Congratulations on becoming a parent! Jubilations on new beginnings!
It can be an overwhelming experience. If you have powered through the initial phase of childbirth, get ready for a roller coaster of emotions and new experiences.
Your sleep cycle might be a complete wreck at the moment and that might be because of your baby’s sleep cycle. A lot of new parents don’t know much about their little ones’ sleep.
Whatever happens on this new journey, understand one thing: you are not alone! All new parents go through similar experiences. Therefore, it is never a bad idea to talk about your experiences and seek help.
This article is everything you need to know about your little ones’ sleep and some practical tips on how to optimize it. This way, you can spend more quality time with your baby and will spend less time stressing. We will focus mainly on children up to 2 years of age. Let’s get to it.
How Long Do Babies Sleep?
You must have noticed from day one that your baby sleeps around the clock. They have to feed frequently because of tiny stomachs. This makes them wake up frequently irrespective of the time of the day.
An average adult has an intrinsic system in the body called that ‘circadian rhythm’. Circadian rhythm is a biological clock that links your body systems to the cues of daylight. Your body prepares you to wake up in the morning when exposed to sunlight and works to get you to sleep at night.
Babies don’t develop this rhythm till several months after their birth. Research suggests that it can take babies 8-12 weeks before they can start developing any form of the circadian rhythm.
Every child is different. Some sleep more hours and more frequently than others. But according to the Sleep Health Foundation Australia, little ones’ sleep depends on their age. Below are some key numbers.
|Not appropriate hours
|0-3 months (Newborn)
|Less than 11 More than 19
|4-11 months (infants)
|Less than 10 More than 18
|1-2 years (Toddlers)
|Less than 9 More than 16
|3-5 years (Preschoolers)
|Less than 8 More than 14
|6-13 (School going)
|Less than 7 More than 12
Little One’s Sleep- Important Strategies
As it is quite evident from the table above that your little one’s sleep duration can be different from that of your friend’s baby. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to little ones’ sleep. It takes some hit and miss before you can understand your baby’s sleep duration, timings, and habits.
In this section, we have outlined some key strategies for babies of different ages.
From Birth Till 4 Months (Babies)
As mentioned earlier, babies sleep most of the day and don’t have a set sleep and wake cycle. As they have to feed frequently, they might even wake up in the middle of the night to feed. That’s rather a good sign that your baby is healthy. Newborns can sleep up to 18 hours a day and each nap can last between 3 and 4 hours. As your baby grows older, they will stay awake longer during the day and will sleep during most parts of the night.
While the sleep cycle of newborns is unpredictable, they begin to learn sleeping cues from an early stage. For example, swaddling your baby and singing them a lullaby can be a cue for them to sleep. Similarly, if you put your baby into a crib, they will learn with time that crib is where they are supposed to sleep. This might not work right away but with patience and persistence, they will surely learn.
Just as your cues let babies decide that it’s time to sleep, learn the cues your baby gives to you too. If you keep a sleep diary for your baby’s sleep, you will be able to learn the sleep schedule of your baby. After 3 months, your baby’s sleep cycle will become more predictable and they will start having regular naps.
Here are some tips that can help your newborn babies sleep better during the first four months:
- Don’t force your baby to stay awake: A common misconception new parents have is that if you force your babies to stay awake during the day, it will help them sleep better at night.
This is not true. In fact, it actually makes things worse, as tired babies become more irritable and have trouble falling asleep at night.
Let your baby nap during the day. As you can see from the table above, it is normal for your baby to sleep up to 18-19 hours a day.
- Put your baby in their sleeping place at the right time: Put your baby in their crib when they are drowsy and not asleep yet. With time they will learn that their crib is the place for them to sleep.
Also, put them on their back. Do not put them on their side. Keep pillows, toys, and soft stuffing items out of their crib.
- It is ok to cuddle your baby: Another myth most people believe is that their babies will get used to cuddling and will demand that every time they have to go to bed. Therefore, cuddling should be avoided.
