Help! My baby won’t sleep through the night

Now that 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 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 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 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 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 Baby doesn’t want to get up again and play with you quite so badly.

If 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 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 Baby for missing you, and for worrying about your absence the way you would worry about theirs 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 – 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 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 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 Baby from out of view when you leave the room she is in.

Saying no to midnight snacks

One of the key differences between Baby now and 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, shehas 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

  • Switch it up: If Baby is a habitual co-sleeper who hasn’t quite managed to sleep through till morning beside you, it’s possible that she is just ready to try sleeping somewhere that she can stretch out in a little more. But if Baby has been sleeping in her room alone like a champ from day one, she could just be missing you, and could be better at calming herself down all on her own if you’re in sight when she wakes up during the night.
  • Early to bed, late to rise: It sounds counterintuitive, but getting Baby to bed just a little bit earlier than she has been could be the key to a bit more uninterrupted sleep. It’s strange, but it’s true – the better rested babies are, the easier it is for them to fall and stay asleep.
  • All safe and secure: It’s still too early to safely put Baby to bed with a soft toy, blankie, or other comfort object, but you can help to keep her from feeling too lonely in her own room by leaving a shirt you’ve worn, or something else with you scent on it, in the room with her. It might feel like a little bit of a stretch, but Baby‘s nose is pretty sensitive, and feeling like you or your partner is close might reassure her at night.
  • Take a chance on Baby: If Baby isn’t feeding at night anymore, and you suspect she’s not due for a diaper change yet when she wakes up in the night, there’s a good chance she will be able to put herself back to sleep without too much fuss. This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘crying it out’ – it just means taking a little bit slower of a walk to get to her, to see if she puts herself back to sleep before you arrive.
  • Expect differences: Babies aren’t just different in terms of the rate they develop at, but also in the way that they develop. Maybe Baby wakes up with the sun because she hasn’t quite worked out the trick to sleeping for longer than 6 hours at a time, but if you’ve tried everything, and you still can’t get her to sleep past the crack of dawn, it could just be time to admit that Baby is an early bird, and leave it at that. On the other hand, Baby could just as easily be a night owl completely independently of any outside factor, just like countless adults are. These differences may not be great for your schedule, but if they look like they’re not going anywhere, it may be easiest to find ways to work around them.

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