Q: How much do babies sleep?

Q: How much do babies sleep?

Asked by Rosanna


Karen’s thoughts:

Below is an overview of how sleep patterns develop in a healthy full-term infant, and approximate ages when they may occur. Keep in mind, however, each baby is unique: some may take a little longer to enter the next stage. Babies who are breast-fed often have shorter time between feeds at first, and may take a little longer to stretch that time.

Newborn infants to three months

Newborns sleep about 16 to 18 hours per 24 hours, waking up every one to four hours to feed. Sleep periods are equally divided between day and night. Breast-fed babies usually go shorter stretches between feedings than those who are formula-fed, because breast milk contains less fat than cow’s milk and tends to be digested more quickly than formula. The newborn baby will often fall asleep while feeding. Always lay babies down for sleep on their backs.

Newborns should be attended to whenever they demand it. Doing this for about the first three months has been found to minimize fussing and crying. More importantly, you are also building a close bond and pattern of trust between you and your child.

From six weeks of age onwards, I recommend laying your baby down for sleep while she is sleepy, but still a little bit awake, so she may begin to develop her own special way to self-soothe herself to sleep. You may start this when you notice she is still awake after feeding.

Newborn circadian rhythms (biological day/night body clock) are immature, so their sleep patterns are erratic at first, but the circadian rhythm will develop over the first three months.

At around two months, sleep patterns begin to shift with periods of sleep becoming longer. A preference for nighttime sleep begins to develop.

About one in five infants will develop colic between two and four weeks of age. Colic is excessive crying for prolonged periods of time with no apparent cause. The baby is regarded as “very fussy.” See a pediatrician if you think your baby may have colic.

Colicky babies are healthy and gaining weight. Some babies with colic seem to be fussy all the time, while others may have crying concentrated around the late afternoon or evening hours, beginning about the same time each day. This latter colic crying pattern is similar to the crying pattern of non-colicky infants, as there is a tendency for many babies around the age of two months to be “fussy” during the late afternoon or early evening periods. The big difference between the two groups is the length of the crying bouts.

Three to four months

At three months of age, infants’ sleep develops a more mature rhythm. The total length of time for daily sleep will decrease to an average of about 13-15 hours per day, as they have longer awake periods and longer sleep stretches too. Until the first birthday, 13-15 hours in a 24-hour period is most likely all the sleep needed. This amount of sleep is just an average, and there are some infants who will sleep more and some who will sleep less. Again, each child is different with varying sleep needs.

By three months of age, many infants will have sleep cycles lasting about three to four hours. If you have already begun laying your baby down to sleep while sleepy but still awake, she may have already learned to self-soothe and is linking two sleep cycles together, sleeping a stretch of about six to eight hours at night.

Four to six months

At four months, infants are more capable of putting two sleep cycles together, sleeping about six to eight hour stretches often between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Even though breast milk is quicker to digest than formula, many breast-fed babies are able to reach this milestone at this age too.

By this age, a baby should be laid down to sleep while drowsy but still awake. If the baby always falls asleep while being fed or rocked, she will develop a dependency for that and only be able to fall asleep, or go back to sleep after waking in the night, while being fed, rocked or soothed by a parent. If she doesn’t learn to self-soothe, she will cry for help to be soothed back down to a deeper stage when she wakes in the middle of the night, rather than soothe herself to sleep.

Rocking and holding your baby for songs, stories, comfort and loving is a very important and special thing to do with your child and is a major part of the bedtime routine. Just make sure she is snug in her bed before she closes her eyes for the night. If your baby falls asleep in your arms, you may even gently nudge her a little awake before laying her down.

When babies are four months old, it is time for parents to set the long-term sleep habits they want their children to have if they have not already begun to do so. By doing this, parents may reduce the number of nighttime sleep interruptions in the future, as babies begin to develop particular sleep habits and associations connected with going to sleep.

Also at this age, decisions should be finalized on where the baby will be sleeping. If you have been sleeping in the same bed as your baby, discuss if this is something you and your partner want to do for the long term and consider the safety aspects. Both of you should be in agreement on this issue. For some parents, bed sharing may be an enjoyable family experience and/or part of their cultural heritage, but for other parents, babies come in bed only as a spur of the moment response to parental sleep deprivation.