This is not true. In fact, research suggests that cuddling, holding the baby, and skin-to-skin bonding with the baby are crucial for the long-term mental and physical well-being of the child.
You can’t spoil your kid by expressing your love. It will only improve your bond with your child and make them feel loved and protected. So don’t hesitate to show your love!
- Don’t jump to action right away: Newborns spend a significant portion of their sleep in something called ‘Rapid Eye Movement (REM)’ sleep. This is the part of the sleep where the brain is most active. This phase of sleep is crucial for your newborn’s mental development. As the brain activity surges, your baby might move, coo, laugh or cry for some time.
Avoid rushing to your baby if that happens. Most of the time, your baby will settle on its own and will go back to sleep.
- Make night-time activities boring, extremely boring: You will inevitably need to feed your baby or change their diapers overnight. Try to make overnight activities extremely boring. Newborns recognize their mother’s voice from the very first day and show the highest level of activity to it.
Here is interesting research.
Researchers at the Ohio State University, US studied if babies will respond better to their mother’s voice or a high-pitched alarm. Interestingly, they noticed that the babies recognized and responded quicker to low-pitched mothers’ voices compared to high-pitched alarms.
So try to avoid unnecessary interactions with your baby overnight.
Infants (4 to 12 Months)
As mentioned earlier, your baby has started to develop a circadian rhythm by this age. Their bodies have started to sync more with the day and night cues. They will spend more time awake during the day and will sleep during the night. By this age, your baby will likely have three naps: one in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Again, more or less frequent naps are fine too. Everything does not always have to be perfect!
Between 6 and 12 months, your baby will stay awake during most of the day. You will see that they have become more demanding and they demand more interaction and do not like to be left alone.
Here is what you can do to optimize your little one’s sleep:
- Try to be regular: Try to maintain a regular bedtime for your baby. Try to sync the sleep cycle of your baby with yours so that you can spend the maximum amount of time with your baby. This will save you from getting exhausted as well.
- Remember ‘3 Bs’: The ‘3 B’ strategy is a proven way to help put your baby to sleep. This includes a bath, book, and bed. This consistent bedtime routine will help your baby get to sleep at the same time every night.
- Don’t lift them out of the crib: Again, if your baby wakes up during the night, avoid getting them out of the crib right away. See what you can do while they are in their crib to help them soothe and get back to sleep. You can rock them or stroke them on their forehead to help soothe them. Also, check if they are too hot or cold and try to adjust their clothing/temperature to make them more comfortable.
Toddlers (1-2 Years)
Your child is growing at an exponential rate and going through a lot of changes. As they grow, their sleep duration and patterns are liable to change as well. Persistence and patience are important.
Here is what you can do to help your little ones sleep better:
- Keep a routine: During this age, your baby can undergo a significant sleep regression. As mentioned in the table in the beginning, your child can sleep as little as 9 hours (which is quite close to adult sleeping hours). This massive change can alter the sleeping schedule of your baby.
The key is trusting your routine and sticking to it. Stick to the ‘3 B’ strategy and try to keep a bedtime routine.
- Control nap time: While it is fine for newborns and infants to nap close to their regular sleep time, it is not a good idea for toddlers. Just like adults, sleeping close to bedtime can keep your baby up till late at night.
- Be gentle but firm: It is not uncommon for toddlers to throw a tantrum close to bedtime. If that happens, tackle your child gently but firmly. Don’t let that compromise their bedtime routine. Go back to ‘3 Bs’ and maintain a routine.
- Keep the sleeping environment cozy: Keep the sleeping environment comfortable for your child. You can let your child have a stuffed toy for an added sense of security and help them get to sleep quicker.
Common Sleep Problems in Babies
While it is not uncommon for your little one to have a variation to their sleeping patterns and that is perfectly normal. A big family gathering or traveling might disturb your baby’s sleeping pattern temporarily. If the problem has been ongoing for more than a couple of weeks then it might indicate a deep-rooted problem.
