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What You Need to Know About Sleeping Through the Night – Part I

Bedtime Battles with Baby

After you’ve read 1 or 8 books on baby sleep you may be rightfully confused about why your 8 month+ baby is still up all night. And while I’ll admit that there are a few reasons why this may be happening 99% of the time there is one single reason why older babies, toddlers, and even preschool kids are still waking up multiple times each night. If you’re ready to sleep through the night you need to understand why they’re waking up and what to do about it.

Teaching Baby to Fall Asleep

You’ve been teaching baby to fall asleep since the very beginning, usually through some combination of nursing and rocking. When they’re younger than 4-6 months nursing, rocking, bouncing to sleep is effective and totally reasonable. While some babies this young will figure out how to sleep through the night most will wake up 2-3 times a night (newborns may wake up 4-6 times but this usually settles down within a few weeks). You feel tired and develop a substantial coffee habit but this is what being the parent of a baby requires and so you do it.

But you are hoping for the night your baby delights and surprises you by sleeping all night long. I mean REALLY all night long (not the crazytown “4 hours in a row” that many sleep books talk about).

Your baby also hasn’t yet mastered how to fall asleep on their own. She still needs to be rocked, nursed, etc. and complains loudly when you deviate from this routine. Some babies are champion sleepers who figure out how to fall asleep on their own. How delightful it must be for these lucky parents of easy babies. These babies sleep often and easily, establish predictable nap schedules, rarely fuss, and poop unicorns.

Most babies are not so easy.

When to Put Baby Down Awake?

For the first 3 months you are welcome to nurse, rock, bounce, etc. your baby to sleep guilt-free. No you don’t want to let your baby become overtired and yes various soothing techniques/use of swings will HELP her fall asleep. But the truth is that you have enormous flexibility to help your baby sleep however and wherever it works best for everybody for the first few months.

The easiest (this, of course, is a relative term) time to work on teaching babies to fall asleep on their own is ~3-6 months of age. If you are the parent of a 3-6 month old you may be thinking, “Um…this isn’t easy at ALL!” For some babies it’s NEVER easy. So maybe you could consider that 3-6 months of age is a time when it will likely be less horrible to teach your baby to fall asleep on their own?

6-9 months is less ideal. Why? Because most babies are starting to get teeth and this brings it’s own night challenges into the equation. Because some babies start developing separation anxiety around this time (8-12 months tends to be the peak) and this can complicate your efforts to put her down and leave the room.

But most importantly, if you haven’t gotten your baby to fall asleep on her own by 6-9 months you are likely to find that your baby who was waking up 2-3 times a night while a newborn has turned into a 6 month old who now wakes up every 45 minutes all night long and if this continues you will willingly shove bamboo shoots up your own fingernails because this would be preferable to another long night of waking up every 45 minutes.

Why You Need to Put Baby Down Awake

Read this carefully. Don’t skim it, ACTUALLY read it. What I’m about to tell you is the single most important thing you need to know about why 99% of babies older than 6 months are crappy sleepers. What I’m about to tell you is the answer to every post on every desperate new-baby forum where desperately exhausted parents are asking questions like:

  • My baby used to sleep great and now is up all night. I think he’s teething – help!
  • My 8 month old is hungry all night long. I’m afraid my milk is drying up. What can I do to increase milk production?
  • 7 month old used to sleep great in the crib but now will only sleep while being held. My back is killing me. How do I get her back into her own bed?
  • 9 month old is having terrible separation anxiety and now demands that we come back into his room and rock him all night long. We’re soooo tired. Anybody know when things will get better?
  • How do I get my 14 month old baby to sleep through the night?

The answer to all of these questions/challenge is actually THE SAME. The following 2 pieces of information are the missing links that most parents don’t understand and that fundamentally hinder their ability to help their child sleep through the night.

#1 Object Permanence

Most babies develop a new skill around 6 months (give or take a month) called object permanence. Prior to this for babies, out of sight LITERALLY meant out of mind. Now they can remember things, people, etc. exist even when they can’t see them. This is closely linked with stranger/separation anxiety which occurs because now your child actually remembers that you exist when you aren’t physically present. For the first time they are capable of missing you. Which is really sweet but often hard to enjoy. It also means that they are now capable of remembering that you were THERE when they fell asleep but are MISSING when they wake up.

Many of you will know EXACTLY when your child mastered this skill. It was the day your once decently-sleeping baby became a short-napper who wakes up all night long.

