Baby sleeping habits
The first few weeks of a baby’s life are a time of major adjustment. We focus so much on the inevitable changes for parents that sometimes we forget just how much babies have to adapt as well. It is unfair to expect them to have predictable, regular routines of feeding, sleeping and wakefulness in the early weeks. But still, we can be very quick to label babies as ‘good’ or “bad” based on how much sleep they have.
A newborn’s sleeping behaviour is not a predictor for how they will continue to sleep throughout their childhood. Recovery from birth, getting used to extra-uterine life, feeding, digesting and even the act of breathing for themselves takes a lot of energy.
Although the books and experts give us some idea of how much sleep babies need, these are only guides and not a promise. They don’t help if you are already feeling a bit unsure about how much sleep your baby isn’t having. Comparing your baby to a non-existent ideal is unrealistic and is guaranteed to erode your confidence. Try not to do it. Instead, aim to look at sleep as part of a big picture and not let it eclipse everything else which is going on in your young baby’s life.
What can I expect and what is normal?
There is no absolute number of hours babies need to sleep according to their age. The best we can do is offer a range of hours, according to age groups. Generally, the younger a baby, the more time they will spend sleeping and as they get older they will sleep less.
- Newborn babies sleep from 9-18 hours in 24; from 3-6 months they sleep an average of 15-16 hours/24; 6-12 months 13-14 hours/24; 1-2 years 12-14 hours/24; 2-5 years 12-13 hours/24. Remember, this is just a guide.
- In the first month of life most babies are reasonably settled. They wake for feeds and sleep in between. From around one month, they tend to be more wakeful and most babies will have a couple of wakeful, crying episodes a day.
- Babies under the age of around 3 months will still wake regularly overnight for feeds. This is because they need a regular intake of milk and can’t digest large volumes at any one time. Breast fed babies generally need to feed more often that bottle fed babies.
- Small babies don’t know the difference between night and day. It can take six or more months for their bodies to learn how to sleep longer overnight and be more awake through the day.
- Most parents find they need to still get up overnight for the first six months and feed their baby at least once. This is normal and with time and gut maturity, your baby will be able to sleep for a longer, continuous period.
- Sleep is an important part of childhood and we still don’t understand a lot of the complex processes which occur during sleep. Babies spend a lot of their sleeping time in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep which causes them to be noisy and move around. It is normal for babies to be active during their sleep.
How babies form sleeping habits
Falling asleep is, in itself, a natural process. All of us tire out after sufficient wake time and energy expenditure and the body naturally transitions to a weary state. Sleep is essential to rejuvenate and boost a child’s tolerance for being awake. When babies are asleep they release growth hormones, conserve energy and consolidate memories which are vital in terms of their overall development.
- Most babies show tired signs which signal they need to sleep. If parents are sensitive to these sleep cues and respond to them early enough, settling can be a much smoother progression.
- Overtiredness or missing a baby’s “sleep window” can prolong the settling process and lead to frustration for both the parent and child. Be confident in your ability to know your baby and understand what they are telling you.
- Little babies will often fall asleep when they are feeding or being cuddled. Enjoy this special time and try not to worry that you are setting yourself up for difficult days ahead. As your baby gets older, they will understand more and you will have plenty of time to be more structured about how you choose to settle them.
- Regular, predictable, consistent settling routines with a little flexibility help habits to form. Humans are creatures of habit and young children need the same patterns of care to boost their sense of security and know they are truly loved.
- Some experts believe sleep behaviour is genetic and parents who don’t need a lot of sleep are more likely to have children with the same traits. We can’t do much about our children’s DNA but we can try to manipulate their environment so it is more conducive to sleep.
- Babies tend to sleep better in a darkened room with a cooler rather than warmer temperature. Small amounts of filtered sunlight each day are useful for the brain’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This helps as well with the development of a Circadian rhythm; the body’s inbuilt 24 hour clock.
- Some parents put on the same music, a lullaby CD, tuck their baby into the cot in a particular way and go through little rituals which signal it is time for sleep. Some light background noise while your baby is settling will help them to not become too noise sensitive.
- Read to your baby everyday, no matter how young they are. This is a lovely way to wind down and helps boost literacy development.
How to encourage your baby to form good sleep habits
Understanding the basics:
- The first thing to accept is that your baby will have their own ideas on how much sleep they want, though you’ll have your own ideas on how much they need. These two concepts can be at opposite ends of the nursery.
- Your job as their parent is to provide a safe, clean, nurturing sleeping environment for your baby and give them the opportunity to sleep when they need it. Their job is to go to fall asleep without too much fuss and stay asleep for sufficiently long to wake feeling refreshed and energized. You cannot trade these roles, no matter how much you would like to.
- Have a safe cot for your baby to sleep in and make sure they go into it for all of their sleep times. Although this sounds simple, some babies do complete circuits of the house and sleep on beds, lounges, prams and anywhere they happen to drop off to sleep.
- Follow a regular pre-settling routine with your baby so they know what’s coming. Consistency and persistence work with settling. This sounds boring but it’s true.
- During feed times overnight, try not to give your baby too much stimulation. Keep your care low key, calm and just enough to address their basic needs without encouraging them to stay awake. Soft lights, being organized beforehand and having a light, calm touch will help your baby transition back to sleep more easily.
- Day time sleep is a vital part of infant sleep and babies who sleep well through the day generally sleep better overnight. Good “napping” habits in the day influence night time sleep.
- Avoid over stimulating your baby and winding them up when it’s time for sleep. A warm bath, pyjamas, reading time and last feed for the night are all lovely pre-bed prompts.
- Avoid letting your baby sleep through day time feeds or sleep for too long during the day. Generally a 3-4 hour sleep, even for a newborn, in the day time is enough between feeds.
Remember, your baby is not an extension of you no matter how strongly connected you feel to them. They have their own separate, unique personality and temperament which strongly influences their sleeping habits. Sometimes your baby will sleep well and not so well at other times. Go with the flow, change what you can and avoid seeing their sleeping behaviour as something you need to control.
For more information see Sleeping through the night or Baby Care
- Barker, R. Baby love. Sydney: Macmillan. (2007)
- Murkoff, H. & Mazel, S. What to expect the first year. Sydney: Harper Collins. (2003)