One of the most commonly misused phrases is, “sleeping like a baby.” Unless, of course, you’re quoting it to describe a stretch of short naps broken up by cries, feedings, and diaper changes.
The stereotypical bleary-eyed mom stumbling out of bed at three a.m. to nurse the wailing infant is quite precise. Babies, especially newborns, sleep for much of the day, but they usually don’t sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch. It’s exhausting for a breastfeeding mom to be on call around the clock.
Your baby will wake up every few hours in the first few weeks or months of their lives but when can you expect your breastfed baby to sleep through the night?
What is Considered Sleeping Through the Night for a Baby?
All newborns, whether breastfed or formula-fed, need to eat every few hours. Don’t expect your infant to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. A newborn should not sleep for eight consecutive hours a night. If a newborn is sleeping for more than five or six hours at a stretch, it is recommended that you wake the baby up to eat. As your baby gets older and bigger, they can start sleeping for longer stretches at a time.
Your baby may be sleeping a combined fourteen hours at night, but it doesn’t feel like much when the sleep is broken up by multiple awakenings and feedings. So the question is - how many consecutive hours of sleep should you expect from your breastfed baby?
Newborn to Two Months Old
Don’t expect any semblance of a sleep schedule until your baby is around two months old. Newborns need to eat and may wake up every two to three hours at night to nurse frequently. Eating is essential for their growth and development, and they will get plenty of sleep throughout the day.
Breastfed babies may wake up more frequently to eat than formula-fed babies as they can digest the breast milk quicker and may not take in as much at a feeding session as they would from a bottle.
Two to Four Months Old
As your baby grows, they will be able to sleep for longer stretches at a time without eating. For example, you can expect a four-month-old to sleep for five hours or more at a time. If you feed your baby right before you go to bed, you may be able to get a few hours of sleep yourself before the next feeding.
Even if your baby doesn’t wake up for a feeding, you may choose to do a dream feed before you go to sleep. A dream feed while your baby is still half-asleep will fill them up and help them sleep for a long stretch during the night.
Six Months and Older
By six months, most babies should be able to sleep for eight hours at night - or more - without waking up to eat. If your baby goes to sleep early, their eight-hour stretch of sleep might be soon after you go to bed yourself. Doing a dream feed before bed can help postpone your baby’s waking time and stretch out their sleep.
For a young baby, eight hours is considered sleeping through the night. However, as your baby gets bigger, they may sleep for ten to twelve hours at a stretch - and finally, give you a full night’s sleep.
If your baby is still waking up frequently at night, there may be other factors at play that are waking them up and preventing them from sleeping through the night.
Why do Babies Wake Up at Night?
There are many reasons why your baby is waking up at night. Some reasons are expected and age-appropriate, and other reasons may need some more intervention. A baby’s age plays a significant factor in how often they are expected to wake up at night.
The most common reason why newborns wake up at night is to eat. In the first few weeks of an infant’s life, they are expected to wake up every two to three hours to eat.
Newborns’ stomachs are small, and they can only eat tiny amounts at a time. Breastfed infants may wake up to eat more often as they may not get a full feeding before falling asleep. One suggestion is to feed the baby an hour after they fall asleep, when they aren’t completely awake, which can help them feel fuller and sleep for longer.
Once a baby is a few months old, they should be able to go for eight to ten hours without eating. If your baby is still waking up in the middle of the night, it may be out of habit rather than from hunger. Make sure your baby is full before you put them to bed to ensure a better night’s sleep.
Everyone, both babies and adults go through stages of deep and light sleep. Babies have much shorter sleep cycles and may wake up when they transition from a deep to a light stage of sleep. Older children and adults may wake up too, but they know how to put themselves back to sleep and may not remember even waking up.
Many babies don’t yet know how to put themselves back to sleep when they wake up between sleep cycles. However, you can train your baby to self-soothe back to sleep during these times.
Crying is the only way babies can communicate, and it can be challenging to determine why your infant is waking up at night and crying. If the baby has recently eaten and you’re sure they’re not hungry, your baby may be in pain. Check if your baby needs:
- A diaper change - a wet or dirty diaper can be uncomfortable for your baby, and it may need to be changed in the middle of the night. Also, be particularly attentive if your baby has a diaper rash which can cause further discomfort.
- To burp - if your baby recently ate, they may have gas and need to burp. Gas can be painful, and some babies require a lot of help to release it. If your baby frequently spits up and seems fussy after eating, ask your doctor if they may have reflux and whether medication can help.
- Teething - If your baby has new teeth growing in, their gums can be sore and painful, waking them up in the middle of the night. Ask your doctor if you can give your baby a pain reliever or what options there are to soothe your baby’s gums.
Sometimes, babies get used to waking up and being held, rocked, and fed. They may not be hungry but may have gotten into the habit of waking up and getting their parents’ attention. If you nurse or rock your baby to sleep, they may rely on your help to fall back asleep and cry when they wake up between sleep cycles.
Sleep training can help these babies learn how to put themselves back to sleep. One method is to allow your baby to self-soothe their way back to sleep.
If you know your baby isn’t hungry or in pain or discomfort, you can give them a few minutes to settle down back to sleep by themselves. If the baby is still crying after a few minutes, you can go in to soothe them for a minute, then put them back down to go to sleep again.
