At Growing Healthy Together, we hear from a lot of parents who struggle with sleep and nighttime feeding.  Not all parents struggle with this issue, but the ultimate goal for parents and their sanity is for infants to eventually sleep through the night.  Parents and guardians struggling with sleep deprivation due to frequent night waking and feeding might consider decreasing or entirely removing nighttime feeding.

It is important to keep in mind that all families are different.  Most babies are able to sleep through the night by about 6 months of age.  But not all babies are the same.  Some don’t sleep through the night successfully until 12 months and some manage it in as short as 3 months.  Some babies have other medical complications that impact their ability to sleep.  For example, infants’ ability to sleep might be impacted by teething, sleep regression or illness.  Take it easy and follow your instincts.

Being a good sleeper doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping for ten hours straight. Waking up many times is developmentally appropriate at specific stages.  A baby can wake up multiple times a night, but a good sleeper is able to get back to sleep. See our tips for helping your child to sleep through the night below.

Sleeping Through the Night

The ultimate goal for most parents is that their infant builds up to uninterrupted sleep overnight.  Newborn babies typically wake and feed on a 2-to-4-hour cycle. However, healthy babies and sane parents/guardians require working up to longer sleep durations over the first year of life.  Research shows that children are sleeping an average of 1 to 2 hours less than they need.  In fact, it’s estimated that about 15 million children in the U.S. are receiving less sleep than they require.

There may be a number of things that contribute to your child’s sleep rhythms. Some parents may be nighttime feeding their infants when they wake, deciphering crying as a cue for hunger. In addition, many families have chosen to co-sleep and nurse on demand. Night weaning may be more difficult, depending on your child’s personality. Many children will sleep better in the same room with their parents, while others will sleep better separated from noise or the smell of mother’s milk. These are factors that need to be taken into account when frequent awakenings are occurring. Night weaning may help parents to determine the difference between hunger and other complaints.  This way, you can establish a specific pattern and begin to find soothing ways to keep your infant asleep for longer.

Tips for Helping Your Child to Sleep Through the Night

  • Use a bottle. You can still pump and feed your baby breastmilk, but this way you can better regulate exactly how much your infant is getting during nighttime feedings. This can initially be a struggle, as the child will smell you and prefer you over a bottle. Developing a plan with your partner is key.  Your partner may need to do the bottle feeding to help your infant to become accustomed to suckling for comfort.
  • Develop a routine. Feed your baby at the same time and start initiating a bedtime ritual to help your infant fall into a sleep routine. For example, try a calming bath, jammies, and story time every night to let the child know that bed is coming. Children need structure. Bedtime is no different.
  • Work towards night weaning. Gradually lengthen the times between feedings at the beginning to slowly introduce your infant to longer sleep duration with less distress.
  • For younger children, swaddle your baby to help keep them calm, reduce waking, and improve sleep quality. Once your child starts rolling over, this is no longer an option.
  • Try a white noise machine to drown out any distracting noises and to soothe.
  • Find non-food strategies to help soothe your child. Each child is different.  Rubbing one child’s feet may work, while gentle rocking may work better for others. Trial and error will help you discover what works for your baby.
  • Notice cues that your baby is tired. Settling them when they’re tired will help keep them from getting overtired to the point where it’s hard to calm them enough for sleep.
  • Make awake hours count. Be calm and attentive while your baby is awake, helping to reinforce good behaviors and provide support.
  • Don’t awaken your child to feed.  Healthy babies don’t need to be awakened to eat. They will let you know if they are hungry.
  • Don’t respond too quickly when your child begins to cry. If you run to their side every time they fuss, they may learn that crying is simply a good way to get your attention.
  • Consider trying one of the sleep training methods to help your infant sleep better.
  • Contact your healthcare provider and rule out any medical complications that could be impacting your infant’s sleep.

Growth and Behavior

Growth and behavior are determined early on in life and are frequently directly related to food.  For example, self-soothing is an important tool for infants to learn.  In a St. James-Roberts study, researchers found that infants who experienced frequent breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and rapid response were more prone to night waking and crying at 3 months.  In another study, parents who were present when their infant fell asleep experienced a higher incidence of waking. In contrast, infants that were able to self-sooth experienced less wakefulness and longer periods of time sleeping.

However, teaching your infant to self-soothe doesn’t have to mean ignoring them. If your child sleeps separate, wait a few minutes to see if they are able to soothe back to sleep. Attend to your baby if they continue to cry, or their cry sounds different. At this time, you can use non-food ways to help them soothe until they can develop the ability to do so themselves. Laying your child in their crib while they are drowsy, but not quite asleep can help them fall asleep on their own and stay asleep longer. Each child is different, and so is each family’s lifestyle and living situation. Growing Healthy Together acknowledges that every suggestion is not going to work for every family.

Self-soothing may also help to self-regulate emotion. This quality can be helpful for developing the ability to regulate emotions in later life.  In fact, research shows that individuals that struggle with regulating their emotions are more likely to be overweight or obese.  And parents who use feeding to soothe their babies may be keeping their infants from learning self-soothing.  Food is not a reward, but instead is sustenance that we require to live.

Growing Healthy Together strives to support each family’s breastfeeding goals and acknowledges that co-sleeping and nursing on demand are a choice many families make. We mention this not to demean those choices, but rather to assess them as possible contributing factors to frequent night waking.

Preventing Childhood Obesity

Sleep deprivation and obesity are shown to be linked in young children.  In addition, research shows that infants that sleep for less than 12 hours are at risk of being overweight in childhood.  Chubby babies used to be synonymous with healthy babies, however, evidence shows that overweight babies have poorer long-term health than babies within a “normal” weight/length/age range.

When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider

  • Infrequent urination (3 wet diapers per day or less)
  • Little-to-no growth or weight gain
  • Abnormal or less frequent bowel movements

Review our Childhood Sleep blog for more information about your baby and their sleep. For questions or concerns, please respond to this blog or contact us!