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Getting up to a wakeful or crying baby at night is one of the most challenging parts of having a new baby. It’s also completely normal. It might help to know that, by six months, many babies are sleeping for longer periods at night.
Baby sleeping credit iStockphoto.com/angi71
 

For many parents and caregivers, especially those who must go to work in the morning, one thought can drown out all others: will this baby ever sleep through the night?

The answer is yes – in a way. The truth is, few babies truly ‘sleep through the night’. In fact, sleep researchers have found that infants younger than 12 months old typically wake up an average of three times during the night.

For the first few months of life, 95% of infants cry when they wake up. And most of them need someone to soothe them before they can get back to sleep. But as your babies gets older, they might simply go back to sleep on their own.

Several studies have found that by eight months, over 50% of infants who wake at night go back to sleep without any soothing from parents or other caregivers. In fact, sometimes their parents didn’t even realise they’d been awake.

Learning about sleep

For a subject that’s so important to so many parents – paediatricians report that questions about sleep are among the most frequently asked by caregivers – researchers know relatively little about a baby’s nightlife. But by using video cameras and activity monitors to keep track of babies’ sleeping and waking cycles, researchers are beginning to understand how infants form sleep patterns.

All babies are unique, and sleep patterns vary greatly from infant to infant. Even though typical sleep patterns don’t apply to all babies, researchers have identified general patterns that you can look for as your child gets older.

Sleep patterns: newborn to six months

It might seem hard to believe when you aren’t getting enough sleep, but most infants younger than three months sleep around 18 hours a day. It’s also normal for some to sleep more, and for some to sleep less. Young infants tend to sleep for around 2-4 hours at a time, and then wake for short periods, often to be fed. These patterns of sleeping and waking can vary, and they go on around the clock.

In the first weeks and months, it’s too early to expect a young baby to sleep through the night. As tiring as it seems, don’t expect infants to pay attention to adult schedules right away. A newborn doesn't know that people sleep when it’s dark, and a baby’s ‘circadian rhythm’ – the 24-hour internal clock that controls our sleeping and waking patterns – is still developing.

But hang in there! In a few months, babies gradually begin to organise sleeping and waking according to daily cycles of darkness and light. The 24-hour, light-and-dark cycle begins to affect most babies’ sleep patterns within the first three months.

By six months of age, many babies organise their main sleep times in concert with darkness and light. Although babies can vary a great deal, six-month-olds might sleep six hours or more at a time. Most of these longer periods take place at night. Also, by six months, your baby will probably wake up fewer times at night.

Sleep patterns: 6-12 months

Not only will your six-month-old begin to sleep for longer periods of time, but he’ll also become better able to self-soothe when awake.

Researchers using video recording systems in babies’ homes observed that babies vary a lot when it comes to waking and crying – or not crying – at night. They found the biggest changes in infants’ sleeping and waking patterns happen between three and six months. Six-month-olds sleep longer at a stretch than three-month-olds. They’re also more likely to go back to sleep on their own when they wake.

As they get closer to their first birthdays, infants tend to sleep longer, wake up less often, and sleep more and more at night. And they might take a nap once or twice during the day, ranging from 20 minutes to around two hours at a time.

C hances are your baby will be sleeping 8-12 hours a night by the time she’s a year old, waking up only once or twice during that time.

There are so many wonderful changes in babies during the first 12 months. Sleep is one of them, as babies develop more adult-like sleep patterns, so hang in there. Sleep is on the way.

Helpful tips

When you hear that cry in the night, remember:

  • Your baby doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘sleeping through the night’.
  • Don’t expect your baby to sleep through most of a night before 3-6 months.
  • Even after 3-6 months, it’s normal for babies to wake up several times during the night. 
  • Every baby is different. Your normal, healthy baby might have different sleep patterns from other children. 
  • Be patient and hang in there. Your baby will probably begin to sleep for longer stretches of time when the time is right developmentally.
If you’ve never had a period of bad sleeping before, you might get a shock at just how much lack of sleep can affect your life. It’s important you still look after yourself during this time, and try to get the sleep you need to feel rested.

Video: Parents talk about baby sleep

Download Video  28mb

In this short video, mums and dads talk about encouraging baby sleep. In particular, they share tips on:

  • identifying sleep cues
  • finding out what helps babies to sleep
  • being consistent with sleep and settling techniques.

As these parents say, every baby is different. What works for one baby might not work for another. You might need to experiment to find out what’s right for you and your baby.

 
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  • Anders, T., Goodlin-Jones, B., & Sadeh, A. (1999). Sleep disorders. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of Infant Mental Health (pp. 326-338). New York: Guilford Press.

    Goodlin-Jones, B., Burnham, M. M., Gaylor, E. E., & Anders, T. (2001). Night waking, sleep-wake organization, and self-soothing in the first year of life. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 22(4), 226-233.

    Henderson, J., France, K., Blampied, N. (2011). The consolidation of infant's nocturnal sleep across the first year of life. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 15, 211-220.

    Louis, J., Cannard, C., Bastuji, H., & Challamel, M. J. (1997). Sleep ontogenesis revisited: A longitudinal 24-hour home polygraphic study on 15 normal infants during the first two years of life. Sleep, 20(5), 323-333.

    McGraw, K., Hoffman, R., Harker, C., & Herman, J. H. (1999). The development of circadian rhythms in a human infant. Sleep, 22(3), 303-310.

    Ficca, G., Fagioli, I. and Salzarulo, P. (2000). Sleep organization in the first year of life: Developmental trends in the quiet sleep-paradoxical sleep cycle. Journal of Sleep Research, 9, 1-4.

Pre-teens

9-11 years