"I slept like a baby." It's a phrase we use to describe a particularly sound sleep. But any parent knows that sleeping like a baby really means waking every few hours...all night long! Babies' sleep cycles differ from those of their parents. Babies spend more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when they are more likely to waken, and less time in deeper sleep states than children and adults. They also cycle between light and deep sleep stages more quickly than adults do. Nature has designed babies to awaken more frequently to ensure their survival; feeding around the clock gives them the nourishment they need to sustain the rapid growth of infancy.

Coping with nightwaking

Since babies do wake up at night, parents need strategies to get the rest they need. Keeping baby close, in a crib or bassinet, will make nighttime feeding easier and allow new moms to get a better night’s sleep. Nursing the baby in bed allows mom to relax while feeding the baby. When the baby is close by at night, you can respond quickly before she fully awakens. This tends to help babies fall back to sleep more readily after they've been fed. On the other hand, some babies do fuss a bit as they surface from a light sleep phase, without really waking up. If her eyes are closed and she seems to be trying to get comfortable, don't disturb her by picking her up right away. It might be more helpful to just pat her back gently. You'll soon know if she’s going to "really" wake up. Many parents feel that keeping nighttime interaction very low key encourages their baby to go back to sleep promptly: keep lights, diaper changes and conversation to a bare minimum. Catch up on your sleep by napping when the baby sleeps if you can. Partners can also spell each other off for short periods.

Should you train your baby to sleep?

Parents, understandably, look forward to getting more rest. But many young infants — particularly those who are breastfed — really need their night feedings, so younger babies should not be pushed to sleep through the night. Reducing the number of feedings will also reduce the milk supply, and it may not be possible to make up the extra milk during the day. After the middle of the first year, some parents may want to teach their baby to sleep more independently. The goal of most sleep-training methods is to have the baby learn to fall asleep on his own, so that when he wakes at night, he won't need his parents to settle him. While some parents have had success with this method, others report that their babies cried for long periods without sleeping any longer. Babies all have their own individual temperaments, and while some adapt easily to a new sleep routine, others seem to need nighttime comforting for a longer time. Parents are all different, too. Some just don't believe in leaving their baby to cry, night or day. Others don't feel nightwaking is much of a problem — especially if the baby only wakes up once or twice for a quick feeding and goes right back to sleep.

What works for your family?

Sleep researcher and anthropologist James McKenna says parents often feel pressured to get their baby sleeping through the night. "If one thing has damaged parents' enjoyment of their babies, it's rigid expectations about how and when the baby should sleep," he says. "There is nothing wrong with a baby who wakes at night and wants to be with his parents." How you handle nightwaking will depend on your own needs and feelings as well as your baby's temperament and sleep habits. Some parents adapt easily to their baby's nightwaking and continue to function well during the day; others feel desperately exhausted. Some babies will easily learn to settle themselves with just a little nudge from mom and dad; others will become frantically upset if left alone and will cry, literally, for hours. Each family has to work out an approach that best meets everyone's needs. Nightwaking is a challenge for many new parents. Any strategies that help you get enough sleep — bringing baby into bed, napping when the baby naps, taking turns in the night or encouraging baby to sleep longer — can be lifesavers. The good news is that all babies eventually develop more mature sleep patterns, though there is plenty of individual variation in the timing. And, one morning, you'll wake up and realize that it finally happened: your nightwaking baby slept all night.

Myths about nightwaking

Myth: Most babies are sleeping through the night by two or three months. Some do, but plenty don't. In one survey, less than one-third of babies slept through until morning by four months of age (and nearly one in four took more than a year). Myth: Once the baby sleeps through the night once, nightwaking is over. Baby's patterns are always changing. Many babies who sleep through early on begin waking again later. Myth: Giving the baby cereal will make her sleep through the night. All the available research shows that this is not so. In fact, many older babies who are enjoying a wide variety of foods still wake up at night.

Teresa Pitman is the author of 15 books, including co-author of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 8th revised edition.