How do you get a baby to sleep through the night? Isn’t that the question on every parent’s mind? And if you're a brand new parent you're probably wondering how to get your newborn to sleep AT ALL?
Should I swaddle my newborn? Can I co-sleep safely with my newborn? What bed should I use for my newborn baby?
How to get a baby to sleep through the night can become a downright obsession once you become parents. Whoever came up with ‘sleeping like a baby’ clearly wasn’t a mom, or maybe was a dad who never woke up at night with babies!
My name is Samantha St-Louis, and I am a registered nurse clinician and a baby sleep expert. And the very first thing I want you to do is to take a deep breath and delete EVERY single baby sleep app you may have downloaded on your phone.
Those apps aren’t going to get your baby to sleep through the night but rather increase your anxiety, stress, and worries around sleep. Sleep apps don’t fix sleep. They are engineered to create more needs!
So what works then? If the apps don’t work, how do I get my baby to sleep through the night?
Getting your newborn to sleep!
Newborns don’t sleep in predictable patterns or cycles. They go from light sleep to deep sleep almost immediately and will stay in deep sleep anywhere from 30 min to 4h before they wake to feed.
As such, the vast majority of the time when we see issues with newborn sleep it has to do with wake windows being too long.
This means that your newborn baby is spending too much time awake between each nap.
A newborn baby typically will only be awake long enough to feed, however in the weeks that follow, they will stretch their wake windows to about 45 min.
In other words, from the moment your baby wakes, to the moment he is back in bed, only 45 minutes has elapsed. The biggest mistake parents make is to start feeding and soothing a newborn baby at the 45-minute mark. As a result, the baby may have been up for 1h25 or more by the time he goes back to bed.
Life itself is a shock to a newborn
Another factor to consider is the environment your baby just left. If you think about it, not so long ago your baby was cozied up inside your belly, warm and never cold, where light and sound was muffled through amniotic fluid, and where he was never hungry. Suddenly he enters the real world:
It’s cold and sometimes too warm
He has a lot of space to move
He can get hungry
He has to digest food for the first time
The lights are bright and the sounds are loud
Everyone wants to touch him and coo at him.
It’s a lot! Those are a lot of big changes! This is what we call the fourth trimester, because for biological and evolutionary reasons… a human baby isn’t technically ready for the real world by the time he or she is born. It’s as if we are born three months early.
So how can we offer them a safe fourth trimester and get them to actually sleep through the night?
For newborns, a “whole night” represents 5h of sleep in a row. The help your baby have a good night’s sleep, do as follows:
Keep short wake windows.
Start a bedtime, naptime, and morning routine by 6 weeks of age.
Swaddle your newborn baby.
Feed your baby on both breasts when he wakes in the middle of the night.
Offer your baby a dreamfeed (a scheduled feed BEFORE your baby naturally wakes between 9h30 and 11h30 pm).
Getting your older baby to sleep!
Now comes the famous 4-month sleep regression! This one sends shivers down the spines of parents. This is when I hear parents tell me:
‘I don’t understand, he was the best sleeper, and all of a sudden he wakes and cries every two hours all night long! How do I get my baby to sleep through the night? I can’t co-sleep anymore! I’m tired!’.
The truth is the four-month regression is a misnomer. It’s not actually a regression but a permanent change in the ways babies sleep! Babies suddenly start sleeping in cycles.
See when we go to bed our brain goes through a steady cycle of sleep patterns:
Stage 1: Where we progress from being awake to relaxing into light sleep.
Stage 2: Our heart rates and breathing slows down, our temperature drops, and our eyes stop moving.
Stage 3: The beginning of deep restorative sleep.
Stage 4: This is the deepest sleep and is crucial to you feeling refreshed in the morning.
REM, or rapid eye movement sleep: Most of your dreams occur here and your muscles are usually paralyzed, preventing you from physically fighting off the imaginary dragon.
Each sleep cycle lasts between 45 min to 90 minutes. We tend to have longer sleep cycles earlier in the night, and progressively shorter cycles as we edge towards the morning and we spend less and less time in deep sleep (stages 3 and 4).
What most of us don’t realize is that in between each sleep cycle, our brain partially wakes to assess our environment and ensure it is safe enough for us to dive into another sleep cycle.
If you think about it, thousands of years ago, when we used to sleep in the open land, traveling from one place to another, it was pretty important to ensure there were no lions near our chosen sleep area before diving into deep sleep and REM where we would effectively be paralyzed!
Today, although we don’t open our eyes, we still partially wake to assess:
Am I hot or cold?
Am I in pain?
Are there any weird sounds?
If everything checks out we dive into the next sleep cycle without ever remembering we did this in the first place.
However, when 4-month-old (on average) babies start to sleep in cycles… they have no idea how to do these environmental checks and as such, they wake! And then… well they are used to mom or dad feeding, rocking, or singing them to sleep and need assistance. That’s why a baby who was previously sleeping through the night like a champion, may suddenly start waking multiple times per night.
My favourite example is this: In between sleep cycles your brain actually registers if you are still sleeping on the same surface. Now imagine if your baby fell asleep in your arms and woke up alone in his crib? That’s equivalent to you falling asleep in your bed and waking on your lawn. You’d have a reason for concern! Your environment would have changed pretty drastically!
So how do you get your baby to sleep through the night?
Respect their wake windows to ensure the right sleep pressure is attained.
Make sure they aren’t too warm or too cold (their baby mattress has a part to play in this).
Put them in bed drowsy but awake enough they know they are being put down.
Make their rooms a safe place by spending quality time there together.
Use the right schedules & routines to provide consistency.
Learn which sleep intervention is right at every age to teach them how to fall back asleep.
Getting your baby to sleep through the night doesn’t have to be complicated, frustrating, and exhausting. Sleep isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s a necessity like air and water.
So if you are finding yourself completely overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us help you get your baby sleeping through the night.