How to get your baby to sleep through the night: 10 steps for an awesome nights sleep, no cry-it-out

You’ve probably ended up on this page because you need sleep. And for you to sleep, you need your baby to sleep.

So, your number one goal in life right now is probably getting your baby to sleep through the night! Ok, let’s go back a step, maybe you just want more than 3 consecutive hours sleep. Just 2 hours?

I’ve been there. I need sleep like I need chocolate: frequently and in large quantity.

I know you’re keen to dive right in, so if you want to get cracking on getting that baby to sleep, skip over this if you want…

Sleep is Sooo Important for Babies

The importance of sleep in adulthood is well documented and there’s no better reminder of this when you’re getting none.  Ie when you have a brand new baby!

Sleep is even more important for babies.

Sleep is critical for growth and development – the majority of which occurs when babies are sleeping!  Less sleep, less growing time.

This is why babies (are meant to) sleep A LOT!  They have a lot of learning and developing to do in an incredibly short space of time.

(In 18 months my daughter has learnt to smile, walk, high-five, draw on the walls, say no…. And exactly how to push her brothers’ buttons.  Meanwhile I’ve just about mastered my new slow cooker.  It has one button, with three settings…)

So, for the sake of my sanity and the healthy development of my babies, encouraging good sleep early on, was an absolute must.

And while I’m not against sleep training and/or cry-it-out (SUCH a personal and controversial topic) I have discovered that these 10 strategies below can eliminate the need for either of these.

Yup, you can have a baby that sleeps through the night without needing to sleep train!

If you want to read more on the importance of sleep for mother and baby this is a great read.

Newborn And Baby Sleep Patterns

It’s helpful to understand a bit about newborn and baby sleep patterns in order to establish good sleep and ultimately get that baby to sleep through the night.

Like adults, newborn sleep is characterized by the different sleep stages of light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep (when we dream).  But there are a few key differences:

(I put this table together with the help of a few resources such as this one and this one, plus the scrapings of my memory of my physiology degree.)

Two important take-aways from the above:

  1. It’s common for babies to wake up after 45 minutes
  2. Babies may look restless a lot of the time and fool us into thinking they’re going to wake up when they’re not!

Number 2 is VERY significant (see strategy #9).

Firstly, What Is Considered Sleeping Through The Night?

When people talk about a baby ‘sleeping through the night’ there’s often confusion about what this means.

Now, my two toddlers sleep around 11/12 hours from 7.30pm-ish until 7am-ish.  That definitely counts as sleeping through the night.

When they were between 3 and 6 months it was more like 11pm-ish until 7am.   I’d say that counts as sleeping through the night, since I can get a good 8 hours.  (Bedtime has always been around 7pm, but at around 10.30pm I’d give them a quick top-up or dream feed – strategy #7 below.)

Yes, you heard that right, your baby can sleep 8 hours straight, ie through the night, without breastfeeding from 3 months old!

Secondly, When Do Babies Sleep Through The Night?

So this one’s not quite so easy to answer.  All babies are different and there seems to be lots of different opinions on this.

The first question to answer is: when do babies sleep through the night without feeding?  I.e. when are they CAPABLE of going an 8 hour stretch in between feeds.

From all the reading I’ve done (a lot) it seems babies are CAPABLE of sleeping through, without feeding, at around 3 months.  Some even earlier, as early as 6 weeks.

Then it’s a matter of them not needing your support or comfort when switching between sleep cycles or when they wake easily during that very light, active REM sleep.  Remember, they are in REM sleep 50% of the time.

If your baby can fall back to sleep on their own (self-soothe or settle themselves), they can sleep through the night by 3 months,  or 6 weeks, or whenever it is they are physically capable of that long stretch between feeds.

My Baby Sleep Experience

“When did your baby sleep through the night?” I hear you say.  Well, we have two little baba’s, complete opposites in most ways.

Baby number 1

First, came our happy, chilled-out baby boy, who went to sleep unaided for most naps from 7 weeks.  By unaided I mean WITHOUT feeding to sleep, rocking, jiggling, driving around the streets… you get the picture.

He was sleeping through the night by 11 weeks.  It wasn’t luck, that I’m sure of.

After several weeks of broken sleep I started researching ‘how to get a baby to sleep through the night’ EVERY SPARE MINUTE.  I tried lots of different things.  A LOT. I was determined.  VERY. I needed to sleep.  DESPERATELY.

I’m absolutely certain that the strategies I will get to shortly were fundamental to this success.

Baby number 2

Second, came our ever-fussy baby girl, who had colic/reflux. She brought up a lot of milk, at nearly every feed (think 4 different outfits by lunchtime for her and at least 2 for me) and often I could not put her down for hours at a time such was her discomfort.

