Those First Sleepless Nights: 0 to 2 months
by Nancy LePatourel
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, and try to minimize eye contact and interaction at night.
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.
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. Bedtime for most babies will be late, around 9 or 10 p.m. But after baby goes to bed, there is a huge difference in sleep patterns. Some babies will continue to wake for a feed every three hours, while others will sleep through the night. Both are normal, but if your baby is waking every hour or two, you should try to encourage longer sleep patterns.
First, check with your doctor. There may be a medical condition, such as acid reflux, that’s causing her to wake during the night. Or your baby may not be able to lull herself back to sleep when the natural sleep cycles switch over. 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 for longer than 10 minutes. You can start to encourage independent sleep at this age, but don’t push it. It’s OK to let your baby whimper for a few minutes as she falls asleep, but she is too young to be left for long bouts of crying.
Establishing Routines: 4 to 6 months
Starting at the fourth month, a baby should sleep 11 to 12 hours through the night. Nighttime will start earlier, 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 at first but by 5 months you should start to schedule regular naps. If your child is taking mini-catnaps throughout the day, you may be putting her down too early. Try to keep her awake for a little longer to encourage longer naps.
At this age, a baby can start self-soothing, so 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.
It’s crucial to put your baby to bed awake starting at four months. Once your baby is able to soothe herself to sleep, she will be better able to go back to sleep on her own when she wakes at night. “If your baby gets used to falling asleep in your arms or with the TV on in the background, she won’t be able to recreate these sleep associations when she wakes in the middle of the night,” Waldburger says.
Biggest mistake at this age: Encouraging poor bedtime associations that require parental presence to put baby to sleep. Teach your child to soothe herself to sleep by helping her with a regular sleep routine.
Ready for Training: 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 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, and all babies should be sleeping through the night at this point. “By 6 months, a baby’s stomach is large enough that she shouldn’t have to wake for night-time feeds,” Cohen says. If your infant is still waking, you can try to eliminate night feedings by waking your child 30 to 60 minutes before she would normally wake and giving her a short feeding. “You need to break the contingency between waking up andbeing fed,” Cohen says. After three to five nights of waking your baby for feeds, you should be able to eliminate night feeds and your baby will sleep until morning.
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: Continuing with nighttime feeds. By 6 months, babies no longer need to feed through the night.
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.