Help! My baby won't sleep through the night

Sleep   |   Age: 7 months

Help! My baby won't sleep through the night

Now that your baby has passed that magic 6-month mark, you may have heard that she’s ready to start sleeping through the night. And while every child develops at a different pace, it’s true that babies often start to be able to sleep through the night by month 6. According to the National Sleep Foundation, by 9 months, 70% to 80% of children are able to sleep through whatever counts as "the night" for them, as defined by their need for sleep, which can fall between 9 and 12 hours.

So why are you still lugging around the bags under your eyes that are a sleepless parent’s not-so-lucky charm? Well, just because your baby is physically capable of doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is going to start on her own. After all, she could be saving her initiative for drawing on the living room wall, trying to ride the cat, or spontaneously potty-training herself - well, maybe not the last one.

Why the lack of shut-eye?

Confusingly, at exactly the point when medical experts say your baby may be ready to safely and healthily start sleeping through the night without waking up to feed or cuddle, some babies who have been great sleepers up until that point start waking more often, and acting fussier when they do. This is because your baby is growing in more ways than one, and just as her little digestive system is developing to the point where it can sustain her without waking her, a few other things to keep her wakeful start to kick in, like exciting developmental milestones, teething, and separation anxiety.

When your baby learns to do something fun and exciting, like crawl, pull up, or even just roll over, she can grow excited enough about this new skill that she would rather stay up and play than get the rest you know she needs. The best way to handle this one is generally just to make sure that her sleeping space is free and clear of distractions, keep her room dark and quiet, and - if you’re soothing her to sleep - to try to make yourself as boring as possible (it’ll be a struggle) so your baby doesn’t want to get up again and play with you quite so badly.

If your baby is old enough to be turning over on her own, it’s generally safe to give her a cool washcloth or chilled teether if it’s something going on under her gums that’s keeping her up. If teething is the problem, you may be able to tell by the redness and swelling of your baby’s gums, although some new teeth don’t give as many visual cues, and you might not know that’s what’s going on until a brand new tooth pokes its way through the gums.

Separation anxiety is another tricky one, because it’s not like you can blame your baby for missing you, and for worrying about your absence the way you would worry about hers if you woke up during the night and she wasn’t where you expected her to be. Unfortunately, there’s no real trick to it - your baby probably won’t feel better until you go to her to let her know you’re there, and once you’re there, she could easily not want to let you go again.

In her waking hours, you can work on reassuring her that, when you disappear, you always come back, which could help to calm some of her anxiety. The two of you can start to work on this with fun games like peek-a-boo, or hiding one of her toys under a blanket and then revealing it again. These kinds of games may have been fun before your baby's brush with separation anxiety because she may have thought the surprise of the reveal at the end was funny. Now though, they're useful because they help to teach your baby that things (and people!) can still be close-by, even if they're out of view. Another way to work on that understanding is to talk to your baby from out of view when you leave the room she is in.

Saying no to midnight snacks

One of the key differences between your baby now and your baby when she was a few months younger is that she doesn’t necessarily need to eat during the night to get the nutrients she needs. Now, she has a larger stomach, and less rapid growth. So if you’re still giving her nighttime feedings, there’s a good chance she’s ready to make the switch away from that. If your baby is falling asleep during nighttime feedings, or isn’t eating as much during them as she used to, there’s a good chance she’s ready to transition away from them.

Nighttime weaning often works best when done gradually, although you know both yourself and your baby best, and if you feel she will have a harder time slowly letting go of nighttime feedings, or that you’ll have a hard time sticking with a gradual weaning away, cold turkey could still be the way to go. On the other hand entirely, many parents who believe strongly in feeding on-demand don’t night-wean at all, but continue nighttime feedings until their children no longer wake up and ask for them. If you do choose to gradually night-wean though, try slowly shortening feeds until the point that when your baby wakes for a nighttime feed, you can just soothe her back to sleep without trying to feed her. By then, she should be used to not getting much to eat during the night, and should fall back to sleep fairly easily. No matter which weaning method you try, it’s always a good idea to offer your baby a bit more to eat during the day, to make up for what she will no longer be getting at night.

Game changers

If your baby hasn’t started sleeping through the night on her own yet, she could just need a little push. The bedtime routine that has worked in the past isn’t always the bedtime routine that will work in the future, or even in the present, and now that your baby is about ready to graduate into a more mature sleeping style, her bedtime routine might be able to use a few adjustments to match.

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