According to the Australian family physicians, common sleep problems in babies include:
- Medical issues leading to sleep disturbance: A variety of medical issues can lead to your little one’s sleep disturbance. These include conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea, issues related to the airway (nasal polyps, adenoids), infections (such as middle and outer ear infections, throat infections, etc), or colic.
- Behavioral issues leading to sleep disturbance: Behavioral issues are a more common cause of sleep disruption in babies. These include issues such as behavioral insomnia (where parents have problems setting limits around baby’s bedtime), anxiety-related insomnia, and physiological insomnia (children take longer to go to sleep but this issue resolves with time).
Are You Concerned About Your Little One’s Sleep?
Have you noticed a persistent change in your little one’s sleep? If you are concerned about your baby’s sleep, you can start by tracking your baby’s sleep for a week or two on a chart. This will aid you to get a clearer picture of your baby’s sleep patterns.
Once the chart is complete, it will help you understand the following:
- What time is your baby going to sleep?
- How much sleep is your baby getting?
- What is their pattern of sleep through the night and how many times do they wake up at night?
- How long is your baby taking to settle after walking up?
Keep on making notes of these along with the potential triggers. After one week, you will have a better idea of your baby’s sleep patterns and the potential triggers. Also, compare your baby’s sleeping habits and patterns with children of the same age. If you think things are beyond your understanding, you might want to seek medical attention.
Additional Tips to Help Your Little Ones Sleep Better
Here are some additional tips on how to help your little ones sleep better.
- Control your baby’s screen time: A UK-based research suggests that at least 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years use touchscreens regularly. The daily screen time can be as high as 1 hour on average.
Results further showed that greater screen time was associated with significant derangements in sleep quality and quantity. It is associated with delayed sleep onset at night-time, reduced sleep at night, and increased daytime sleep.
There are several reasons for that. When your child spends more time on a laptop, tablet, or mobile, they take longer to go to bed. Another reason is the exposure to blue wavelength resulting from the use of different screens. Research at Monash University, Australia used wavelengths enriched in blue light for night-time workers. Exposure to blue light was associated with circadian rhythm disturbance and was associated with sleep deprivation.
Therefore, try to limit screen time for your babies especially during the first three years as their circadian rhythm is most susceptible during this age. More so, try to prevent your babies from using screens closer to their bedtime.
- Engage your baby in relaxing activities: Try to engage your baby in relaxing (and somewhat boring) activities closer to their bedtime. Give your baby a relaxing hot bath before bedtime. Then try activities such as reading, listening to calming music, or talking to your child quietly about their day.
- Keep the sleep environment safe and peaceful: Things that apply to safe and peaceful sleep in adults apply to babies as well. Make sure the lighting is appropriate and kept to a minimum. The room temperature should be moderate and should neither be too hot or cold. The sleeping environment should be free of all noise as well.
When to See a Doctor?
It is natural to feel concerned about your little one’s sleep, especially if it is your first child. It is also fine to seek medical attention early in case you are not sure about something.
It is crucial if you notice the following problems in your child:
- Loud snoring: Seek immediate medical assistance if you hear loud snoring noises in your baby. In fact, seek urgent medical attention if the snoring noises have come up over a short period as it may indicate something blocking the airway. If the snoring has developed more slowly, it might indicate things like sleep apnea, enlarged tonsils, adenoids, blocked nose, nasal polyps, and so on.
- Signs of infection: Seek medical assistance if the sleep disturbance is due to signs of infection. These signs can include temperature, your child pulling on their ear, cough, not feeding, or your child crying inconsolably.
- Colic: Infantile colic is quite common and often a missed cause of sleep compromise in babies. The child cries inconsolably and nothing seems to work. Their tummy appears bloated and they don’t seem to pass wind that easily. If that’s the case, talk to your doctor about it.
- Other issues: Your little one’s sleep might also get disturbed due to things like anxiety, nightmares, bed-wetting, sleepwalking, and so on. These problems usually self-resolve but you should seek medical assistance for your baby if these problems persist.
Dr. Muhammad Usman is a Doctor, Nutritionist, Wellness Coach and a Researcher with a deep insight into all aspects of writing related to health and science.