All parents know the sweet blur of newborn nights – the utter exhaustion of getting up with a baby who awakens every two to three hours to eat. Of course, they aren’t awakening to make your life hell, although it may seem that way at times. Newborns and very young infants physiologically need to eat very frequently because they are growing so fast and their stomachs are so small. It can be downright dangerous to ignore a small infant’s hunger cues, as they may lag behind in weight and not thrive if they are not fed throughout the night.
But as the baby gets older, the debate ensues. When should a baby really be sleeping through the night? When do they no longer “need” to eat so often? Does it harm them psychologically to not respond to their cries? Weary parents all over the world search for answers, try different methods, and worry they are doing the right thing. And it’s no wonder they are confused: there seems to be conflicting research regarding whether or not “Crying It Out” is a safe and effective way to get a baby older than six months to sleep through the night.
Marsha Weinraub, a Temple University psychology professor, said in a university news release that by six months, babies generally should be sleeping through the night.
“By 6 months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week. However, not all children follow this pattern of development. If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies — like all adults — move through a sleep cycle every one-and-a-half to two hours where they wake up and then return to sleep. Some of them do cry and call out when they awaken, and that is called ‘not sleeping through the night.'”
The study examined babies at six months of age, 12 months of age, 18 months of age, and at 2-years-old.
By six months of age, 66 percent of babies considered “sleepers” did not wake up at night or woke up only once per week, the study revealed. Most of the babies that woke during the night were boys. These babies were most likely to be breastfed. The mothers of these transitional sleepers were more likely to be depressed and have increased maternal sensitivity, the study authors found. Whether the mothers are depressed due to sleep deprivation or whether the babies are waking because the mother is depressed is unclear. More research needs to be conducted on maternal depression and infants sleeping through the night, Weinraub said.
Babies should learn how to fall asleep without help, and mothers should resist the urge to immediately soothe the older infant during the middle of the night, the researchers added.
“When mothers tune in to these nighttime awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breast-feeding, then he or she may not be learning how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep,” Weinraub said.
The situation regarding depression and genetics is another issue that may need to be evaluated, Weinraub said. If a baby isn’t sleeping through the night by 18 months, families should seek help and advice, Weinraub said.