Your friend’s baby started sleeping through the night by the time he was three months old. But your next door neighbor has a two year old who has never slept through the night in her life. One blog tells you that it’s normal for your older baby to still need to breastfeed multiple times every night, while another says you should just let your baby cry it out. Or maybe you’ve been told…

“You’re not going to be rocking him to sleep when he’s a teenager.”

“They’re only young once; just enjoy it!”

How do you know what’s right for your child?


To clear some of the confusion, it’s helpful to know how the biology of sleep develops:
When Will My Baby Sleep Through the Night?

Most babies will sleep through the night, some with one lingering feeding, by six months of age. To understand why some babies continue to wake more often, it’s important to realize that sleep is not only biological, it’s also social.


How social development influences baby’s sleep

There is a striking change that happens around 4 months of age, when babies suddenly become aware of things and people around them. Baby’s sense of autonomy is emerging, as well as baby’s ability to interact with this outside world.

If you are the parent of a 4-month old, you’ve probably noticed that baby all of a sudden seems much more alert at this age. Everything catches his attention.

Around 4 months, your baby is also going to wake frequently through the night. Every baby does. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a growth spurt, teething, or a need for more frequent night feedings. It means that biologically, your baby is now experiencing brief awakenings as part of the nature of his maturing sleep cycles. Thanks to his budding social skills, he is also now aware of what’s going on around him.

Not every baby will wake his or her parents at 4 months. Some babies will awaken at night and quietly return to sleep. Others wake and let you know they’re awake. You can read more about this here: Sleep Training: Is It a Control Issue?, but the short of the matter is, a baby who goes into the crib awake at bedtime is much more likely to return to sleep quietly throughout the night–or, as more popularly described, “sleep through the night.”

Object permanence develops around 8 months. Place a blanket over a toy that your baby is playing with. If your baby tries to lift the blanket, your baby has developed the awareness that unseen things still exist. If you’re helping your baby fall asleep and you don’t happen to notice an increased amount of waking at 4 months, you will almost certainly see a change by 8 to 9 months of age when this concept of object permanence emerges.

These milestones of social development mean that as your baby grows older, baby becomes increasingly aware of–and dependent on–the cues you provide for sleep.


Choose your own sleep adventure

If your baby is about 4-6 months or older and is waking frequently at night, you have a choice about how to handle these nightly shenanigans.

  1. Sleep train.
  2. Bedshare (co-sleep).
  3. Carry on without changing anything.

Babies are born pattern-seekers. They don’t have the language skills to understand the world through what you tell them. Instead they rely on learning predictable sequences of events. They know that if they bat at a toy within reach, the toy will move. When they see a bottle or mom lifting her shirt, they anticipate that a feeding is coming. These are patterns that baby can understand.

The way your baby makes sense of how sleep happens is through the patterns you establish. When bedtime always means bouncing on a yoga ball until falling asleep, baby will continue to expect bouncing to fall asleep until you change that pattern. Whatever your bedtime pattern, these patterns build the predictability that baby needs in order to relax and fall asleep.

Sleep training does not necessarily mean letting your child cry it out. It means making an intentional series of changes to the pattern you have taught your baby. It might be done quickly, it might be done gradually. But sleep training is the only option listed above that changes the pattern baby associates with sleep.


When do babies sleep through the night if you don’t sleep train?

This is the real question, isn’t it? Sleep training is hard, whether you take a cry-it-out approach or a more gradual one. But the alternative to doing something is doing nothing.

One of the most frequently cited studies looking at the persistence of sleep problems comes from the early 1980’s. Researchers looked at 60 children between the ages of 15-48 months. 25 of the children had a sleep problem (night waking, bedtime struggle, or both problems) at the start of the study. Three years later, 84% of those children were still experiencing a sleep struggle. Among those who did not have a sleep problem initially, only two developed a night waking problem by the time of the second interview.[1]Kataria, S., Swanson, M. S., & Trevathan, G. E. (1986). Persistence of sleep disturbances in preschool children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 110(4), 642–646.

Zuckerman et al. found that among children who had a sleep problem at 8 months of age, 41% still had difficulty at 3 years of age.[2]Zuckerman, B., Stevenson, J., Bailey, V., & Psych, M. (1987). Sleep Problems in Early Childhood: Continuities, Predictive Factors, and Behavioral Correlates. Pediatrics, 80(5), 664–671.

Touchette and colleagues studied a sample of 1741 Canadian children born between 1997-1998. They found that those who were sleeping for 6 hours straight at 5 months generally continued to do so. But for little ones who were not sleeping in a 6-hour stretch at 5 months nor at 17 months, 32.9% were still not getting a 6-hour block of sleep at 29 months of age.[3]Touchette, É., Petit, D., Paquet, J., Boivin, M., Japel, C., Tremblay, R. E., & Montplaisir, J. Y. (2005). Factors Associated With Fragmented Sleep at Night Across Early Childhood. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159(3), 242.

Byers et al. observed that among children who had a sleep problem as infants, 21% still had difficulty with sleep at three years old.[4]Byars, K. C., Yolton, K., Rausch, J., Lanphear, B., & Beebe, D. W. (2012). Prevalence, Patterns, and Persistence of Sleep Problems in the First 3 Years of Life. PEDIATRICS, 129(2), e276–e284.