#2 – Baby Sleep is Fundamentally Different from Yours

Most nights adult sleepers will wake up ever so slightly ~4 hours after they fell asleep. Usually you fluff your pillow, roll over, and aren’t even really aware that it happens. Unless you’re pregnant in which case this is probably when you make your nightly trip to the bathroom.

Babies wake up all night long. Sometimes they may need your help or a quick meal to fall back asleep. But I promise you that between bedtime and morning your baby wakes up far more often than you know. Beyond the times when they wake YOU up they also cycle into light sleep far more often than adults do. This is roughly how your baby sleeps from 0-6 months of age:

Babies who have not yet developed object permanence can be happily rocked, bounced, or nursed to sleep without issue. They’ll wake up 2-4 times each night to be fed and/or rocked back to sleep. It’s not the most fun thing you’ve ever done but it’s to be expected of newborn babies. So you clutch your coffee with white-knuckled hands and dream of the day your baby sleeps through the night. But putting your baby down 100% asleep will seem like it’s a winning strategy. For now.

But once your baby develops object permanence putting baby down while asleep will almost always blow up on you. Now your baby remembers that when they fell asleep you were there. When they move into light sleep where they used to simply fall asleep on their own, they wake themselves up fully. Because you were there, and now you aren’t. Worse, they’re generally pretty upset. In their own baby world they’re yelling at you saying, “Hey! Where did you go! What happened?”

Let’s put this in perspective. Imagine going to bed in your bedroom. A few hours later you wake up on your front lawn. Would you simply roll over and go back to sleep in the grass? Or would you stand up and start screaming? Would you demand loudly to be let back into the house so that you could sleep in your bed? Do you think you would be freaked out by the mysterious force that somehow carried you out to the lawn?

Your baby is reacting to the surprise of finding out that the circumstances they observed when falling to sleep is no longer the circumstance they are finding when they wake up. There are lots of different surprises that can result in a baby who wakes up all night long.

  • Putting baby down 100% asleep
  • Pacifier use – fell asleep in mouth, wake up not in mouth
  • Mobiles or other timed devices – on when fell asleep, off when wake up
  • Music used at bedtime but not played all night long
  • Mommy/Daddy stay in room till baby falls asleep but then sneak out

Now you and your baby are up all night. Even worse, their longest window of uninterrupted sleep probably occurs before you even go to bed so now you are literally up all night.


Thus, in children, the first three or four hours of the night are spent mainly in very deep sleep from which the child is not easily aroused. Parents are often aware of this fact, because the period of lighter sleep that follows, with more frequent wakings, may begin at about the time they are going to sleep themselves.
-Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems Dr. Ferber

That Way Madness Lies

Most people don’t understand these two things. They don’t understand what a fundamental shift object permanence is in their baby’s perception of the world. And they don’t understand how different sleep for babies is from our own. So they continue to rock, nurse, etc. baby to sleep. Things are getting worse but they’re desperately clinging to the hope that it’s just a temporary sleep regression. Maybe it’s a tooth that has yet to erupt. Perhaps they just started daycare and are hoping that everybody will settle into the new routine and things will get easier.

They won’t.

If you continue to surprise your baby by changing the circumstances after they fall asleep, you’ll find yourself with a baby who starts to fight falling asleep. They become hyper-vigilant at bedtime because they know that you’re trying to sneak out. Some babies will fight sleep desperately trying to keep an eye on you so you can’t go anywhere. The baby who used to cuddle and laugh with you at bedtime is now agitated and anxious.

Imagine the scenario where you woke up on the front lawn. How many times would this have to happen before you started to struggle to fall asleep in your bed? Before worry about the mysterious alien force that was moving you in your sleep kept you from sleeping AT ALL?

This hypervigillance is completely understandable from their perspective, isn’t it?

So now you’ve added bedtime battles to list of fun things you’re dealing with at night. You’re probably dealing with it during the day too as the surprises that are waking your child up all night are making their naps short during the day. The 4 month old who used to take a 2.5 hour nap is now a 9 month old who never sleeps longer than 45 minutes. And she wakes up miserable and is generally inconsolable for half an hour every time she sleeps.

Of course now that her naps are significantly shorter and she’s getting poor quality sleep at night (because she’s constantly waking up) she’s a lot less fun to be around. As are you, because you are morphing into a bleary-eyed troll who can’t remember where she put the car keys and is so cranky the mailman is afraid to deliver packages to your house.

