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Why won’t my baby sleep through the night?

Exhausted new parents, sinking into bed after a long day, may quickly learn to dread their baby’s midnight wails. But experts say such crying is normal and parents must learn to let babies get into a healthy sleep cycle.

Infants have different sleeping needs from adults and many manage to sleep through the night only from around the nine-month mark.

During their first year, babies will spend most of the day sleeping and this can range from 14 to 20 hours. Much of this is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which experts believe is necessary for infant development.

Babies will stir more easily. “It is normal for babies to wake up intermittently in the night and go back to sleep spontaneously,” says Dr Mahesh Babu Ramamurthy, head and senior consultant of National University Hospital (NUH)’s paediatric pulmonary and sleep division.

Dr Petrina Wong, a paediatric consultant at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), says that while the baby is asleep, he may smile, grimace or make a sucking action, and his fingers and feet may twitch occasionally.

“An older infant may wake up at night to pull himself up to stand, or practise newfound skills,” she adds.

Babies should be able to sleep for 10 to 12 hours at night from when they are three to four months old, says Dr Janice Wong, a paediatrician with Thomson Paediatric Centre. They may wake up once or twice and need to be fed or have their diapers changed.

Once babies are able to sleep through the night, they will still need daytime naps – each lasting two to three hours – until the age of three or so.

How can I train my child to fall asleep independently?

When a baby starts to have a regular sleep-wake cycle and doesn’t require night feedings, this may be the right time to start sleep training, says KKH’s Dr Wong.

Sleep training refers to giving babies a routine in which they fall asleep consistently and independently.

Dr Mahesh cautioned that, while you can keep your drowsy baby company, you should let him go to sleep on his own.

“It is common for parents or grandparents to fall into the habit of rocking the baby, feeding him to sleep, and so forth. These habits are extremely difficult to break,” he says.

When Baby wakes up and cries or fusses at night, wait a few minutes before responding to him, KKH’s Dr Wong says. He may wake up more often if you attend to the slightest movement or whimper in the night.

You should check on your child without turning on bright lights, playing with him or exposing him to stimuli.

A gentle hand on a fussing infant may be all that is needed to give Baby the comfort he needs, Dr Mahesh adds.