One of the top questions I get is “when will my baby sleep through the night?” Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you the common, “no one truly sleeps through the night” answer. I get it. You’re tired. You want to know when you’ll be able to go to sleep and wake in the morning without a bunch of wakes in between.
The short answer, it’s impossible to know.
Some sleep great from the start. Some sleep great from the start, but have challenges later on. Some start off rough, but get better. Some have ups and downs, while others always have challenges. This is likely due to differences in genetics, temperament, environment, and other underlying factors.
If I had to give you an honest, realistic answer, sleep can be challenging for parents until 5-ish years of age. Children go through a lot in the first 5 years of life. Rapid growth and development, teething, frequent illness, and many transitions and changes (e.g., daycare, kindergarten)…All of this is disruptive and young children often need an adult to help them find their calm. As children get older, growth and development settles, they develop understanding and self regulation, and gain independence, sleep becomes less and less problematic. I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean that your baby won’t sleep long stretches until they’re 5. If I had to guess, your baby will have periods of good sleep and periods of not so good sleep.
I know this isn’t the answer you were hoping for. Particularly since it’s common for parents to be told that their baby “should” be sleeping through the night by a certain age or when they no longer need night feeds. It’s possible that this misconception stems from a study done in the 1950s which showed 70% of babies at 3 months sleeping through the night . There are a number of things wrong with this study, particularly that “sleeping through the night” was considered 12-5 am.
On the other hand, some say that babies should be sleeping through the night by 6 months because they no longer need night feeds. This suggests that babies only wake out of hunger, which isn’t true, and generally geared toward formula fed infants. Formula generally takes longer to digest and bottle fed babies may be over fed. Therefore, they may not wake as often due to hunger, but they do wake for other reasons!
In breastfed babies, nearly 50% are getting their daily milk intake overnight . It’s recommended that if you’re breastfeeding and plan to continue, waiting to night wean until at least 12 months is best to maintain supply. However, there is no set age at which babies no longer need night feeds. This is dependent on the individual family and baby. Some truly need night feeds beyond a year and some don’t. Although, most experts agree waiting to night wean until at least 6 months adjusted and as long as your baby is healthy and gaining appropriately.
If you’re here because you were told that your baby should be sleeping through the night and you’re worried that there’s something wrong with your baby, I hope you find reassurance in this post.
With that said, I would like to look at the definition of “sleeping through the night,” as well as, what normal infant night sleep looks like before summing up.
Definition of “Sleeping Through The Night”
There are two main definitions of “sleeping through the night,” but there should be three.
First, is the academic or research definition. How do researchers define sleeping through the night? This is generally 5-8 hours depending on the study and better aligns with how babies are actually sleeping. Keep this in mind whenever someone talks about sleeping through the night and research.
Second is the cultural definition. In the West, we often expect children not to wake (or signal to their caregivers) until the morning. Therefore, the expectation is often 12-ish hours of sleep from 7pm to 7am with no interruptions. As previously alluded to, this definition was built on the misinterpretation of outdated research rooted in behavioural science using formula fed infants. In addition to normal ADULT sleep and parental preferences. We’ll see how infants are actually sleeping in a minute.
The cultural definition often influences our personal definition. However, it’s important to explore what “sleeping through the night” means to you. What is YOUR definition? Is it the academic definition? The cultural one? Something else? What are your expectations and how can you adjust them to meet the needs of your baby? What change would make the nights better for you?
For my oldest, it’s in bed by 8pm, 6:30-7 wake, and getting him resettled quickly at night when he does wake. For my two year old, it’s generally a 10-12 hour night with no wakes or re-settling quickly. For my 4 month old, it’s 3 wakes, a quick diaper change, and nurse back to sleep. I feel successful and rested when MY definitions are met and I set realistic expectations.
Normal Infant Sleep
If we look at the research, infants and children are sleeping far less than we would like or what we’re told is normal.
For instance, one study found that 70% of 6-18 month old babies were waking at least once at night with 20% waking at least 3 times a night .
Another study found that 38% of 6 month old babies weren’t able to sleep for 6 hour stretch without waking and 57% didn’t sleep for an 8 hour period at all. At 12 months, 28% didn’t sleep for a 6 hour stretch and 43% didn’t sleep for 8 hours .
A study on toddlers, 30, 36, and 42 months, found that toddlers woke approximately 4 times per night. Some of these wakes lasted around 24-31 minutes and the total time spent asleep was 8-8.5 hours .
What Does This Mean?
First, there’s no universal definition on what it means to sleep through the night. Different cultures, different contexts, and different people will define it differently. If you’re happy with night sleep, that’s all that matters. Your baby is likely getting what they need.
Second, the majority of babies and young children don’t sleep long stretches without waking and many need parental support. Yes, there are some children who are independent sleepers from the start, but this is likely due to differences in genetics, temperament, and environment. In my experience, even these sleepers go through some challenges at some point. My oldest was an amazing, independent sleeper until he was 2 when he suddenly needed a lot of parental support.
It’s important to remember that sleep isn’t linear. We all go through periods where our sleep is disrupted and this applies to infants and children as well. This makes it difficult to give you a definitive answer. It’s frustrating, but normal.
Children go through a lot in the first 5 years of life and sleep is often disrupted as a result. As children get older, sleep becomes less disruptive.
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to suffer. There are things you can do that can improve sleep at any stage, but setbacks and periods of increased parental support may occur. Again, you don’t have to wait it out, but it may not be “perfect” until your child gets older.
To sum up, don’t get caught up in cultural definitions of sleeping through the night. Reflect on what you need to improve your sleep situation. What change will make you feel successful and rested?
 Moore, T., & Ucko, L. E. (1957). Night waking in early infancy. Archives of Diseases in Childhood, 32, 333–342.
 Imong, S.M., Jackson, D.A., Wongsawasdii, L., Ruckphaophunt, S., Tansuhaj, A., Chiowanich, P., Woolridge, M.W., Drewett, R.F., Baum, J.D. and Amatayakul, K., 1989. Predictors of breast milk intake in rural northern Thailand. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 8(3), pp.359-370.
 Hysing M, Harvey AG, Torgersen L, Ystrom E, Reichborn-Kjennerud T, Sivertsen B. Trajectories and predictors of nocturnal awakenings and sleep duration in infants. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2014 Jun;35(5):309-16.
[4 Pennestri, M. H., Laganière, C., Bouvette-Turcot, A. A., Pokhvisneva, I., Steiner, M., Meaney, M. J., Gaudreau, H., & Mavan Research Team (2018). Uninterrupted Infant Sleep, Development, and Maternal Mood. Pediatrics, 142(6), e20174330. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2017-4330
 Hoyniak CP, Bates JE, Staples AD, Rudsaill KM, Molfese DL, Molfese VJ. Child sleep and socioeconomic context in the development of cognitive abilities in early childhood. Child Development. 2019; 90: 1718-1737.
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