How can we get our infant child to sleep through the night? At what point should we start trying to establish a more regular and predictable sleeping routine?
Between the fourth and sixth months, your baby will probably have settled into a sleeping routine that is more predictable and easier on everyone. Two naps during the day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, are a good habit to encourage and maintain. These may last from one to three hours, and at this age you don't need to wake your baby from a long nap unless it seems to be interfering with his sleep at night. By six months, he should be able to handle an eight-hour stretch without being fed unless he was premature or exceptionally small. Whether this translates into uninterrupted sleep will depend both on your baby and your sleeping arrangements.
If your child is down for the night by 8 p.m., he may be genuinely hungry by 4 a.m. But at that hour, unless he's crying with no sign of letting up, you may want to wait a few minutes to see if he'll go back to sleep. Delaying his bedtime may help extend sleep time in the morning.
Ideally, before a child is put to bed there should be some time to wind down with quiet activities – a feeding, some cuddling, perhaps a bath. With repetition of a routine, he will begin to associate these particular activities with bedtime and a surrender to sleep.
Now is a good time to let him learn to fall asleep on his own if he hasn't been doing so already. When he is drowsy but not yet asleep, lay him down, pat him gently, turn on a night light and leave the room. If he fusses for more than a few minutes, you can come back for a brief reassurance, but not a full-blown recap of the nighttime routine. If the crying continues, do whatever it takes to bring on sleep, and then try again at a later date.
If your baby isn't able to fall asleep by himself by six months of age, the window of opportunity for learning this skill may not be open again for a while. Within the next few months he is likely to begin demonstrating a normal behavior known as separation anxiety, in which a mighty howl may erupt when you or his closest caregivers are out of sight, especially at bedtime. As a result, if after six months he's still used to being nursed, held and rocked until he's sound asleep, you can probably plan on repeating this ritual for months on end unless you're prepared to endure a vigorous and prolonged protest.
Remember that your baby's nighttime routine may include one or more awakenings that do not necessarily need your attention. If you rush into the room to feed, cuddle and rock him with every sound he makes, he'll become accustomed to this service. Obviously, if he sounds truly miserable and is keeping everyone awake, do whatever is necessary to comfort him and calm things down. At this age it is still better to err on the side of too much attention than too little. After a few more months pass, however, you can become more hard-nosed if he seems intent on having a social hour several times a night.