I used the same strategies for her.  They didn’t all work and some I adapted slightly.  She first slept through the night at 12 weeks.

I’m not going to lie, she was consistently inconsistent with her sleep, depending on how much milk she’d managed to consume vs. how much she’d deposited all over herself and myself and how uncomfortable she was.  But as soon as solids were established at 7/8 months (she wasn’t keen on the solid stuff), the reflux calmed down and she slept 12 hours straight fairly consistently.

Not that sleeping is ALL about eating – but if a baby is hungry, they will wake to feed.

In another post I will outline my strategies for sleep success with a reflux baby.

Thirdly, Can Breastfed Babies Sleep Through The Night?

Yes.  More difficult in my opinion but the answer is a resounding yes.  I breastfed both of mine far beyond the point at which they started sleeping through.

A Short Disclaimer

I’m not an sleep ‘expert’ as such and am not medically trained, but after a few weeks of broken sleep with a newborn baby, a lot of reading, experimentation, some chance discoveries from friends and A LOT of perseverance, I feel fairly well practiced!

I want to add that, like all things parenting, there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” way – you must ultimately do what you are comfortable with, what works for you and your family and ignore the rest!

Having said that I think you’d be mad not to give all or most of these a go!

So on to these baby sleep tips…

A 10 Step Strategy For Getting A Baby To Sleep Through The Night

#1 Swaddle

IN A NUTSHELL

 Wrap your baby up like a burrito

WHY

 To prevent the “moro” or “startle” reflex from waking them

The Moro and startle reflexes are natural reflexes that healthy babies are born with. Yeah for your healthy baby! It turns your sleeping little beauty into a startled starfish.  Deep sleep to awake in seconds!  Hence the swaddle.

HOW TO DO IT

This video gives a good demo on swaddling a plastic baby – makes it look easy but don’t be fooled.  A wriggly, fussy newborn with a floppy head can be quite a different story.  Watch and learn.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

 If you’re anything like me and when you wrap a burrito half your food falls out soon as you pick it up, you might want to practice.  Have a friend with a baby?  Go swaddle.

Or buy a fancy swaddle that does all the hard work for you – there are a tonne on the market and some great no-nonsense reviews, such as this one.

#2 Follow a simple routine of milk, awake and active, then sleep

IN A NUTSHELL

Feed baby, short period of awake time/activity, back to sleep

WHY

 This serves two main purposes:

  1. Having just woken up, your baby feeds when most awake and alert, this therefore encourages a full feed
  2. Separating feeding and sleep with a short period of awake time reduces the chance of the sleep association of feeding to sleep developing

HOW TO DO IT

  As follows:

  • Baby wakes from nap, or you wake baby (Yes, you read correctly, you may need to wake that baby sometimes. More on this later.)
  • Change your baby’s nappy – this ensures baby is properly awake and more likely to take a full feed
  • Breast feed or bottle feed
  • Awake and active – in the early days this may be as simple as a few minutes lying on a play mat or a bit of tummy time. Or may also be non-existent!
  • Check nappy
  • Swaddle
  • Magical sleep environment (see strategy no. x)
  • Back to sleep

This cycle may only take 45 minutes in the early days but as your baby grows the awake periods will lengthen.  At 6 months old this cycle may take as long as 2 hours, but probably no longer.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

Don’t stress if the awake period is very short or even non-existent in the beginning!  Tiny babies are not awake very much at all.  Make the most of this, it probably won’t last long.

This only becomes a problem if your baby is awake at night for hours with little or no awake periods during the day.  If this is the case your baby may have days and nights confused – following this 10 step strategy should fix this in just a few days.

Don’t have baby awake too long – even at 6 months old babies will struggle to be awake for longer than 2 hours and remember, that INCLUDES the time taken to feed them.

#3. Make sure baby gets plenty of milk in the day (between 7am and 7pm)

IN A NUTSHELL

 Feed your baby often in the day

WHY

Reduces night wakings through hunger

HOW TO DO IT

 Small babies need to feed frequently – the first table below is a good rule of thumb for the TOTAL feeds your baby is likely to need in a 24 hour period (in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics among many others).

Key is to MAXIMIZE the number of feeds during the daytime hours (7am to 7pm) in order to MINIMIZE the number of feeds your baby will need during nighttime hours (7pm to 7am). So, you want your baby to feed every few hours between the daytime hours of 7am and 7pm, as in the second table.

I’ve incorporated these tables into a handy pin sized image so you can pin it and refer back to it easily.

