Getting babies to sleep at any age can sometimes be a challenge. Here are tips on putting your baby to sleep at different ages.
Those First Sleepless Nights: 0 to 2 months
The good news is, your newborn’s sleep problems aren’t your fault. “Temperament and biology determine sleeping patterns at this age,” says Nicky Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in children’s sleep issues. The bad news is, there’s not much you can do to make it better. “How well your infant sleeps has little to do with parenting before the age of 6 to 8 weeks.” Just know that things will get better with time.
There is a huge umbrella of what’s considered normal at this age. “The first month shows more variation in sleep than any other age,” Cohen says. The average newborn will sleep for 14.5 hours in a 24-hour period, but the average ranges from 9 to 19 hours a day. Infants also vary in how long they’ll stay asleep at one time. It’s common for newborns to sleep for two to four hours, be awake for one or two hours, then go back to sleep. “Hunger and waking are highly linked at this age,” Cohen says. Babies usually wake to feed, then stay awake for some interaction. This can mean very broken sleep for parents in those first few months.
Newborns can’t differentiate between day and night until 6 to 8 weeks of age. That means your little one may be up for two hours after her 3 a.m. feeding. This is an area of sleep where parents can start to make a small difference. “Our bodies regulate sleep according to light,” says Jennifer Waldburger, co-founder of Sleepy Planet and coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution book and DVD. “Exposing your baby to lots of natural sunlight throughout the day is one of the best ways to help a baby who has her days and nights mixed up.” You should also keep the lights low when baby wakes for a night feeding.
Biggest mistake at this age: Some well-meaning parents try to keep their babies awake in the day to improve night sleep. But the more sleep a baby gets during the day, the better she’ll sleep at night.
Related article: Can You Spoil a Baby?
The turning point: 2 to 4 months
At this age, your baby will be able to tell the difference between day and night, and should be getting about two-thirds of her total sleep at night. As babies get older, their sleep needs become more similar. The gap of “normal” sleep narrows, with infants getting between 10.5 and 18.5 hours per 24-hour cycle. Some babies will continue to wake for a feed every three hours (or even more often during growth spurts and developmental milestones). Others will sleep longer stretches. Both are normal, and it’s normal to go back and forth for quite awhile.
Adults have four stages of sleep, plus REM (rapid eye movement); infants only have two—active and quiet. Infants enter sleep through the active stage, and alternate between active and quiet every 50 to 60 minutes. If you notice your child waking every hour or two, she’s likely waking up while switching in and out of active sleep and doesn’t have the ability to soothe herself back to sleep. A white noise machine that runs through the night may help ease her back to sleep on her own.
Biggest mistake at this age: Letting your child cry it out. Babies stomachs are still incredibly small and don’t stay full very long. Waking to eat is biologically normal and healthy. Also important: if you’re breastfeeding, keep putting baby to the breast to increase your supply to match demand. The more baby is at the breast, the more supply can grow. Furthermore, for bottle feeding, do not add anything to the bottle besides milk or formula. Recommendations to add anything else to “satiate baby longer” are outdated and dangerous.
Establishing Routines: 4 to 6 months
Starting at the fourth month, a baby should sleep 11 to 12 hours at night, even if sleep is still interrupted. Bedtime might start early, with 7 or 8 p.m. being the ideal bedtime for most infants. “If your little one gets overtired, her body will start to produce cortisol hormone, which is not your friend when it comes to inducing sleep,” Waldburger says. Cortisol has a stimulating effect, which will make it difficult to settle your baby. You need to read sleep cues such as fussiness, rubbing eyes, or pulling ears, and then act quickly when your baby appears tired.
At this age, babies will take three or four naps during the day. Naps can last anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours. These naps may be sporadic. If your child is taking mini-catnaps throughout the day, you may be putting her down too early.
If you haven’t started already, it’s time to establish a bedtime routine that you will practice every night. “A regular bedtime routine is very important because of brain development,” Waldburger says. “At this age, your baby can learn sleep cues.” A simple routine such as a feeding followed by a story and dim lights can signal it’s time for bed. A predictable routine will also make it easier for someone other than mom to put baby to bed.
Biggest mistake at this age: Inconsistent bedtimes and a lack of routine. Better is to help baby learn the events that precede sleep, and get baby to bed on time.
Continuing healthy patterns: 6 to 12 months
The average infant will sleep between 11.5 and 16.5 hours in a 24-hour period by the time she reaches one year. Ideally you should aim for a 7:30 p.m. bedtime, with a wake up time around 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. Until approximately 9 months, babies will take three naps. The first nap will happen about two hours after waking, and then every two to three hours after that. At around 9 months, parents can encourage children to drop the third nap by adjusting the first nap to about three hours after waking.
Around 6 months, children drop the active and quiet sleep cycles and start to develop four sleep cycles. This should help reduce or eliminate nighttime awakenings, but often not. Babies are often teething and achieving developmental milestones at this age, so waking is still normal.
Baby’s motor milestones can be one of the biggest sleep issues at this age. “Every time your baby can do something new with her body, it’s like winning the baby lottery, and it’s all she wants to do,” Waldburger says. “Your baby may not like the confinement of the crib and she may want to crawl in the middle of the night.” Just be aware that milestones are bound to cause a few bumpy days, so focus on coming back to healthy habits after the initial excitement wears off.
Biggest mistake at this age: Expecting that all babies should “sleep through the night” by now. They don’t, and that’s still normal.
Remember, every baby is different and yours may very well be a champion sleeper from the get-go. Either way, the best habit for you to get into as a new mom is to sleep when baby sleeps, regardless of dishes in the sink or laundry left undone. Then you can enjoy the time awake with your new family member.
A phenomenal science-backed book is The Bottom Line for Baby (afflinks). An interview with the NYT best-selling author, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is also available here. Additionally, The No-Cry Sleep Solution is one of our all-time favorite books to gently get baby sleep on track.
If you need additional support, a good parent coach might be able to help.
Sarah R. Moore is the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. As a certified gentle parenting coach and trainer for the Jai Institute for Parenting, she’s a regular contributor to international parenting magazines, as well as frequent guest on podcasts and parenting summits. She offers a popular series of mini-courses, webinars, and FREE expert interviews. She’s currently writing two books that will be released this year. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube.