By Elizabeth Helen Spencer
Some babies sleep like the little angel you pictured when you were pregnant. Others sleep like, well, babies. Which is to say in fits and starts and not on the preferred schedule of their tired parents. There's an entire baby sleep industry of books, consultants, and soothing accessories to meet the demand for sleep advice and solutions, especially once your baby is officially out of the newborn stage. So you're not alone if you're wondering, "Is it OK that my baby is 6 months and not sleeping through the night?"
I conducted an informal poll on my Facebook page to see how many of my friends' kids were sleeping soundly by the half-year mark. Not surprisingly, the answers varied, even for siblings in the same family. Many of the comments began or ended with "Hahaha" and those who answered yes often attributed their peaceful nights to luck. While every child may be a little bit different, there are some standard guidelines for what to expect from your baby's sleep schedule at 6 months. Romper spoke with two pediatricians to understand what "through the night" actually means for a baby, and what you can do to improve your little one's sleep if nighttimes have been a problem in your family.
Pediatrician Trung Tristan Truong, MD, FAAP of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells Romper over email what to expect from your baby's sleep schedule. "Most newborn babies sleep around 16 or more hours per day," he says. "By the time they are around 6 months of age, their sleep requirement decreases to 14 to 15 hours in a 24-hour period (naps and nighttime sleep)." But by the time your baby is 4 to 6 months old, Truong says they should be able to sleep eight to 12 hours per night and by 6 months of age, most babies don't need a middle-of-the-night feeding, but some do.
"It is normal for babies to wake multiple times during the night just like adults do, but the goal is for them to soothe themselves back to sleep on their own," he adds. "Most babies are able to sleep through the night by around 6 months of age, but some don’t, and it could be due to a variety of reasons (teething discomfort, separation anxiety)." Truong notes that some 6-month-old babies may have slept through the night before and begin waking up at this age, too.
Linh Nguyen, M.D. of Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Long Beach, California, concurs with Truong that some variation between individual babies at 6 months is normal. She tells Romper that "prior to 6 months of age, babies may have frequent awakenings, may sleep short periods at a time, and also need more frequent feedings. After 6 months, it is reasonable to expect more regular sleep cycles with less or no feedings at night, however, it's normal for many babies at that age to still wake up at night and quickly go back to sleep. The key is to help them learn how to comfort themselves rather than to always cry to parents to rock them back to sleep."
So what can you do if your 6-month-old isn't sleeping through the night (remember that an 8-hour stretch beginning at 7:30 p.m. will still result in a 3:30 a.m. wake up) and you're starting to feel at your wit's end?
"Have a bedtime routine and start at the same time every evening," recommends Truong. "Maybe start with a warm bath, then read a bedtime story, and then sing a lullaby — do it in the same order every night if possible. If a baby starts to fuss, then they may be overly tired and sometimes that makes sleep training more difficult, so try putting the baby down in the evening half an hour earlier. Of course, keep the lights and noise down in the home starting in the early evening hours to create a calming and soothing ambience for the baby."
"For babies to learn to fall back to sleep on their own after a quick awakening at night, it is best to put the baby to bed when drowsy," Nguyen suggests. "Slowly adjust baby's association with sleep with less parental involvement. A security object can help — a soft cuddly animal, toy, or blanket are some examples. Also, slowly phase out nighttime visits, making them supportive and brief." Truong agrees, advising parents to allow your little one to fall asleep on their own, even during naps. You should be placing your baby down to sleep when they look drowsy or groggy, before they fall asleep in your arms.
While both pediatricians recommend a bedtime schedule, they also believe in consistent daily schedules. "Training your baby to differentiate between night and day can start prior to 6 months," Nguyen says. "This includes having many activities during the day, keeping the house bright, talking to the baby in normal volume, doing tummy time, ensuring good and frequent feeds during the day, etc. Conversely, at night we would want to keep babies in darker and quieter environments, preferably a different one than during the day, and keep the stimulations to the minimum. Some babies prefer a nightlight or white noise specifically for sleeping at night."
What about sleep training? Both doctors agree that sleep training can help babies and their parents get the rest they need. Neither recommends a specific approach to sleep training, but Nguyen says that "whether you choose the gentle sleep training, check-and-console, cry-it-out method, a combination, or any other method, making it your own is very important. Therefore, all family members involved in sleep training need to understand sleep patterns, expectations, and then together agree on the personalized sleep training plan."
So is it OK if your baby is 6 months old and not sleeping through the night? In short, yes. There's nothing wrong with your baby and it may just require some re-thinking on your part to understand what "through the night" actually means. (It also may require some coffee.) Try keeping a consistent day and nighttime schedule, let go of sleep associations, and attempt sleep training if it's a right fit for your family. Soon, you'll all be sleeping. (Until a new milestone happens.)