If you are expecting or have a baby already, there is no doubt that you have heard the phrase “sleep through the night”. With newborns, you quickly learn how precious those full nights of uninterrupted sleep were because well simply, you aren’t getting them anymore. And it will be awhile till you aren’t having to wake up every few hours.
I began to pour over every sleep product, book, and blog out there to try to determine how I could get more sleep. Interestingly, the main thing I seemed to find was that once I got my baby to sleep through the night (which is actually considered as 5-6 hours not 12 hours), all my problems would be solved, and my baby would sleep well forevermore.
Sleeping through the night became my main goal and by trying to reach my main goal, I missed the most important fact about sleep, it’s a process and as you go through the process you need a tool set of solutions. So many sleep books contradict each other. The true reason they all contradict is that no sleep solution fits all. Now after going through having an infant baby and now toddler, I see why this myth set me up for failure. Sleep for infants, babies and toddlers is seriously a roller coaster. Here’s why.
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Newborns, which are classified as 0 to 3 or 4 months, are brand new to this world and as such, they don’t have well-tuned systems. They don’t know how to fart, they don’t know how to poop, and they have tiny tummies that need to be fed very often. On top of that are common issues for infants like dairy intolerances and acid reflux, which they can’t tell you about. All they can do is communicate via crying to tell you something is wrong, such as the temperature in the room is uncomfortable, their diaper is wet, their throat burns or their tummy hurts. Already you can see, sleep is going to be challenging because communication is challenging. Throw in the Moro reflexes, which all newborns have, and any sudden movement or change can fully wake them up. Ever heard of a baby who would only sleep on you? Thank you Moro reflexes.
Newborns also don’t produce melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep, and other brain chemicals that promote sleep until they are around 4 months old. Melatonin is actually found in breastmilk, so now you know why nursing results in such a sleepy baby. Newborns also need to eat very often, so night feedings are a must. Actually, night feedings reduce the risk of SIDs, which means all the more reason you will “want” to be up at night.
You are out of the newborn phase and baby is starting to develop skills like smiling and moving and finally they are starting to observe the world around them. While such exciting things are happening, sleep is usually not happening. Baby is so easily distracted that feedings often get interrupted leading to a hungry baby at night. You enter the horrible 4 month sleep regression, which happens as baby’s brain changes and they go through a sleep milestone. They still can’t follow a schedule at this young of an age meaning you have naps everywhere. And the dreaded teething starts at around this age. While you might not see a tooth, the “teething process” is happening under the gums. A lot of babies transition from swaddle and/or bassinet at this age to the crib, which can also put a speed bump in sleep.
Another big change that happens around this time is that a lot of women go back to work, which is a huge adjustment for both mother and baby. With now a very new routine, new environments and a new caretaker, baby will probably need an adjustment period before sleep improves. A lot also will depend on your child’s temperament, which is why there is truly no one size fits all solution. If you are lucky, by this point and have managed to get baby sleeping in large chunks of time, it might not last and that’s okay.
Just as your child’s skillset will change every month, you can also expect their sleep to change. They don’t slow down, their brain is rapidly growing and changing and so is the part of the brain that governs sleep and not so surprisingly, you see sleep regressions with these new skills. At around approximately 6 months, your baby will start to crawl and sleep will probably not be so great. Babies like to work endlessly on their new skill to master it.
At anywhere from 6 months to 8 months, most parents see a nap schedule start to emerge with the transition to two naps a day. While the schedule might be a breath of fresh air, now it starts to matter how close those naps are spaced and the consistency of bedtime. It becomes a fine balance between getting enough sleep in the day, spaced out well, with enough wake times, with enough good feedings, along with solid food, to have a good night. Your skillset is about to improve as a parent as you start to deal with these changes and prepare for your baby to transition to a toddler.
Know that it is very normal for babies to still have disrupted sleep at this age. Your goal should be learning tools to tackle all the individual aspects that change how well baby sleeps, instead of just focusing on getting baby to sleep through the night. As you continue, you will see that more speed bumps are ahead. If you focus on learning about and promoting healthy sleep, you will actually be much more successful in the long run, I promise.
