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'Does he sleep well?' must be one of the questions most often heard by the mother of a new baby. A baby who sleeps long and often is said to be a 'good' baby. Therefore he must have a 'good' mother. But what about the baby who does not sleep as well as expected, and what about his mother? Frustration, anger and guilt feelings can combine to make a mother feel resentful of anyone else, including her partner, who is able to have a good night's sleep. She may also begin to resent her baby. And yet wakefulness is a completely normal survival mechanism, programmed into babies to make sure they get enough food to grow.

Sleep and wakeful babies are always keenly discussed by members of the Australian Breastfeeding Association. Mothers may be tired from coping with broken sleep, from wondering how to help the baby. They're sometimes upset from dealing with their own and their partners' feelings; and often confused by the many types of advice they are given to fix the 'problem'. Almost always the baby is thriving, a picture of health. Parents may want to treat the problem gently, but often the 'solutions' they're given are quite harsh.

The Association's booklet Breastfeeding: and sleep takes a methodical approach, giving a checklist of possible causes of wakefulness at different ages, as well as some practical suggestions to help a baby sleep. Different suggestions work at different ages. Parents do feel better with a repertoire of calming techniques, movement, soothing sounds, comforting and management methods, all tried and tested by other parents in the same situation.

Sleep patterns appear, disappear or change as the baby grows from newborn to older baby to toddler. Sometimes it is possible to find a cause of the waking, but usually there is no apparent reason. Parents can be reassured that each baby is an individual. Sleep patterns will change as a baby matures.

The actual pattern of sleeping and waking varies widely from baby to baby, just as it does in older children and adults. Many adults do not sleep through the night.  

There is no evidence to suggest that there is any difference between breastfed babies and those fed formula with regard to the age at which they sleep through the night.

How much sleep do babies need?

Small babies need to wake in the night to feed. It is physiologically desirable for them to wake often to refuel. A newborn's stomach is about the size of your baby's clenched fist. How could this possibly last all night without a refill? It is also important that the breasts be drained well regularly to maintain the mother's milk supply. Some babies need night feeds throughout the first year.

A baby's need for closeness and physical contact is very real and important to her wellbeing. Every baby is aware of the presence or absence of his chief source of comfort and security - his parents. If you are out of sight, he has no way of knowing when or if you will return. He will be reassured by physical contact with you, by being able to see you or by being near the normal household sounds and activities. One mother describes her experience:

"After reaching his first birthday, Liam woke less frequently. His wakefulness seemed unrelated to his past day - whether he'd had a daytime sleep or none at all; a very busy day or a quiet one; if he was put to bed earlier or kept up longer. So we accepted his need for comfort, attention and love and found that the quicker we went to him, the sooner he would settle. Within minutes of my feeding him, he was sound asleep again - happy and content. Now he's obviously ready to sleep for longer periods knowing that if he needs us, we will be there. Perhaps some children like Liam cannot cope with hours of solitude and therefore need more frequent attention and affection."

Crying it out

Well-meaning friends and relatives may tell you to ignore your baby's cries in the hope that she will learn to go to sleep by herself. Remember, however, that crying is a young baby's only verbal means of telling her parents that she needs something.

Babies have no control over their sleeping. If they cry it is for a real reason or need, not because they are 'spoilt'. By meeting your baby's needs you are not spoiling her. You are helping her develop a sense of trust and self-esteem. Remember that your baby's need for closeness and physical contact is a very real and important need.

Baby sleep-training programs are becoming popular, so it is worth reading the opinion of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc (AAIMHI) in its 2002 position paper (revised in 2013) on controlled crying. 'AAIMHI is concerned that the widely practised technique of controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.'  You can read the background to these concerns in a PDF document that can be downloaded from before you make your own decisions on this issue.

Ultimately many parents find it is more effective to accept the child's sleep pattern until it changes, and to alter their lives to enable them to cope. The booklet Breastfeeding: and sleep also discusses ways for parents to get enough sleep and emotional support to manage this stressful time.

Breastfeeding: and sleep can be purchased from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

For more information about your baby's sleep watch this video.


Breastfeeding and sleep

Breastfeeding: and sleep booklet

Breastfeeding and sleep helps you to work out your baby’s natural sleep pattern and give you ideas for settling your baby.

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© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed July 2016

Last reviewed: 
Mar 2017