Some babies may wake up at night when they hit new milestones, such as rolling over, sitting, standing, and babbling. It’s not uncommon for babies to wake up to practice their new achievement - and be unable to put themselves back to sleep.
A new roller might flip themselves onto their stomach and be unable to turn back over into the position they’re used to sleeping. If your baby just learned to stand, they may wake up in the middle of the night to pull themselves up in the crib. Also, it may take a few nights for the stage to pass, and hopefully, they’ll go back to sleeping through the night.
If a baby who usually sleeps through the night starts waking up crying, something may be bothering them. Ear infections are pretty common in babies and can be painful. Talk to your pediatrician if there is a change in your baby’s sleep patterns to rule out any illnesses.
Nursing to Sleep
If you breastfeed your baby until they fall asleep, they may become conditioned to equate nursing with sleeping and wake up looking for you to continue nursing, regardless of whether they are hungry. Try to put the baby to bed while they are full and tired but still awake.
When a nursing baby wakes up in the middle of the night, it can be hard to tell if they are hungry or just looking to nurse for comfort. Make a note of your baby’s eating and sleeping habits. If your baby wakes up every night after two hours and sucks for just a minute before falling back asleep, they are probably waking up out of habit rather than hunger.
If your baby takes a full feeding in the middle of the night, they may be hungry. Try feeding your baby more often before going to sleep to keep them fuller. If your baby is eating solid foods, that might help keep them fuller for a longer period.
Similarly to breastfeeding to sleep, if your baby relies on a pacifier or other sleep aid to fall asleep, they may wake up at night looking for it if it rolls out of reach. Babies who rely on a pacifier may have a hard time falling back asleep without their crutch.
Some babies are just light sleepers, fussy sleepers, or are more prone to waking up than others. White noise machines, sleep sacks, and a different mattress may help your baby settle down and sleep better and longer. Also, some younger babies sleep better when they’re swaddled.
While it is convenient, and according to many doctors, also safer to keep your infant in your room with you, it may contribute to them waking up more often.
It’s possible that your baby senses you nearby and wakes up for attention, or parents might be more sensitive to a baby’s sleep changes and run to pick them up at the first cry instead of letting them try to settle back down to sleep.
Do Breastfed Babies Wake Up More at Night?
It’s a popular notion that breastfed babies wake up more at night than formula-fed infants. Indeed, many breastfed babies eat more frequently than those who drink formula.
Formula is usually harder for a baby to digest, which keeps them full longer. Babies who drink from a bottle may also drink more at feeding than a breastfed infant. For example, a three-month-old may drink six to eight ounces of formula every three to four hours, while a breastfed three-month-old may typically take in four ounces every two to three hours. Therefore, it would make sense that a nursing baby would wake up more frequently at night to eat.
However, as your baby grows older, they shouldn’t need to nurse as often and will be able to go for longer stretches at a time without nursing. Also, once your baby starts eating solid foods and getting more nutrients and calories during the day, they may sleep through the night without waking up to nurse.
Nursing mothers should be aware that it is to their benefit to nurse at least once during the night to keep their milk supply up. While your body will adjust if you breastfeed more during the day than at night, going for too long of a stretch without nursing may affect your milk supply.
How to Help your Breastfed Baby Sleep Through the Night
Once your baby is a few months old, they should be able to skip one or two feedings during the night. You can help your baby develop good sleep habits to help them sleep better and longer at night. Before you know it, your breastfed baby may be sleeping through the night!
- Make sure your baby is well-fed before putting them to bed. You may want to try cluster-feeding your baby a few hours before bedtime to keep them full longer. A baby who is used to eating multiple times a night may be gently night-weaned to get them used to sleeping through the night.
- Ensure they have adequate sleep during the day. While it may seem contradictory, a baby who gets enough sleep during their daytime naps will sleep better at night. When your baby is overtired, it can be harder for them to fall and stay asleep.
A newborn needs between fourteen to seventeen hours of sleep throughout the day.
A baby over four months old should get fourteen to sixteen hours of sleep each day.
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine to differentiate between day and night. Help your baby regulate themselves and know that it is nighttime - and sleep time - with consistent cues. Try to stick to the same time and schedule each evening.
A sample bedtime routine may be feeding your baby, giving a bath, changing into pajamas, a story, a short feeding, a cuddle, then a song.
- Lay your baby in their crib while they are drowsy but not asleep. This will help them learn to fall asleep on their own so that when they wake up in the middle of the night, they can settle back down without needing your help.
- If your baby uses a pacifier to help them sleep, consider putting a few extra ones in their crib - if your baby is old enough to reach for it on their own. Pacifier clips can be a hazard and shouldn’t be used in bed, and the pacifiers can easily roll away and fall out of the crib. However, if your baby has some spares in the crib within easy reach, they can reach for it and fall back asleep.
- A white noise machine may help a light sleeper who is sensitive to noise. For example, if your baby wakes up every time the floorboards creak or their siblings cough, a white noise machine can help them sleep better.
To Sum Up
Don’t expect your breastfed baby to sleep through the night for the first few months. A newborn will need to eat every two to three hours, and even a two to three-month-old will wake up to eat after four to five hours.
Once your baby is a few months old, they should be able to sleep for longer stretches at a time without waking up for a feeding. However, sleeping through the night for a baby doesn’t necessarily mean a twelve-hour stretch. A six to eight-hour stretch of sleep can be considered sleeping through the night for your breastfed baby.