Where it says ‘every 2 hours’, this time is from the beginning of one feed to the beginning of the next.  So, if your baby took 45 mins to feed then there’s only 1 hour 15 mins until your baby is likely to want to feed again.

THIS IS CRUCIAL – you want your baby to feed frequently IN THE DAY (Between 7am and 7pm) in order to get longer stretches at night. If your baby is asleep when due a feed, wake that baby up!

If you find your baby is feeding more frequently than this you may want to try encouraging baby to take a bigger feed.  This should mean baby can last a little big longer until the next feed which will in turn encourage a bigger feed at the next feed.  Quickly you will find the intervals between feeds increasing.  Ultimately the intervals between night feeds will also increase as a result, eventually eliminating them altogether.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

3 main ones worth noting:

  1. Keep an eye on the clock so you know when you last fed your baby.  There are lots of apps for keeping track of breastfeeding and all things baby, as mentioned here.
  2. Ignore people who say “No! You can’t wake a sleeping baby!” (I found this hard in the beginning but found my confidence to ignore this particular comment!)
  3. Try and encourage bigger/full feeds as much as possible (as mentioned above)

#4 Check how much your baby is sleeping in the day (between 7am and 7pm), adjust as necessary

IN A NUTSHELL

Ensure baby getting the right amount of sleep in the day. Handy sleep chart coming up

WHY

Too much sleep in the day = baby wants to party all night. Wake that baby up!

In addition, if baby is sleeping too much, likelihood is he or she will not be getting enough milk in the day and will have to catch up at night.
Enough naps in the day = well rested, happy baby that shouldn’t fight bedtime.

This may seem counter-intuitive – you want your baby to sleep all night long. Surely that’s more likely if they’ve been awake all day?

Wrong.

Overtired babies can be almost impossible to settle and do not sleep well at night. Do not be fooled into thinking that if you keep your baby up for very long periods in the day, or even the whole day, she will sleep well at night!

Driving round the block, jiggling, rocking, baby wearing is where you’ll be.

HOW TO DO IT

Following the schedule of milk, awake/active, back to sleep (strategy #2) should ensure your baby is having enough naps in the day AND getting enough milk.

As a guideline, babies need the following amounts of sleep in the day as they grow and develop. Note I said guideline. And by day we’re talking about the 12 hours between 7am and 7pm. (The other 12 hours being when they’re soundly asleep all night long… Obviously.)

SLEEP CHART

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

Like the last one: keep an eye on the clock and ignore people who say “No! You can’t wake a sleeping baby!”

#5. Create a magical sleep environment EVERY NAPTIME and extend this to a bed and bath time routine in the evening

IN A NUTSHELL

Dim the lights, play some relaxing music, cuddles and kisses….(Similar to a night with your other half before baby came along)

WHY

 To avoid negative sleep associations (the ones you resort to to get baby to sleep in stimulating environments) and create positive ones (soft music, dim lights, cuddle + swaddle = time to sleep)

HOW TO DO IT

Create a sleep-inducing environment is as simple as stated above:

  • Dim the lights – Light suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Dim the lights, let the melatonin flow.
  • Put on some soothing music, white noise or another dull background noise –  The idea is to replicate the noisy gurgling’s of the mother’s womb. This also drowns out slamming doors, screaming toddlers and anything else that might turn your baby into a startled starfish just as they’re falling asleep.
  • Last breast or bottle-feed – Make sure that tummy is full!
  • Cuddle and kiss – Nothing more sleep inducing than a cuddle…

    In addition to the above, preparation for sleep in the evening ideally consists of one or all of the following:

    • Warm bath
    • Baby massage
    • Story
    • Lullaby

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

     Try to make sure you leave enough time to give this a shot – at least 15 mins to do the bare minimum (lights, music, milk, cuddle) or 30 mins for a full bedtime routine.

    If out and about you will probably have to shortcut so just do what you can (this is when I favored a bit of cuddling, rocking, pushing in the buggy to help my baby to sleep, rather than letting them get overtired).

    #6. Learn when your baby is tired so you can act on it

    IN A NUTSHELL

    Watch your baby like a hawk! Put baby to bed when tired.

    WHY

    Babies get easily over-tired and then can become very difficult to settle. Take that baby into that magical sleep-inducing environment at the first signs of tiredness and let her drift off. Massive melt down and possible sleep association hopefully averted or minimized!

    HOW TO DO IT

    Once you’re following the cycle of feed, awake/active, sleep or a more structured routine, you should quite quickly learn the signs that your baby is getting tired, since you know when your baby last slept.

    Remember that small babies can rarely stay awake longer than xxx. 2 hours is the limit for most under 3 months.

