Somewhere around the 10- or 12-week mark, a new mom naturally starts thinking, “I know I’m supposed to cherish these early days, but WHEN will my baby sleep through the night?!” The early newborn days are over. The feedings are usually better. You feel like you’ve put sleep on hold enough and you are SOOO eager to get back to the way things were. Even a good, straight six-hour shot seems like the biggest break in the world compared to the couple hours at once that you’re getting. In the old days, six hours used to mean a bad sleeping night… now it’s all you dream about.
That’s ok! The good news is that somewhere between 10- and 16-weeks, most babies are able to sleep through the night. By “able” I mean that they are at least 10 lbs, feeding well and consistently, and not sleeping all day anymore; they have some semblance of the next stage of babyhood where awake time is different than sleep time, they are starting to get curious about the world and respond to it, and they are getting the calories they need. So, when your baby is showing these signs, and you are exhausted with three months of multiple wake up times, it is time to put some extra effort into helping your baby sleep through the night.
Now, “sleeping through the night” does not necessarily mean 10 or 11 hours; only some babies are ready to do this. I think 10 hours is probably the max I let my babies sleep anyway, since I was nursing. But a normal goal is 7 to 8 hours, or 9 or 10 hrs with just one middle of the night (or early morning) feeding. And you might not be able to get the timespan to line up perfectly with your own bedtime—your baby might be totally knocked out by 9pm and needing to wake up by 5 or 6am. But that’s normal too. If you are lucky, and already feeding on a good rotation of 2 to 4 hours, then you may have already had a couple surprise nights where your baby slept five, six, or seven hours just randomly. Or maybe they are sleeping six to seven hours but just at the wrong time, like 6pm to midnight. All these are good signs, other readiness signals.
What you want to do is start keeping the baby up more in the evening and feeding more too. Many babies have a “fussy time” in evening anyway, and although that can be grating because all you do is sit around and rock the baby, he or she will naturally be tuckered out by 10 or 11pm, and you can put him or her down for “bedtime” then. Other babies, however, are very awake in the mornings and therefore want to sleep through most of the evening. You want to try and change this, by working with your feeding and nap routine. The ideal is for you to feed and keep your baby up for several hours in the evening, cluster feeding if you’re nursing, and lay them down somewhere between 9pm and midnight. When you want to go to bed yourself (hopefully in that timespan), give them their last little feeding if possible which they probably won’t be awake for and will kind of nibble through, and then go to bed. With a little luck, they will sleep til 5 or 6am. Try feeding them and putting them back to bed, to see if that works. Or they might wake up between 1 and 3am, wanting the feeding, but then go back to sleep until 8 or 9am. If you have done a good job keeping them up in the evening, they will most likely start sleeping through the main part of the night.
Sleeping at night is related to sleeping during the day, so make sure you are working on naps during the day too. Some 2 to 4 months babies are very awake during the day and taking 3 or 4 shorter naps (45-90mins), but others are still very sleepy and taking two or three long 2-3hr naps. You want to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” so make sure a sleepy baby is not sleeping more than 2.5 hrs at a go. And try to keep any naps at night small, like little 30 or 45 min catnaps. I remember two of my babies took two longs naps during the day, like 9-11 and 1-3, but then a short nap between 5-6pm or 6-7pm at that age, and then they were able to stay awake with me until 10 or 11pm when I put them down (sometimes still awake). This was actually ideal. If your baby is a sleepyhead though, at least keep him sleeping with you, with lights and sounds on, during that evening time. One of my babies was a sleepyhead like this, even at 4 months, and I used to let him sleep in his bouncy seat, which was kind of upright, during the evening period, occasionally rocking him with my foot or taking him into the kitchen where I clanged around putting dishes away… not to be cruel! But to help his little clock know that it wasn’t time for deep sleeps yet. It actually worked, so don’t laugh. Somehow his little body registered even though his eyes were closed 😉 Every baby is different, so work with it. But do know that too much daytime sleep will interfere with nighttime, and even too LITTLE daytime sleep can… babies that aren’t really napping yet will be too wired to rest their systems for a long stretch. You have to get the napping under control first, and then the bedtime will follow.
