those short periods of wakefulness that can cause a lot of disruptions in sleep; hence the four-month sleep regression! How your baby handles this regression depends on this question: Can your baby self-soothe?

How your baby handles this regression depends on this question: Can your baby self-soothe?

If you have been proactive about infant sleep (doing your research, reading up on how to teach your newborn to sleep well, taking my newborn sleep course or using my newborn sleep guide) and started to lay a strong foundation for healthy sleep and good habits from the beginning, your baby is more likely to self-soothe and handle the four month sleep regression a lot better than babies who don’t have independent sleep skills.

But, if you are anything like me when I was a first-time mom, not having a clue about anything involving infant sleep, (naively) hoping your baby will just learn to sleep on his own, on survival mode due to sleep deprivation, you’re probably taking the regression day by day, and suffering. Don’t worry mama, you’re definitely not alone! If you are in this boat, there are several things you can do to help your baby overcome this regression. Check out my free guide on how to handle the 4-month sleep regression:

AOS 4 Month Sleep Regression
Download PDF • 5.94MB

Remember that the 4-month sleep regression is NORMAL. And temporary! When your baby starts to link sleep cycles on their own, sleep should improve.

Reasons for night wakings

Besides the 4 month sleep regression, there are many reasons why your baby may be waking at night. If night wakings have become a pattern, think about what you do when your baby has these night wakings and how you put them back to sleep.

Does your baby have a sleep prop association?

We all have them. What helps you fall asleep? Maybe you have a certain side of the bed, your favorite sleep position, having the window open, or listening to calming meditation. A sleep prop is anything that your baby relies on to fall asleep.

Does your baby have a sleep prop association? A sleep prop is anything that your baby relies on to fall asleep.

A sleep prop can be something tangible like a pacifier or bottle, or an action like rocking to sleep, nursing to sleep, even a parent can be a sleep prop if baby can only fall asleep while in their parent's arms on their chest.

Those contact naps in the beginning were so sweet, weren't they? I'll admit sometimes I miss those days. Until I start remembering when it became a habit that I unintentionally created and I was literally trapped in that my baby's sleep was completely dependent on me. Those days were hard. Can you relate?

Let's take a look at this common scenario...

Here's a typical scenario: Baby is 7 months old, no self-soothing skills, and has wakings throughout the night. Mom goes into nursery, baby gets a bottle, falls asleep while feeding and being rocked in mama's arms. All is calm and peaceful. Mom then puts baby down in his crib while he is sleeping, tiptoeing out of the room and praying for a longer stretch of sleep. A couple hours later, and throughout the night, this whole process repeats itself. A very exhausting process.

Think about how you would feel if you fell asleep in a familiar space (your side of the bed with your favorite pillow), and you woke up in an entirely different setting. It's kind of like when you are traveling and staying at a hotel, after you wake from a deep sleep you're a bit startled at first, forgetting that you're not in your comfy cozy bed at home. You may have to remind yourself that you're okay after you remember that you are in the middle of a trip. Well, to a baby, that familiar space is equivalent to whatever her sleep prop is.

When your baby has a sleep prop association, they look for this sleep prop when they have wakings, and if it's not readily available for them... cue the fussiness, tears, and crying out!

Until you eliminate those sleep prop associations, it will be very difficult for your baby to sleep through the night.

How can I eliminate sleep prop associations?

Depending on what the sleep prop is, eliminating it may not be an easy process. First of all, nobody likes change, and you will essentially be taking something away that your baby has depended on for some time to help them fall asleep. Protest cries are inevitable. No parent likes to hear their baby cry, but remember that you are trying to instill positive sleep habits that will benefit your baby in the long run. Think about your end goals: a well-rested and happy baby, a well-rested and happy mama.

How to actually get rid of sleep props is up to you. You may choose to go "cold turkey" and just get rid of the sleep prop once and for all. (Best for tangible sleep props like the pacifier). Or you may choose to slowly wean the sleep prop first, and gradually eliminating it.

How to actually get rid of sleep props is up to you. You may choose to go "cold turkey" and just get rid of the sleep prop once and for all. Or you may choose to slowly wean the sleep prop first, and gradually eliminating it.

Weaning sleep prop associations is most common for nursing and feeding to sleep. You may even choose to cut night feeds cold turkey. There is no right or wrong answer. When you work with me one-on-one, we discuss these options and what feels right for you. I will never ask a client to do something they are not comfortable with, and that is why many parents find a personalized sleep plan so valuable.

Overtiredness: The biggest culprit

An overtired baby will be harder to settle when it's time to sleep, and it will be harder for an overtired baby to stay asleep. By 6 months, your baby should be on a somewhat predictable schedule. Sleep begets sleep; daytime sleep has an impact on how your child sleeps at night.

Sleep begets sleep; daytime sleep has an impact on how your child sleeps at night.

It is important to follow age-appropriate wake windows (awake time between naps during the day) to avoid overtiredness. On average, it takes about 5-20 minutes to fall asleep once in bed. If it is taking your baby less than 5 minutes to fall asleep, or if they snooze away immediately after being put down, they may be overtired. Check out the table on Nap Guidelines to ensure that your child is getting the rest they need during the day:

Moving forward

I hope you found this helpful to get a head start toward your baby sleeping through the night. Remember to do what works for you and your family. If your end goal is a baby sleeping through the night, you may want to consider sleep training. If you choose to do this on your own, pick a method and stay consistent with it. Inconsistency is the number one reason why sleep training fails. Whether it's because you don't have the support, the knowledge, or you may unsure if you're implementing the strategies correctly, many choose to work with a sleep consultant, or sleep coach. Having this personalized support from an expert gives parents the confidence and peace of mind that they are setting up their child for sleep success.

I would be happy to help you and your family if you feel you need extra support for this. Let me be part of your village! Most of my clients see success with their child sleeping through the night as soon as Night 3. If you are unsure and would like more details, please book a discovery call with me. It would be an honor to be part of your parenting journey!

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