Separation anxiety can hit as early as 9 months and unfortunately it isn’t just a day time thing. A child is suddenly able to understand that when you leave, you are gone. They essentially aren’t sure if you are coming back. It is important during this phase you always say goodbye and that you will be back, even if it is just to leave the room for a minute. Remember to smile and be happy. If baby reads worry on your face, they will know to worry too. The more times you sneak out on them, the more they don’t trust you will come back. They will always keep an eye on you for fear you might disappear, increasing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety usually goes hand in hand with walking, as they can now walk away from you, which allows them to see the world from a whole new perspective. This is why I say separation anxiety can hit as early as 9 months but it could start at 12, 15 or even 18 months, as it is all dependent on your child. It can also surface and then resurface at a later date especially if a change occurs in routine such as a new care taker.
At around the same time frame, 10-18 months, babies go from two naps to one nap. The transition is really rough and baby might be extra tired for a few days. Bedtime usually moves up in order to help with the transition and then slowly move back to a normal time. If you are unsure of when baby is ready for the change, try it. If baby is a disaster because they are overtired, then switch back. If every time you switch back you have a baby who won’t go to bed at night because they are napping too long, either try again for one nap or cut the second nap to be a shorter nap. A good rule of thumb is to always wake them before 4 pm.
It is truly one of the most amazing things to see your baby transform, in just around a years time, from not being able to hold up their own head to walking, running and then talking. With each of these milestones, sleep takes a hit. Like all wonder weeks where baby’s brain changes and baby masters a new skill, baby has a hard time sleeping. Take it in stride as all good things and see if on its own sleep improves. If not, then you might need to strategize a game plan to get sleep back on target.
When L started to talk, we hit a major road block with sleep. She wanted to talk and wanted to express herself, but wasn’t yet able to really do that. She would be very frustrated and break down or just scream. While it was a challenging phase during both day and night, it was just a phase and like all of these phases, it also passed. She became better at communication and now actually tells us “sleep” when she wants to sleep, which is so amazing. I never thought after all of the turmoil in her first year over sleep that I would ever have a child that requested sleep.
Additionally, around this time (~18 months), you hit another sleep regression due to all of the fun and exciting things happening in your toddler’s world. Separation anxiety is also known to play a role in this regression. At this point, don’t just pick up any sleep book, most baby sleep books are not age specific and by not utilizing age specific resources, you are bound to cause more problems than solutions.
If these milestones weren’t enough, teething molars for a lot of kids seems to be one of the worst sets of teeth. They are not sharp and therefore have a harder time ripping through the gum. L got many blood blisters and I swear her molars took forever to come in. Once they came in, sleep started to improve immensely.
No one loves routine like a toddler and usually you see just how much your child loves routine when you try to change it. Start as early as 9 months to ensure the bedtime routine you are using is something you don’t mind sticking to for a very long time. When you hear people talk about habits like nursing to sleep, this is where it really starts to matter. As toddlers, they want to fall asleep the same way every time no matter when they wake. Simply, start a routine that fits for you (i.e. if you are nursing to sleep but don’t want to be doing that for another year, move nursing to before books).
We were in the nursing to sleep boat and what really helped me here was during book time, L would also have a milk bottle. Nursing with a milk bottle on top of that resulted in a very full and sleepy baby. After a few nights, she was so into her new routine.
At some point, your toddler will switch from a crib to a bed. Some switch early because they are climbers and a crib just isn’t safe anymore. If that’s you, try a floor bed (mattress on the ground), they work well because if they fall out, it’s no big deal. As lovers of routine, this will probably disrupt sleep but shouldn’t for long. And in fact, if the crib wasn’t working out so great, this change could help if it’s at the right time.
Another big change in sleep for kids 2 and older is that at some point, most will give up that last nap. Like for every other nap transition, bedtime will have to move up to accommodate the change and for a while you might have a crabby, tired kid. I recommend trying to hold on to this nap because a lot of times, the child wasn’t ready for the change but instead when through a brief sleep regression.