This age would be a good time to transition your baby to his own crib if you do not want to continue bed sharing. After this age, the longer you wait, the harder and more upsetting it will be for the child to make the change. Parents may want to think ahead about the potential effects of bed sharing — it could lead to less time for parental intimacy; lack of parental sleep; and toddlers and preschoolers who may find it difficult to sleep without their parents, or are frightened to sleep alone.

Six to eight months

By six months, many infants are able to “sleep through the night,” or sleep for around eight hours at a stretch. For example, a baby may sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., linking two sleep cycles. If your baby goes down to sleep at about 7 or 8 p.m. and wakes up in the small hours of the morning to be fed, you could try waking him for a final feed just before you go to bed yourself, somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight. Listen for a light sleep period as an opportunity to wake the baby with minimal disruption of sleep. This strategy may mean he will not wake up for feeding after you have just fallen asleep. A few babies may even be linking three sleep cycles together, sleeping 11 to 12 hours per night, from about 7 or 8 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m., for example.

By six months, you will have begun introducing some solid food to your baby’s diet. Check with your pediatrician on how to go about this process. Usually the first food given is iron-fortified infant cereal. When offering this first food, make sure your baby has no allergic reaction to the cereal — then you may offer some at supper time which may help your baby sleep a little longer afterward, as solid foods take longer to fully digest than milk.

Naps will still be needed during the day in infancy. Many babies will fall into a pattern of having two naps per day, one mid-morning and the other sometime in the afternoon. Of course, this will depend on how their sleep is during the night. Remember, the average sleep requirement at six months is about 13 to 15 hours in a 24-hour cycle. Some may want more, and others a little less. If they happen to sleep a good 12 hours at night, a baby may want just one nap during the day, usually taken after lunch.

Be aware that even those babies regarded as good sleepers will have occasional sleeping or settling down problems. Sickness, teething and over-tiredness can cause distress and restlessness in your baby. Times of rapid cognitive or physical growth also make it harder for your baby to self-soothe and settle. Some parents feel that these settling problems result in their babies forgetting how to self-soothe, and they have to make an effort to encourage rebuilding this skill.

Eight months to one year

When infants are first learning to crawl or walk, more frequent awakenings can occur, as they have a harder time settling themselves after entering the light phase of sleep. Some babies may even pull themselves up to a standing position, holding onto the sides of the crib, and then have a hard time figuring out how to lie back down again. They will often call their parents for help.

Two naps a day are still the norm at this age, although a few may have just one, depending on if they sleep 10 to 12 hours at night. If your child is developing well, is active during the day, and is generally in good humor, she is most likely getting enough sleep.

One year and beyond

Children from one year to about three years of age have a need for an average of 12 to 14 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Between their first birthday and 18 months of age, about 90% of children shift to just one nap a day, often taken after lunch. If these naps run past 3 or 4 p.m., they may have an effect on what time your toddler will be ready for nighttime sleep.

The “ideal” bedtime is somewhere between 7 and 8 p.m., with a morning wake-up time of about 7 a.m. That may be impossible for many households to achieve, depending on parental work hours and daily schedules. Some parents may just prefer their children to have a later bedtime as they may sleep in longer in the mornings. Naps running past 3 or 4 p.m. may be needed for some children going to bed later than 8 p.m.

There is not a right or wrong time for bedtime. Each family should develop a set time when children are put to bed and which is adhered to most of the time. Occasionally, special situations may mean that routines change for a short time. The goal is for children and their parents to be getting enough rest over a 24-hour period so their biological sleep needs are met, and all can function well and enjoy their day. Over-tiredness often causes crankiness in both children and adults. Other points to consider in establishing a bedtime for your baby are time alone for yourself and time with your partner.

Between naps and nighttime sleep, your child should meet his sleep needs. Some toddlers may drop naps altogether as early as the second birthday, but generally children are at least three years old before this happens. Some parents may substitute a “quiet time” for afternoon naps, when children are encouraged to relax, play quietly by themselves, and look at books.