After the initial weeks of infant night wakings and night feedings, it’s natural for parents to start wondering when do babies sleep through the night. Those thoughts come courtesy of the deep fatigue of early parenthood. The idea is that if parents can find the answer to when do babies start sleeping through the night, they, too, might finally be able to sleep through the night. But the problem is that it’s actually the wrong question to ask. Because babies don’t sleep through the night, and neither do parents. No, not ever.
This is not to say that all hope is lost, at least not according to baby sleep expert and nurse practitioner Maile Moore from the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. When parents ask her about babies sleeping through the night, she offers a different way of thinking about sleep altogether — one that offers an eventual solution.
“Everybody has wakings at night,” Moore explains. “We all have little arousals throughout the night. The bigger question is ‘When is my baby able to put themselves back to sleep?’ ”
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That question does have an actual concrete answer. Up until about 3 or 4 months of age, babies become pretty accustomed to parental interventions. Part of that is simply due to the fact that during those first months, infants have fantastically short 45-minute sleep cycles with wakeful transitions. As long as parents pop in to help during those transitions, to feed or change them, babies will begin to expect to see parents when they wake during those times.
At somewhere near the 3-month mark, however, babies’ sleep cycles begin to lengthen. This comes, in part, from the ability to recognizing night and day patterns, and not requiring as many frequent feedings. But also, 4-month-olds have the ability to start soothing themselves back to sleep. That means it’s less about when a baby can sleep through the night as much as when will parents let them sleep through the night without intervention.
“Babies can learn to fall asleep independently,” Moore says. “But you have to give them an opportunity to practice.”
Parents can do this by holding off a bit when they hear their 3- or 4-month-old baby fuss. That fussiness may simply be part of the wakeful transition from one sleep cycle to another. It’s very possible that by waiting a minute or two the baby will be able to get themselves back to sleep. That’s not possible, however, if parents keep stepping in: A baby might learn the best way to get back to sleep is to have a parent in the room interacting with them.
Moore also notes that for a baby to be successful at self-soothing, a few conditions need to be met. First, they need to be healthy enough that they can sleep through the night without the need for feeding. They also need to have a consistent schedule and a bedtime routine that sets them up for success. Happily, both routine and schedule can be started as soon as the baby gets home. This means while babies may not be sleeping through the night, parents are giving them the tools to develop solid sleeping habits and, in turn, get their own precious sleep back.