    Common signs of overtiredness include:

    • Rubbing eyes
    • Yawning
    • Avoing eye contact
    • Chewing on fingers

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

    Avoid over-stimulation once you notice signs of tiredness. That includes bright lights, sibling cuddles, even eye contact. So no more, one more game of peekaboo with Aunt Doris who’s travelled from half way across the world just to see her darling niece.

    If you are following any sort of routine and detect your baby is overtired much earlier than scheduled, rather let her sleep early.

    #7. Dream Feed

    IN A NUTSHELL

    Feed your baby without waking her just before YOU go to bed

    WHY

     To make sure your baby is as full as possible and can sleep as long as possible before waking hungry

    HOW TO DO IT

     Wake your baby gently by changing their nappy. Feed them in your magical sleepy environment and put back down to sleep.

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

     If baby is too sleepy to feed try removing some clothes, a damp cloth, moving to a brighter room, blowing on them or anything else you can think of to rouse them. Simulate a second nappy change if they fall asleep halfway through or repeat the above!

    #8. Make sure the room your baby is sleeping in is pitch black FOR EVERY NAP

    IN A NUTSHELL

    Room for sleep must be as dark as possible

    WHY

    Light disturbs sleep …So is often the reason babies wake up at the crack of dawn (when it starts to get light) and won’t sleep longer than 45 minutes in the day (the light waking them in between sleep cycles).

    HOW TO DO IT

    Have curtains lined with black out material or use black out blinds.

    My portable black out blinds (yes I have many!) have been worth their weight in gold when staying at friends’ houses. And for sleep on the move there are some awesome products on the market to keep the buggy and carseat dark (I used a snoozeshade for both).

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

    This is such an easy one there’s no reason not to try it.  I’m also sure it’s why neither of my babies have regularly woken between 5am and 6am even though this is when my husband gets up for work and our house is tiny! I heard a lot of complaints from friends and often read about babies being ready to start the day at 5am so if you have the same issue you’ve just got to try this!

    #9. Pause

    IN A NUTSHELL

     Don’t jump up, run to your baby and pick it up every time he or she makes a noise! Pause first

    WHY

     This is CRUCIAL to avoid creating poor sleep associations.

    Remember babies are noisy sleepers (in active REM sleep HALF the time) so your baby may be stirring while asleep. They may even cry out or cry for a minute or two in their sleep. Even if your baby has woken up, give her a chance to settle herself. You risk waking your baby up fully if you rush to her too quickly and then will inadvertently aid her back to sleep… soon enough you will have a sleep association that could have been avoided.

    Let me just clarity, if your baby is screaming the house down or is obviously hungry/hot/cold/sick then pick that baby up! Do what you need to do.

    HOW TO DO IT

     Pause, before you go to your baby. Give that baby chance to settle. Just a minute or two, 5 if you’re brave.  Whatever you’re comfortable with.

    Again – if your baby is screaming the house down or is obviously hungry/hot/cold/sick then pick that baby up! Feed her, dress her, undress her, cuddle her, whatever it is you think she needs

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

     Just give it a go!

    #10. Try to put down baby awake!

    IN A NUTSHELL

    Place baby in cot awake (but tired and sleepy), walk away

    What??? Yes you did hear that right and yes it’s possible! But I can see why this might seem like the most far-fetched one of the lot but hear me out.

    WHY

    You should have noticed by now, that there have been a few mentions of “avoiding sleep associations”. If baby can fall asleep unaided you have unlocked the key to getting your baby to sleep through the night.  Babies will likely wake several times a night so it’s key that they are able to get back to sleep on their own, if you want a full night’s sleep.

    HOW TO DO IT

    If you follow the cycle of milk, active, sleep in the day then when it comes to nap time baby should be full, tired but not over-tired.

    So set the stage with your magical sleep environment and let that baby go to sleep!

    TIPS FOR SUCCESS

    Just try it. If you end up helping your baby to sleep, so be it. Just try again next time!

    To summarize how to get your baby to sleep through the night

    Eliminating all the reasons why your baby might wake up (swaddled = no starfish maneuvers possible, well-fed = so shouldn’t wake after a few hours hungry, hasn’t overslept in the day=should be tired, dark room = light won’t disturb) are the first steps in getting your baby to sleep longer at night.

    Following a cycle of milk, awake/active then sleep and swaddling should tick all those boxes.

    Create a magical sleep environment and see if baby will drift off on her own.

    Start with these strategies in order to start on your journey of getting your baby to sleep through the night.

    Then pause!

    And persevere!

    Good luck and let me know how you get on. I so hope this sets you on the right path to a good nights sleep, it worked for me, I know it can for you.

     

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