Bedsharing is a whole topic on it’s own, but similar persistent trends are found here too. In a group of almost 500 Swiss children part of a study lasting an impressive 27 years, bedsharing increased from 6 months to 4 years of age, with about 38% of kids sharing their parents’ bed at least once a week at 4 years old. These kids weren’t in a great hurry to return to staying in their own beds all night: at 8 years of age, 21.2% of all kids were still crawling into a parent’s bed.[5]Jenni, O. G., Zinggeler Fuhrer, H., Iglowstein, I., Molinari, L., Largo, R. H., Fuhrer, H. Z., … Largo, R. H. (2005). A longitudinal study of bed sharing and sleep problems among Swiss children in the first 10 years of life. Pediatrics, 115(1 Suppl), 233–240.

It’s an intimate, personal decision for each family to decide if bedsharing is a choice they want to embrace. There’s no fault-finding here. However, it’s important to note that bedsharing, particularly when it’s happening as a reaction to interrupted sleep rather than a pre-arranged family choice, is often associated with more interrupted sleep, later bedtimes, and a shorter night of sleep.[6]Hysing, M., Harvey, A. G., Torgersen, L., Ystrom, E., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., & Sivertsen, B. (2014). Trajectories and Predictors of Nocturnal Awakenings and Sleep Duration in Infants. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 35(5), 309–316.[7]Mindell, J. A., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R., & Goh, D. Y. T. (2013). Cross-cultural differences in the sleep of preschool children. Sleep Medicine, 14(12), 1283–1289.


Is it the parents’ fault if a child isn’t sleeping through the night?

Not necessarily. Besides, parenting is hard enough without a heavy dose of guilt thrown in.

Most experts recognize that sleep problems go both ways–a child who is having more difficulty sleeping is more likely to have a parent who is more highly involved with his sleep, and vice versa. A parent who is more involved is going to have a child with more interrupted sleep.

Behavioral sleep problems are common, affecting about 20-30% of children.[8]Vriend, J., & Corkum, P. (2011). Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 4, 69–79. These are children who have no physical reason why they couldn’t sleep better. Other causes of continued night waking in children, such as sleep apnea or sleep-related movement disorders, are important to diagnose–but much more rare.[9]Meltzer, L. J., Johnson, C., Crosette, J., Ramos, M., & Mindell, J. A. (2010). Prevalence of Diagnosed Sleep Disorders in Pediatric Primary Care Practices. PEDIATRICS, 125(6), e1410–e1418.

Is it possible that your child “just isn’t a good sleeper”? Nope. There’s always a reason.

It’s important for sleep problems, whatever their nature, to be addressed. The benefits of sleep are essential for virtually every aspect good health–not to mention, sleeping is pleasant! Conversely, the cost of lost sleep is much more significant than many realize.


What’s the bottom line?

The information here is described in some big-picture ways for an important reason: most of us look at our child’s sleep in the narrow focus of our own homes. We don’t tend to see big trends, or look for how decisions now affect outcomes later.

Don’t assume sleep issues will fix themselves. They don’t just disappear on their own. Even into elementary school ages, kids who experience sleep problems often continue to have trouble–sometimes without their parents even being aware of the sleep difficulty their child is having.[10]Fricke-Oerkermann, L., Plück, J., Schredl, M., Heinz, K., Mitschke, A., Wiater, A., & Lehmkuhl, G. (2007). Prevalence and course of sleep problems in childhood. Sleep, 30(10), 1371–1377.

Build healthy sleep habits early on. This is why professional organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, recommend creating good sleep habits as baby grows, including putting baby down awake.

You are the one who knows the details of your family. These studies don’t show us which families have babies still waking at night because they live in a small, one-bedroom apartment where neighbors complain every time the baby cries. They don’t know which one is the rainbow baby to a parent who lost a previous child to miscarriage or SIDS. They don’t know who’s the full-time mom who enjoys keeping the quiet moments with her toddler at night. These are the details that you know.

Consider your situation carefully. Is your child getting enough rest, falling asleep easily (whether with or without your help), and waking refreshed in the morning? Are YOU getting enough rest? Is everyone in the home happy with your sleep situation? If you can honestly answer yes to all of these questions, you may not need to change anything right now.

Is sleep a huge challenge in your home? Do you find yourself struggling to stay awake at the wheel? Are sleep issues causing stress and anxiety for you? If your answer is yes, then please don’t wait for things to improve on their own. Your health and safety, as well as your child’s, are far too valuable to put off fixing your sleep. If you’d like some one-on-one help creating a sleep plan for your family, contact me!

Sweet dreams!


Interested in reading some of the research on your own? (You rock!) Here you go:
Prevalence, Patterns, and Persistence of Sleep Problems in the First 3 Years of Life
Night Waking, Sleep-Wake Organization, and Self-Soothing in the First Year of Life

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Welcome to Once Upon A Bedtime

A good night’s sleep isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the spine that holds the book of life together.

My passion is to give you and your family the tools you need to rest well so you can live life to the fullest.

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