Sleeping Through the Night

How soon should you expect your baby to “sleep through the night”? (Sleeping through the night is a misnomer, since we all — babies included — wake up at least briefly during the night.) Some babies give up their middle-of-the-night feedings as early as when they are eight weeks old. Almost all babies are able to sleep through the night by six months old.

Occasionally, a baby who has learned to sleep through the night will begin waking up again during the nighttime for no apparent reason. If your baby has given up night feedings and suddenly starts awakening during the night again and this happens more than just once or twice, try putting her to bed half an hour earlier. Though it seems odd, many parents find that this actually does solve the problem.

Nature Takes a Hand

Sleeping at night is not just a habit learned in a world in which most activity goes on by day. It is also our biological destiny. Just as some species are naturally creatures of the night — such as bats, owls, and other nocturnal creatures — humans are by nature creatures of the day. Babies have this predisposition built into them.

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that is instrumental in helping people to get to sleep. It is secreted in greater quantities at night than by day. Apparently the darkness of night is a triggering factor, since the presence of artificial light has been demonstrated to affect melatonin production.

Babies, though, do not produce very much melatonin during the first few months of their lives. The little bit that is produced is produced at a consistent level — no higher by night than by day. Around the age of six months, however, a clear pattern in melatonin secretions emerges. The baby's system produces noticeably more of this hormone by night than by day. This coincides with the age at which babies begin to consolidate their sleeping hours, sleeping for a longer stretch at night and taking on average two distinct naps during the daytime hours.

Essential

As your baby grows older and larger, his stomach will also grow in size and he will take in a greater quantity with each feeding. This will enable him to go for longer periods between feedings, which in turn will help him to sleep longer at a stretch.

The worst thing you can do is play the numbers game with your baby, but the average six-month-old spends approximately fourteen to fifteen hours a day sleeping, with a stretch of, on average, five hours of uninterrupted sleep at night.

Learned Behavior

But it's not just melatonin production that influences the hours during which we sleep. Part of it is a learned behavior. Although humankind's biological disposition causes people to tend to sleep by night and be active by day, socialization takes over after that and plays a part as well. By wanting to fit in with the rest of the world, to be available to friends when they're available, to be available for work during the hours when most work is performed, to shop in stores when they're generally open, and to participate in most other activities, people learn that it's usually desirable to sleep by night and be awake by day. In order to keep pace with most of the rest of the world, human adults (and older children) reinforce the pattern that nature already suggests through melatonin production.

Alert!

Your behavior with your baby when he wakes at night communicates that you expect him to sleep when it's dark. Resist the temptation to play with him when he awakens at night, even if you're still awake, or to show him off to guests who may be there if he awakens during the evening when you have company.

Babies, too, learn to sleep when the rest of the world is quiet and to be awake when those around them are. When your baby wakes up during the daylight hours and wants to be fed or held or played with, you usually respond positively. You feed her, generally without rushing. You take your time and talk to her and perhaps sing to her. You play with her and stroke her. But when she wakes up at night, you don't encourage wakefulness. You feed her or do whatever's needed, but you do it in more haste. You want her to go back to sleep, not only because she's supposed to be sleeping now, but because you're eager to return to your own sleep as well. Your behavior and your attitude send a subtle but recognizable signal to her.

Babies soon understand the message: Daylight hours are a time to play and be awake and to be active and involved. When it's dark, it's a quiet time when interaction is kept to a minimum and sleeping is encouraged.

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