In fact, I think I worked on the naps almost exclusively with my three last babies, but not their bedtimes at all, and they all kind of fell into a similar routine. Down around 11pm, then sleeping until 6 then 7am (between 10 and 16 weeks old).
Another thing about helping a baby sleep through the night is environment. Make sure that when you are up with them in the middle of the night, you are not turning on lights or making a ruckuss. You shouldn’t even change their diaper unless it is ridiculous. Wouldn’t someone taking off YOUR clothes at night wake you up? Your baby, with all those crazy buttons and snaps, and their sensitivity to cold, feels exactly the same way. Make sure the room is not too warm or too cold. Make sure the pjs are comfortable and any swaddling or unswaddling is appropriate. You want to make any nighttime or early morning feedings as sedate and quiet and dark as possible. Don’t even talk if you can help it, although if they need comforting, then whisper. But get into the habit of making those nighttime feedings almost like sleepwalking… get in there, do it, and get out. No baby in the world who is truly woken up at night will go back to sleep. Usually a nursing baby will nurse himself back to sleep. A bottle feeding baby might need some rocking or pacifying time to lull back to sleep. But don’t play or jostle. or do anything stimulating. Use a nightlight rather than a real one, or nurse in the dark. Don’t get a bottle-feeding baby out of the crib at all. And if you need to leave your baby still awake, lay him down anyway, pat him, and leave. If he fusses a bit, wait a couple minutes. If he’s starts really crying, go get him, but if he’s just fussing off and on, let him fuss. If he’s crying, go back and walk/rock a bit, then put him back down and do it again. Don’t talk, just sshh and comfort. You might try some white noise too, like a humidifier or vibrating thing. Or some really quiet lullabye music might work… anything that he/she can associate with bedtime. I used to turn on an air purifier only when I laid my babies down for their naps or bedtime, but then turn it off when sleep time was over. I am pretty sure they got conditioned that when the purifier went on, I wasn’t going to come back and fetch them, play with them, etc. They just put their head downs and sucked their fingers or whatever. The earlier you start doing this, the quicker they’ll get the signal.
Also, if your baby isn’t sleeping well on his back, and he can hold his head up now, you can try putting him to sleep on his stomach. Experts would lynch me for suggesting this, but only one of my four babies was able to sleep on his back. So if you are comfortable with the slight risk, clear the crib out (just one baby blanket or put your baby in a sleep sack) and try napping on the stomach to see if it is more successful. If it is, try the bedtime too. Most crib mattresses today are firm enough to support a baby on the stomach without it being risky. And you should remove the crib bumper. The more doctors find out about SIDS cases, even into the toddler age, the less simple SIDS becomes… it does not seem to be a simple thing of smothering or choking due to wrong position. For healthy babies, I believe it is worth a shot.
Lastly, make sure your baby is getting the food he or she needs, especially at night. A “tanked up” baby, who is nice and warm and comfortable, can learn to sleep through the night. But a hungry baby can’t (and shouldn’t). Some babies continue to wake up for a feeding because they really need it. But even a huge, growing baby usually only needs one, and it will be at the same time every day. I had a six-month old at 21 lbs who just needed that bottle at 5am until he was 8 months old. And that’s fine. Don’t be militant. But do make sure that your baby is getting all the calories he/she needs, and don’t be surprised if it takes until the time that he/she can eat something other than formula to *really* sleep. If your baby is 4 months old and you are open to it, you can try giving him or her a biter biscuit or other baby food to fill up the stomach around dinner time. New moms often shrink in horror at this suggestion, especially if they are nursing. But when you get desperate for sleep, you realize that it is often worth the cost of a cracker. Just make sure you never put a young baby to bed with food because of the choking hazard. Stick with something safe and age appropriate. By the fourth baby, I was spooning her watered down graham cracker bites at 4 months old. Not because I wanted to but because she was so jealous of her older brother who got a cracker when he went down for his nap! Totally disgusting but she napped like a professional after that. So do what you have to do =)
And hang in there! Once they get going, they usually don’t stop unless there is a situation. The little extra effort is worth it for the bliss you can have for the rest of the year.