A Guide to Understanding Baby Sleep Cycles & Feeding Habits
I remember my eldest's first full night in the hospital like it was yesterday. And that's because it was a breeze. Yes, I still fed her every 3 hours, but she went back to sleep immediately each time. I wondered what all the fuss was about with the lack of sleep. And then the next night came and it was nothing like the first...I swear she was attached to my boob for almost the entire night. Then home, and more of the same. From then on I understood. And though I was the happiest I'd ever been in my life I found myself wondering how long it would take before she could sleep through the night without a feeding.
It was draining me. I found myself wanting to stop time to soak in all that baby sweetness paralleled by a feeling of wanting to speed it up so we could all finally get some sleep. Eventually, she did sleep through the night.
As much as I would love to tell you the exact moment when a baby will be able to eat enough by day that they can make it all night, it's far from that simple. So we've partnered with Kelley Thompson, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, from Serenity Sleepers to give you a logical timeline of what you can expect when it comes to your baby's sleep and how long they can stretch it without waking for a feeding.
The Reason Why Babies are Hungry at Night
Though this isn't rocket science, it can be perplexing at first why your baby can't fill up on enough calories throughout the day that enables them to sleep through the night like you can.
But there are 2 big differences between you and your baby.
- Your baby's tummy is tiny! And it can only hold so much milk. Within the first couple days of your baby's life we're talking just a couple of teaspoons of milk capacity, and still even only 3-4 ounces around 1 month of age.
- Babies grow at a rapid rate. Initally, they lose weight in the first couple of days, but then they should be back to their birth weight within 2 weeks. So you could see why they'd be so hungry! After that, they'll double their birthweight by about 4 months old. And triple it by age 1! Your 7-pound newborn will weigh around 21 pounds after one year. With such fast-paced growth (compared to your weight which should roughly stay the same) you can see why eating so much is important.
Because of these 2 factors, it's just not realistic to expect your baby to be able to sleep through the night initially when they're needing to beef up. Because they're able to digest milk pretty quickly (breastfed babies especially), it's likely that they're going to wake up in the middle of the night ready for a meal - perhaps multiple times.
The Definition of Sleeping Through the Night
When your friend tells you that they're baby is sleeping through the night, and you find out that it was actually only a 6-hour stretch, it might make you say, "Hmmm..." After all, you wouldn't be rested with only 6 hours of sleep. What gives?
Sleeping through the night can be defined in one of three ways:
- When the experts say, "Sleeping Through the Night" - generally this means 6 - 8 hours because that's the full stretch that a baby can usually handle at least in the later infant stages (around age 3 months+)
- What you think "Sleeping Through the Night" means for yourself - At least for me, this means 8 hours - and in general, that's about the amount that most adults need to function well during the day. Even though you know your baby has different needs, you might think, I can't wait til my baby sleeps through the night so that I can, too (and get your full 8 hours).
- What a full night of "Sleeping Through the Night" would be for your baby - Babies generally need a nighttime portion of sleep about 10 - 12 hours in length. Eventually, they WILL sleep this full stretch without waking up in between. But when?
There is a gradual progression in terms of how long your baby can stay asleep before they wake up needing to eat. Though there are other factors that keep babies up at night (which we'll get to), the number one reason they wake up frequently is that they are hungry.
Since you might have three separate expectations, we'll go over when you might expect each of these levels of "sleeping through the night" to occur. With that said, EVERY baby is different, and it may not align perfectly. Formula-fed babies usually "sleep through the night" more quickly than breastfed babies, but not always.
Building a Foundation for Sleeping Through the Night
Yes, your baby being hungry is the main reason they are going to wake up. But they should be able to go longer and longer stretches as they grow without needing those feeds any longer.
When we asked Kelley of Serenity Sleepers her top recommendation for getting a baby to sleep through the night she had this to say:
"First a baby needs to have the proper sleep education and sleep foundations in place before they will be able to sleep through the night.
Once a baby is able to put themselves to sleep on their own, able to link sleep cycles, has age-appropriate routines, and proper day sleep in place they will be able to have longer stretches of overnight sleep.