Ah….good times.

When Does it End?

This ends when you stop surprising your child when they sleep. When you stop rocking them to sleep. Stop nursing them to sleep. Stop cuddling them to sleep and then sneaking out the door. When you stop using any timed device (mobile, music, etc.). When you stop using pacifiers at bedtime.

Your child wakes up many more times a night than you do. The scene they find when they wake up needs to be IDENTICAL to the one they saw when they fell asleep.

No this is not the ONLY reason why older babies and toddlers wake up at night. But this is the MOST LIKELY reason.

When you’re ready to stop shuffling around like a sleep-deprived zombie, you’re going to need to come up with a plan to teach your child to fall asleep in such a way that there will be no surprises throughout the night. You and your partner need to commit to that plan. And put it into action.

The series continues so keep reading!

What You Need to Know About Sleeping Through The Night – Part 2
What You Need to Know About Sleeping Through The Night – Part 3

Anybody have any experiences with this they would like to share? Lessons learned? Happy success stories?

{photo credit: Paul Sapiano}


263 Comments


  1. Your site was recommended to me by a friend. I just want to thank you for all of the fantastic information you have shared…and to all of those mothers who have left really great comments.
    My baby girl will be 11mo next week. Up until recently, I was extremely reluctant to try the cry it out method. However, it was impossible because she would begin crying even before I put her into the crib! The sleep battles were becoming increasingly worse and usually ended in her being so upset she was choking.
    But, reading all of your information helped me to understand WHY she was getting so much harder to send off to sleep, rather than easier.
    Last night was the end of the sleep battle..45min of aweful! I read your sites last night and today stated with her second nap (even though you mentioned to wait on the naps). Nursed, talked to her a bit then placed her in the crib and smiled at her as I left her room. She cried…but only for 2minutes…then slept 2hrs!!!!
    This evening…same thing but she was a little more tired therefore a little more reactive..but cried for 16min hen asleep. In all reality, this is he least she has cried when it comes to sleep in a while! So…thank you for providing the knowledge to enable to courage to use the CIO technique on my 10mo strong willed baby girl!!

  2. If you have been putting your 8.5 month baby to sleep with a pacifier since they were 2 months old, how do you suggest weaning them from the pacifier so that you can put them to sleep without it?

    Also, after a bath and during massage, is it ok to have soft music playing?

    Our bedtime routine is as follows:
    7 PM – bath
    7:15 PM – massage/story
    7:30-7:45 PM – Put baby in sleep sack, turn on white noise machine, place in crib AWAKE. Give baby pacifier.
    Pat her back and hold her hand as needed until she stops crying and sleeps.

    I assume from your blog post above that we should STOP the pacifier, STOP patting her back, and STOP holding her hand? If she cries should we come in and soothe her every 10-15 minutes? Or just let her CIO and never touch her?
    Thanks!
    Heather

  3. Some great information here and i loved learning about the sleep patterns and cycles. Sadly, all the sleep training i put to work with my baby has achieved a baby who can go to sleep herself- but she still wakes up many times a night. Shes just about 10 months. She doesnt need night feeds or whatever, i weaned her too from those. At this point it is probably seperation anxiety, can kinda tell… but the fact is that i did everything right and there was only one or two nights where she slept incredibly well. As far as i got was a baby who can go to sleep alone. I have tried various anti gas stuff, solids, pretty well everything ive tried. The only thing i hVent dons ia put baby in her own room and stick ear plugs in. As in cry it out when she wakes through the night. Plus, she has eczema. It could be a million reasons why she wakes up really. Probably not a habit as sometimes its 2 hours, 4 hours or 1 hour intervals. 7 bedtime, 9 or 10 wake up… then 12… im very tired

    • Ehhh…I tend to believe it’s not separation anxiety if she’s waking frequently and crying for a long period at each waking. If she’s crying for 5 minutes that’s likely nothing. Meaning she wakes into a light sleep cycle and can’t easily fall back to sleep so she complains a bit then continues sleeping. If instead however she wakes all night long and can’t easily fall back to sleep (it’s more than brief complaint) it’s typically something NOT separation anxiety. Possibilities include:

      – something is off at bedtime (lingering association)
      – bed TIME is the wrong time
      – there is some environmental factor (possibly the itchies)
      Hope that helps!
      Alexis

      • My 8 month old does the exact same thing. I put him to bed awake for bedtime and naps and he falls asleep on his own. Wakes up anywhere from 2-5 times a night sometimes every 2,3,4 even as little as every hour. I have to nurse him to get him to stop crying. I’ve let him cry for as long as 15 min and he showed no signs of letting up. He takes 3 short naps a day last one ending at 4 and bedtime is 2.5 to 3 hours after. What could be going on?

