Many parents want to know when, at long last, will their preemie sleep through the night?
It’s a good question.
First Things First
Perspective is an easy thing to lose. So is patience, especially when you are massively sleep-deprived and stressed out. I know. I’ve been there.
My second child was born at 35 weeks. He spent the first 13 days of his life in the NICU. We were lucky. Every day I walked past the ventilators and isolettes of babies who would be living in the NICU for weeks, possibly months. I couldn’t imagine what kind of stress these parents were feeling.
And yet, life was stressful. We already had an energetic pre-schooler at home. Now we were caring for a tiny little guy who ate well, but he was so… small!
I saw a picture of myself taken when the baby was 4 months old. I gasped out loud. I had lost a ton of weight without realizing it. I’m quite sure I did not lift a finger of exercise. And the majority of my diet probably consisted of eating stuff that my 2 1/2 year old dropped on the floor.
I don’t remember a whole lot from that first year, but I do remember asking when will our preemie sleep through the night.
And I remember stopping myself. “What am I saying?”
We were lucky we had a healthy, growing boy. We had avoided a much worse fate. Was I asking too much by wondering when would our preemie sleep through the night?
With the passage of time and the acquisition of some perspective, I can answer ‘yes’, I was asking too much. He’s in high school now. The time went by so quickly. In the big picture, the sleep-deprived part of my life was very short!
When WILL My Preemie Sleep Through the Night?
There’s an answer to this question. But when parents ask me, I always begin by telling them my story. I want to help them gain some perspective on their situation. Most of them had endured extreme stress, as I had. I want them to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I want them to know that with the passage of time, they too will see that the sleep-deprived part of their lives was relatively short.
The due date is a big event. I counsel parents to celebrate this day. Take stock of what they’ve gone through, and pretend to start the clock again.
Full term babies start to sleep through the night between 4-6 months of age. By “through the night” I mean 5-6 hours. I give a range of 4-6 months because girls tend to reach the milestone closer to 4 months, boys closer to 6 months.
For babies born early, you can predict when they will sleep through the night using “corrected gestational age“. When they reach 4-6 months, corrected, you can expect that they should be ready to stretch those hours of blissful sleep together.
Now, I’m hesitant to dangle promises. I hate to write checks that your preemie cannot cash. But I should say that often a preemie will sleep through the night prior 4-6 months corrected. This is because of a phenomenon I call “catch up development”. What I mean is that by being here on earth, a baby learns some things that she might not otherwise know if she were “inside”. Sometimes the experience of being here helps accelerate certain developmental milestones. Sleep is one.
For example, there is the the development of circadian rhythm, the daily cycle of her body’s systems. It goes without saying that there is no day and night inside the uterus! Once she is out here in the world, the relative brightness of day and the relative darkness of night helps train her brain to adopt a day-night sleep cycle. Sometimes, despite premature birth, a baby can be “nudged” into sleep habits that are more mature than her corrected gestational age.
- Feed the baby! If your pediatrician suggests that the baby needs to eat every 3-4 hours, you may need to wake her up, even if she’s sleeping! If she’s gaining good weight (an ounce per day), waking her may not be necessary.
- Back to sleep saves lives! She should always sleep on her back, on a firm surface.
- SHHHHH! Premies can be more sensitive to sensations than full-term babies. Try to keep her environment as calm and quiet as possible. This will help her sleep better.
- Consistency, consistency, consistency. Try to keep the baby’s day as regular and as predictable as possible. Falling into a routine will help her eat and sleep!
If you need any help getting your preemie to sleep, I can help!