Sleeping through the night for 11-12 hours at a time, is developmental, and will look different for each baby, but when a baby has proper sleep foundations as stated above, they will do it when their body is ready."
Stage 1 Sleeping Through the Night Without Feeding (6 - 8 hours):
Around 4 months of age is when most parents will start to see signs from their babies that they're able to sleep in longer stretches. Getting up to 5 and 6 hours by this point is very likely. This is especially true once your baby makes it through the 4-month sleep regression. Be sure to read our article, "Getting Through Your Baby's 4-Month Sleep Regression," to find out what you can expect during this time.
According to pediatrician Susan E.C. Sorenson over at BabyCenter, 6-month-olds "can sleep comfortably for at least six hours without waking up to eat." And some babies will do it even sooner than that.
By this age, babies usually have structured naps during the day and have plenty of wake time where they fill up on breastmilk and formula and also are stimulated enough to make them sleepy at night. Additionally, they're able to take in more calories at a time and are able to consolidate most of their night feedings down to just 1 or 2 per night.
We want to reiterate that it's different for every single baby, but expecting a 6-8 hour stretch of sleep from your 6-month-old is not unreasonable.
Stage 2 Sleeping Through the Night Without Feeding (8-9 hours):
Around the 7 - 9 month timeframe, you'll see your baby gradually sleeping for longer and longer stretches. It's important to remember however, that baby sleep is not linear. It might look like 1 step forward, 2 steps back for awhile. In other words, a few great nights of sleep might be followed by a few not so great ones. The important thing here, however, is to notice the progression from your little one as you start to see the length of sleep they are capable of.
Even though you yourself are not likely getting a straight 8-9 hours yet (because your baby will go down before you hit the hay), this is a big turning point for parents! And Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant Kelley Thompson shared with us that this is a typical age where she sees a lot of babies even sleeping all the way through the night!
As long as you have worked hard sleep training your baby, and used self-soothing methods such as putting them in a Dreamland Baby weighted sack, your baby should easily go back down after you feed them. One 3 or 4 am feeding is really not so bad if you keep the lights low and keep your baby drowsy while you feed them. Simply put them back down and they should go right back to sleep until it's time to wake for the day.
By this point, it's so nice to look back on how far you've come. And that full night's sleep is so close you can taste it...
Stage 3 Sleeping Through the Night Without Feeding (the full night - up to 12 hours)
Sleep expert Dr. Sarah Mitchell, who did a guest post for us recently, said that she sees many formula-fed 5 month-olds who can go 11-hour stretches at night. Though this is not the norm...we're just saying that it IS possible, and just goes to show how wide the spectrum can spread.
What's more likely is a 9 to 12-month-old who sleeps their full night of sleep without waking to eat. What this means is that you put your baby down for bedtime, perhaps at 7:30, and the next time you see their well-rested happy face isn't until 6:30 or so the next morning!! This is just as glorious as it sounds.
Not only is your baby getting healthy stretches of sleep so they can grow and thrive, but so are you. And as a busy parent, you know how much you need that uninterrupted sleep (not to mention those quiet hours to yourself before you go to bed!)
Other Factors that Keep Your Baby Up at Night
It's important to know what your baby is capable of in terms of sleeping through the night without the need of being fed. Though it's perfectly normal that your baby might still be waking in the middle of the night beyond the averages, if they are, you might want to start considering if it's something else that's waking them up at night.
Baby sleep can be all over the place in the first year, and it's not always because they're hungry (though that IS the top reason). If you are sure that your baby isn't waking out of hunger, here are some other possible reasons they might be waking up:
- they still have their days and nights mixed up
- sleep regressions
- growth spurts
- lack of self-soothing skills
- baby wants to see you!
