Can new-borns actually sleep through the night?
Congratulations on the arrival of your precious little one.
The new-born days are a magical time, but it can also be overwhelming as you learn how to care for a tiny human.
While there is a lot to learn about your new addition, there are really just two things that matter in the first 12 weeks: feeding and sleeping. The two often go hand in hand, so if you can get feeding and sleeping down pat, you’ll be winning at life (and be the envy of your coffee group).
In the early weeks, your newborn needs you to help them get to sleep, and you will do this frequently over this period (it can feel almost like a full-time job on its own!) Newborns babies are still neurologically too young to learn to self-soothe. Instead, when they’re upset, they will be relying on you to help them calm down by holding, rocking, patting or allowing them to suck.
It’s true that your baby will sleep a lot in the first few weeks, but it’ll be little and often as they need to fill their tiny tummies every few hours.
The intermittent nature of new-born sleep can take its toll, particularly overnight as the broken sleep from waking to feed and then resettle your little one is so much harder when you’re trying to sleep yourself.
We often turn to formula feeding thinking it will help our babies sleep better at night...
But what does the science say?
Do we need to swap breastfeeding for formula feeding in order to get consolidated night sleep?
Study shows breastfed babies as young as 8 weeks can sleep through the night
Teresa Pinilla and Leann L. Birch from the University of Illinois set out to investigate whether exclusively breast-fed infants could be taught to sleep through the night (defined as a 5 hour stretch of sleep… I know, probably not as long as you imagined when I said sleep through the night, but this stat was defined in the 70’s and hasn’t changed) during the first 8 weeks of life.
Twenty six first-time parents were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group.
Those parents in the treatment group offered their infants a ‘dream feed’ every night between 10pm and 12am and were instructed to gradually lengthen the intervals between this dream feed and the next middle-of-the-night feed by using alternative caretaking behaviors like re-swaddling, walking, changing the nappy…..
The treatment group was also instructed to take steps to maximise environmental differences between day and night-time.
Day time feeds are bright and light, there is chatting from parents, there is play time after feeds, and mum is animated and fun!
Night-time feeds are done under dim lights, little to no interaction, and no play time, just a quick nappy change, settle and back to bed. These environmental differences combined with using alternative caretaking behaviours to lengthen the time between feeds worked!
The researchers found that by just three weeks old, infants in the treatment group showed significantly longer sleep episodes at night….3 weeks!
Now every bit of online literature you read including my own sleep guides will say, you can’t sleep train a new-born.
But this isn’t sleep training, this is very basic steps taken in a nurturing environment to help encourage longer night sleep, and it works!
By the time they were 8 weeks old 100% of those infants were sleeping through the night (as per the definition above – just 5 hours…but if you’re a new mum 5 hours probably sounds like bliss right now) compared to only 23% of infants in the control group.
The babies in the treatment group were feeding less frequently at night but compensated for this by consuming more milk in the early morning so that overall milk intake did not differ between the two groups.
These exclusively breastfed babies totally regulated their calorie intake!
No formula needed.
If you’re a breastfeeding mum struggling with the idea of giving a formula top up at night for better sleep, know that even exclusively breastfed your babies can sleep well at night.
Teresa Pinilla and Leann L. Birch from the University of Illinois pointed out that frequent night waking in breastfed infants often resulted in early termination of breastfeeding.
This research confirmed that parents can teach their breast-fed infants to lengthen their night-time sleep, meaning more sleep for everyone, and hopefully helping parents who want to exclusively breastfeed continue to do so without sacrificing sleep.
What to expect – week by week
Studies like this back up what we at Baby Sleep Consultant live by - that parents can have a powerful influence on the development of their baby’s sleep. Sleep is malleable.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know what we should aim for, or what realistic expectations could be, but if you’re a tired parent struggling to get enough sleep, you can take comfort in knowing that it is scientifically possible for your little one to get a solid stretch of night-time sleep even in those first few months.
Jodi A. Mindell published another study in Pediatrics in 2016.
Dr Mindell explains that inadequate sleep during infant years is associated with adverse outcomes for babies and families, and she wanted to test a hypothesis that she could improve sleep behaviours through a responsive parenting intervention education delivered to new parents.
What was the education these new parents received?
Parents were taught about different baby behavioural states, drowsy, sleepy, fussy and alert. More importantly they were taught ways to soothe a fussy baby without feeding a non hungry baby.
The parents enrolled in Dr Mindells study were taught developmentally appropriate bed time routines, sleep locations, and behaviours.
Realistic night waking’s were explained, and parents began to understand how to recognise whether their baby was fussy due to fatigue or hunger.
As the weeks went by, parents were shown information on routines before bed to avoid feeding to sleep, the importance of self-soothing to sleep and after night waking’s. Early bed times, and working towards self-soothing was encouraged by the nurses delivering the sleep education.
Teach new parents all of this and more.... Ensuring you have realistic ideas about sleep, and know exactly what to do to naturally move the dial when it comes to more night sleep, better quality sleep, easier settling, and confidence as a mum.
The results of this study are impressive and back up what we are teaching here at Baby Sleep Consultant.
By 16 weeks the babies involved in the study had shorter bed time routines, settled easier, and had earlier bed times. 44% of these babies were self soothing by 16 weeks with no formal sleep training, and just like the babies in the first study, their total night sleep was longer than the control group who didn’t receive the sleep education.
Better sleep is possible, but it’s not going to happen from day one. So, what is most important – and realistic – in your baby’s first year?
The complete list of what Dr Mindells study recipients received is below…. The good news? This is ALL covered in our online sleep programs!
- Bedtime routine
- Consistent routine beginning 30–45 min before bedtime
- Choose age-appropriate, calm bedtime activity
- Feeding not the last step before bed
- Cereal in the bottle does not improve sleep
- Sleep location and behaviours
- Age-appropriate sleep duration guidance
- Best bedtime is 7–8 pm
- Avoid stimulating environment at bedtime (low light, no TV, etc)
- Use white noise
- Use swaddle blanket
- Pacifier use
- Transition to own room by 3 months
- Consistently put to bed drowsy but still awake by 4 months
- Avoid rocking, feeding to sleep
- Allow infant some time to self-soothe when put down for night
- Nap frequency, duration, and routines
- Strategies for separation anxiety affecting sleep
- Night waking
- Respond differently night vs day
- Stop waking infant routinely to feed at night
- Caretaking behaviours other than feeding: 5 S’s
- Feed before parent’s bedtime: “dream feed”
- Avoid starting “dream feeds” after age 4 months
- Allow infant some time to self-soothe when waking at night
- Possible increased frequency around developmental advances (leaps regressions)
- Do not reinforce waking; keep night interactions with child boring
- Avoid overnight feeds; infants can sleep 8–12 h without eating (3-6 months)
- Personalized sleep profile (sleep temperament)
Sleep is not easy.
You’ll have good days and bad days but there are gentle and proven solutions backed by science that we know work. For more settling strategies, nap routines, feeding tips, and healthy sleep habits see our online programs or book in with one of our sleep consultants today at firstname.lastname@example.org or call + 6421 724 362
INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention and Infant Sleep
Ian M. Paul, Jennifer S. Savage, Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, Michele E. Marini, Jodi A. Mindell, Leann L. Birch
Pediatrics Jul 2016, 138 (1) e20160762; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-0762
Help Me Make It Through the Night: Behavirol Entrainment Breast-Fed Infants' Sleep Patterns
Teresa Pinilla, Leann L. Birch
Pediatrics Feb 1993, 91 (2) 436-444;
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