  4. HELP! Inititally I thought my 7 month old son’s sleep regression was due to teething but now after stumbling upon this amazing website I definitely think it is due to separation anxiety. I am concerned that I have dug myself into a hole because I have gone from feeding him once a night when he was 4 months old to now two or three times because it seemed that was the only thing that would help him fall back to sleep. I will try putting him to sleep awake tonight but if he still wakes up out of habit do I feed him each time, or feed him less, or let him cry it out? Literally desperate for answers and any feedback would be GREATLY appreciated!!

  5. Hey Alexis, your sleep ninja help required please! Our baby was always an awesome sleeper with the dummy. From 10 months we stopped using dummy and she didnt miss it at all (so far, so good). Just as we made this change she also got sick and with starting daycare one sickness followed another – she’s just now coming right after six weeks of colds and viruses.
    While she was sick she’d wake often overnight and need to be rocked to sleep (we never used to do this, just give dummy back and she’d settle).
    Now we have a one year old who takes an hour to fall asleep at night and wakes 3-4 times a night (usually standing up so needs to be laid down). She’s no longer happy to just be put down in the crib awake. Bedtime is 7-7.30pm with two good day naps. How do we reset night times?!!

  6. These sleeping patterns describe my 9 month old son to a T! However, we bed share. So it can’t be separation anxiety. Are there any theories as to why a bed sharing 9 month old wakes every 45 minutes needing to be held or nursed back to sleep? Often times he has a wakeful period anywhere from 30 mins-2 hours in the middle of the night. I glide him to sleep breastfeeding and transfer him to our bed. He sleeps well the first 3 hours and then I join him in bed. After that he wakes frequently to nurse or toss and turn.

  7. My baby falls asleep by himself in the beginning of the night but cries inconsolably when he wakes up inn middle of the night and I don’t feed him. I tried letting him cry and he cried for an hour and a half straight until I was ready to faint. Any suggestions????????????

  8. My 8 month old does go to sleep by herself without a pacifier, or being rocked, or anything. She is in her crib, by herself, for every nap and every bedtime, but she is STILL getting up 4-6 times a night! We have white noise, a blackout curtain, appropriate pajamas for every temperature, and yet she still gets up! If I don’t nurse her when she gets up she will cry for an hour, fall asleep, and wake up 30 minutes later and cry for another hour until I finally nurse her back to sleep! I don’t know how to break that nighttime nursing association! Give her formula? Have my husband stay up with her all night while she cries? I am so tired! I don’t know what to do!

  9. My 8 month old will go to sleep pretty easily on her own but she wakes up 3-6 times a night. I’ve tried CIO but she will cry for 25 minutes and then throw up after, of course she has woken up her 2 year old sister. So now I let her cry for a few minutes and if she doesn’t go down on her own I go in. Since she has learned to go from laying down to sitting she will now sit straight up and I have to practically wrestle her to lay her back down. What should I do in that instance?

  10. My baby was born at 29 weeks. He is techincally 7 months old but his adjusted age is 4.5 months. My husband and I are exhausted and need help! Our son barely naps during the day. When he wakes up, I feed him, we play, and around 90 minutes from when he wakes up until I try to get him to nap, he starts showing cues like rubbing his eyes and gazing off. I know I don’t have much time to get him to sleep. He still likes to be swaddled and we (unfortunately) use a wubbanub. I rock him and butt pat until he is almost asleep then lay him down. BAM his eyes open right up and he starts crying. I’ve tried kissing him on the forehead and leaving but he will honestly cry for hours (I intermittently check in on him and it just makes things worse). PLEASE help.

  11. My son will be 6 months on the 12th and will not go to sleep without me holding him. He also has to have his arms swaddled or he keeps himself up. If you leave him cry, he doesn’t stop. He wakes up 4 or 5 times a night. Usually goes to bed between 8:15-9 pm. Wakes up at 10, 2, 5, 7, 9 (for example). I don’t nurse him until the 2 or 3 am wake up. I’m at my wits end. His naps are anywhere from 35 mins to 2 hours.

    My daughter was an easy baby, so this is all new to me. I just need some help and advice.

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