Some of these are completely unavoidable. We recommend taking it in stride and keeping reasonable expectations of what your baby can do in their first year of life. Beyond that, you can be sure that you're using our best sleep tips to help your baby maximize their length of sleep without waking. Here's what we suggest:
- Set up a bedtime routine early on. You don't need to stress about this in the first few weeks home with your new baby, but once your baby is starting to have more noticeable sleep/wake cycles, getting into the habit of a good sleep routine is important. We discuss those steps in this article, and one item we recommend using is a Dreamland Baby weighted sack. The gentle weight feels like a hug to your baby and naturally induces sleep. Countless reviews state how well it helps little ones sleep through the night including this one from mom, Alex S.:
"This product truly saved us. It gave us back our nights, and helped our little guy sleep 6-7 hours every night. I can't thank Dreamland Baby enough for making such an incredible product. I would suggest for any new moms out there.”
Start sleep training around 4 months of age. Sometimes sleep training can get a bad rap, but it really shouldn't! It does not have to involve lots of crying and is one of the best ways to set up your baby for sleeping success! Kelley of Serenity Sleepers shares that, "most babies struggle to initially put themselves to sleep, and rely on someone or something to put them to sleep and then back to sleep when they wake during the night." Getting your baby to learn to sleep independently is really important.
- If your baby seems hungry, feed them! Even if your baby has been consistently sleeping through the night, they may go through a growth spurt where they need to eat again. Always assume this is what your baby needs unless your instincts tell you otherwise. We guarantee they'll be back on track after a couple of days.
The truth is that all babies learn to sleep through the night. In time (likely before they turn one), their bodies will allow them to take in enough calories by day that they won't need to wake up to eat. Teaching them to self soothe and be an independent sleeper will also help speed along the process.
Do babies naturally drop night feeds?As your baby grows and develops, it’s possible that she will no longer wake up for a feeding by the time she is between 4 and 6 months old. That’s because her tummy can now hold more food which may be helping her sleep for that much anticipated longer stretch of time. If you prefer to consider her weight, it’s usually at 12 pounds when babies no longer need a nighttime snack.
Keep in mind that every baby is different and you can decide when it’s time to cut back on the night time feeding when it’s comfortable for you. Of course, this is definitely something to discuss with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.
Which feeds drop first at night?Some experts suggest to drop the first night time feeding from the routine. So if your baby feeds at 10pm and 2am, start by dropping the 10pm meal. Others suggest to cut down on every feeding by at least 3 minutes every few nights until you decrease it by enough that that feeding can be eliminated altogether. Remember that the older she gets, the less she’ll need the nighttime feed and dropping a feeding may occur naturally, ie: baby will sleep through it or show little interest in taking the breast or bottle.
How long should nighttime feedings take?While every baby is different, depending on her age, nighttime feedings can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes for newborns, every few hours, to a quick 5-10 minute snack at 6 months, a couple of times a night. There’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to baby, so trust your instinct and always talk to your pediatrician if you think your baby isn’t eating enough… or too much.
How long after feeding can I put my baby down?It’s always a good idea to burp your baby before putting her down after a feeding to avoid any kind of reflux.
Should I feed my baby every time he wakes up at night?It may be an impulse to rush into baby’s room at every sound or cry, but remember, as a baby develops her sleep patterns, it’s okay for her to miss a feeding here and there, especially once she’s at the 6-month mark. By then, she might be sleeping for 6-8 hour stretches without waking to eat… and by the time she’s 9 months, she may even be sleeping for an entire 11-12 hour stretch!
It’s in those early newborn months that it’s important to feed baby every time she wakes, which could be as much as every two hours during a 24-hour cycle. Be sure to check with your healthcare practitioner or pediatrician if you have any concerns about your infant’s sleep and/or feeding schedule.
Will my milk dry up if baby sleeps through the night?Some parents feel that their milk isn’t coming in during evening hours as much as it did during the day, so babies may take longer to nurse. Don’t let this worry you! It’s normal for babies to eat less at night as they begin to sleep for longer stretches. This also means that your little one is probably eating more during the day. As new feeding schedules occur, your breasts will adjust. You can also continue to pump at night to keep your milk supply flowing.
How do I increase milk supply when baby sleeps through night?The more you nurse, the more your milk supply will increase. So as long as you continue to pump once or twice during the night while baby sleeps, your milk supply shouldn’t dwindle. It’s also advised to perhaps add an additional one or two pumping sessions whenever you believe that you have a fuller supply to pull from.