While the age at which a child will potty train varies greatly, it will cause sleep issues. This is especially true for when you night train. Accidents will happen and are expected. Save yourself some time at night by putting on two fitted sheets each with a waterproof layer under them (waterproof mattress protector, fitted sheet, waterproof mattress protector, fitted sheet) so all you need to do is strip one layer and the other layer is already on the bed. The best advice I can give is don’t potty train just because every other kid on the block was potty trained at such and such age. You should only potty train when your child is ready. Also, be prepared, an excellent book to read before you start is “Oh, Crap!”.
From acid reflux to a wide variety of other medical reasons, your baby might need medication. As you know medications can have side effects and something could be disrupting sleep. Even if there is no issue between taking the medication and sleep, babies gain weight and grow fast. The dosage of any medication will need to constantly be adjusted to match baby’s weight. For example, if your baby is put on a medication for acid reflux and grows, they might be getting under-dosed and the issue might be starting to come back. It is a simple fix of going to the doctor’s office for an updated prescription, but it could cause a disruption in sleep.
Another common medication given to babies is Motrin or Tylenol for teething, which is over the counter. Again, make sure to always have an accurate weight measurement as this is the most important indicator of what the appropriate dosage should be. Of course, never give a baby anything without approval from your pediatrician and never decide or guess the dosage yourself, always consult a pediatrician.
Unfortunately, there is no preventing this one. When the flu and cold season hits, baby might also catch them. I wouldn’t worry about avoiding your baby if you are sick and breastfeeding, because your body will already be giving baby antibodies through breastmilk. During these times, sleep will probably be awful but hopefully you can ask a grandparent or your partner to watch baby during the day so you can get some much-need extra rest. Baby might want to nurse all night, as nursing is not only their source of hydration, but also their means to getting better faster.
I know when L had a fever or a cough or a stuffed nose, nursing was essentially constant. It is very hard to nurse a baby who has a stuffed nose or even to get a baby to sleep who is having a hard time breathing, the nose sucker was a life saver for us when L was really little so check that out if you are looking for solutions to ease sleep while baby is sick.
Allergies don’t emerge right away. Instead a baby can have intolerances, which lead to an upset stomach and most of the time disappear by the end of the first year. The most common intolerance is dairy so if you suspect an upset tummy (lots of gas, lots of crying), give up dairy if you are breastfeeding or try a dairy-free formula. Allergies occur once baby can produce antibodies. If you suspect an allergy, get your baby checked. Most allergies can start to emerge sometime after 6 months of age.
I include temperature because it can be very disruptive to sleep. Blankets and covers shouldn’t be used and also wouldn’t be very effective because until around 3 or older, kids don’t understand the concept and can’t pull covers back on if they are cold. There are some fabulous products that have been designed around this issue. The first being the swaddle, which is for newborns to help with that Moro reflex. The second is a sleep sack. It is essentially a sack that keeps them extra cozy, made in both cotton or fleece depending on what you need.
It is hard to decide what to have baby wear each night but if you think this might be your problem, start trying different pajamas or different combinations. When baby wakes, touch their arms, back of neck, and forehead, to try and get a sense whether they might be too hot or too cold. A game changer for our household was doing pajamas with feet free and a sleep sack, for some reason, L just loved it and it really added a lot of continuity to her sleep.
My post is dedicated to any parent who is trying to navigate through all of these speed bumps. It is not only hard but especially if it’s your first, you are learning as you go. The realistic truth is that there is no magical answer to sleep, learning to sleep is a process that you and your baby will learn together. You will help them along the way. Every child is different. Every family situation is different. Even something like breastfeeding versus formula can play a role in the path you take for better sleep. You will have to be a parent during both day and night and for a while it will be a lot more night than you ever thought you can handle, but I promise you, you can do this.
The good news is you can improve the situation during each of these sleep speed bumps with the right resources. There are great resources out there, it’s just the challenge of finding the right one. I am a big believer that no one size fits all and I truly think that can’t be accomplished without some level of personal communication. There are a lot of articles out there that like to cite how so many sleep books contradict each other and that’s because one size doesn’t fit all.
Check out Alli's post on the relationship between nursing and sleep, or head to our sleeping section.