No one who becomes a parents expects to enjoy a good night's sleep for a while. Especially since there's a whole contingent of sadistic, experienced parents who seem to revel in that truth... for some reason. "Sleep now, because you won't sleep again for years!" Yet uncouth and annoying as those people are, they do know something expectant parents don't. Because knowing you'll be waking up every few hours for months cannot prepare you for actually doing it. Many of us will find ourselves thinking, "How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?" within, like, a week.
While sleeping through the night (STTN, in the parlance of mommy message boards) a week into the whole parenting thing probably isn't all that realistic, there's hope for more restful nights ahead. Romper spoke with Jennifer Howard, a sleep expert and creator of the MommySOS program, about how to help your baby go to sleep and stay asleep.
The first thing to know is what "sleep through the night" actually means, because a successful night's sleep for a baby can look very different from your ideal timeline. "Typically sleeping through the night is considered a five to six hour stretch," Howard says. In other words, if your baby goes down "for the night" at 7 p.m., if they wake up at 1 a.m. that's still a pretty good run (even if you've only been asleep for three hours at that point).
The good news, according to Howard, is that this goal can be accomplished for most babies by the time they're 4 months. The bad news? Those glorious, pre-baby, 11 to 12 hour stretches will generally take most babies much longer, especially when you consider that waking up to eat is totally normal. "Many breastfed babies in particular will continue to need a feeding until six to nine months," Howard says.
Even small modifications to your baby's environment can help set them up for success.
So, how is this going to work? As with so many parenting challenges, there's no "one-size-fits-all" sleep solution. (It's almost like every family is different! So weird, right?!) Even when it comes to what to expect in terms of baby sleep, there's a whole lot of variation. "The range of "normal" is so wide," Howard tells Romper. "Many babies will sleep well as newborns and then continue to sleep well... but others have trouble from the very beginning. These are babies who typically are more intense or persistent in nature, less adaptable, or are struggling with reflux or colic."
But a good place to start, Howard advises, has little to do with your baby and everything to do with where they're sleeping. Even small modifications to your baby's environment can help set them up for success.
Is there a factor that’s been overlooked that might be keeping your child awake, or is waking them up and keeping them from falling back to sleep? Noises (from other apartments, street traffic, even through vents and ducts) can be masked with a white noise machine. Ambient light (from the street or early-morning sunshine) can be blocked with black out curtains. The temperature (too warm? too cold?) can be adjusted to baby's ideal (between 68 and 72 degrees). While these things may not in and of themselves get your baby to "STTN," (and if they do, great!) they can help make your efforts more successful.
Another thing to consider is if your baby's sleep environment is also your sleep environment. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room-sharing until 6 months old in order to minimize the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and sleep-related deaths and injuries, the organization also acknowledges the need for further study on the issue. According to a 2017 study, researches found that room-sharing with infants at ages 4 months and 9 months was associated with less nighttime sleep and shorter sleep stretches. This is born out in Howard's experience as an infant sleep expert. "I have found that [room-sharing] can be really helpful for some moms because it makes it easier to feed," she says, "but can actually cause more frequent wakings if the baby is sensitive to noises or being close to mom."
So, what should you do? This is, perhaps frustratingly, part of the "no one-size-fits all" aspect of getting your baby to sleep: it's going to be a personal call based on what works and feels right for you and your baby. But the good news is that either way you go, there's evidence to back up your choice as a good move. (Hooray for science!)
OK, so the stage is set and we know that STTN is possible for most babies around that 4 month mark. But when should you begin sleep training? (If that is, of course, something you choose to do. Again, Howard tells Romper there's no definitive answer, but that you're probably not going to have much luck before 2 months. "Once they begin to 'wake up' to the world — typically around eight weeks or so — you can start to offer less and less of your help [to get them to sleep]," she says.
The ultimate goal of sleep training, according to Howard, isn't to eliminate your baby's need for comfort, or even to prevent them from waking up. "Do you sleep through the night?" she points out. Like us, babies and kids wake up multiple times through the night, and that's completely normal. So the real goal is to help them put themselves back to sleep. "Helping a baby learn to self-soothe can truly be done as gently and slowly or as quickly as [you like], depending on what method the parents choose and how comfortable they are with crying," she says. For babies, Howard tends to favor moving a little bit slower to help them transition out of the newborn phase.
The biggest step is to have 'Dad' or the other partner take over for a few nights. Not only does this allow for Mom to catch up on sleep and reset, it also can be absolutely crucial in helping break sleep associations that are connected to the primary caregiver.
"For instance," she says, "if you typically rock for 30 minutes until they're totally and completely asleep, then you might try to rock for just 20 minutes and then slowly make that less and less over time."
Howard also encourages well-meaning parents not to rush to baby's aid at the first whimper. "There has been research that has shown that by just giving baby's a few minutes to settle themselves back to sleep in the night, without intervening actually, greatly increases the probability that they'll be sleeping through the night by 12 months."
Of course, no discussion of baby sleep would be complete without discussing that most dreaded of terms: the 4 month sleep regression, the bane of parents everywhere. Personally, I believe this is a cruel trick played upon us by our wicked infants. But Howard, a professional who actually knows about this stuff, sees it differently. "Once they are around three to four months," she explains, "their sleep cycles change so that they begin to cycle in and out of deeper sleep. ... Scientifically, I wouldn't actually call it a regression, because it's a huge developmental period for the baby. But it often leads to more frequent waking, trouble with self-soothing, and shorter naps while they work through the development."
In other words, this is probably the primary reason to hold off on trying to set a "sleep through the night" goal until your baby has surpassed this developmental milestone.
Fellow parents, this is hard. It would be hard if we were doing it well-rested and clear-headed, but we are neither. But don't be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help when you can. "For many of the families I work with," Howard says, "the biggest step is to have 'Dad' or the other partner take over for a few nights. Not only does this allow for Mom to catch up on sleep and reset, it also can be absolutely crucial in helping break sleep associations that are connected to the primary caregiver."
It may not happen at exactly at four months or even 14 months, but eventually, at some point, sleep will come. Until then, hang in there.