Sleep is an essential, healthy part of your baby’s life. In the same way that good nutrition is important for the development of his body, baby sleep is crucial for the development of his brain. A baby sleep schedule is necessary because unlike adults, infants cannot just go to sleep whenever! As your baby establishes and maintains a regular healthy sleep schedule, he is more likely to sleep longer and less likely to awaken during the night, with all the health benefits of that kind of sound sleep which make a happy baby.
No wonder many parents worry about the sleep habits and behaviors of the their baby. “Is he getting too little sleep? Or too much? How important are naps, and how many hours of napping are enough? Should I let him cry himself to sleep at night, or should I pick him up when he’s in tears? Why does he seem to go to sleep later – or earlier – than other children of the same age?
Even though many parents are anxious about their baby’s sleep patterns, the good news is that many of their concerns can easily be addressed. Many moms and dads may be unclear about the optimal baby sleep schedule for a infant at different ages. Even when they ask questions and get some clarification from their pediatrician, they still may be left frustrated with general advice that may be applicable to children at large, but not necessarily to their own child. After all, children aren’t alike, and there are normal variations from one child to another; some children may develop regular sleep rhythms in the first six to eight weeks of life, and they may sleep for many hours at a time; others, however, may have unpredictable sleep behaviors that stay that way for many months – or longer. It’s reasonable to discuss with your pediatrician the specific questions you have and to review your own family’s routines, problems, and challenges that may affect your child’s sleep patterns.
In fact, although some parents may ask their doctor questions like “How many hours should my baby sleep at night?”, there is no universal answer that applies to every baby. In the first two years of life in particular, your baby’s unique genetics have a powerful influence on sleep; whether he takes long naps or short ones, his genetic makeup may be the reason. Or his distinctive temperament could be influencing his sleep behavior. Also, family circumstances can vary, affecting when, how long, and how well a child sleeps. If the parent works at night and sleeps during the day, this can also affect the baby’s sleep schedule.
Moms and Dads sometimes unknowingly disrupt the sleep of their children. For example, even though parents want to do what’s healthy for their baby, they don’t always appreciate the effect that their own busy schedules and family decision-making may have on their child’s sleep
Most commonly, parents may not recognize the importance of adopting a lifestyle that keeps their child in sync with his emerging biological system. Timing is everything (or at least it’s pretty close). Because timing of sleep is critical, it is important to understand that when your baby sleeps is probably more important than how long they sleep. The quality of a baby’s sleep, which can restore alertness and maintain an even temperament, depends largely on when the sleep occurs. That means encouraging him to sleep in rhythm with his own biological clock.
Pay attention to your child, and you’ll find that, just like adults, he has “drowsy times”, during the day. If he sleeps during his drowsy periods, the quality of sleep will be greater than sleep that occurs out of phase with his biological cycles. But if you wait to put him down for sleep until well after he’s shown signs of drowsiness, he’s likely to be overtired by then, which will make it more difficult for him to fall asleep.
As a parent, you need to nurture and support your child’s need to sleep. As much as possible, encourage him to sleep during those times of the day when he’s likely to benefit the most from it. However, adopting an optimal sleep schedule won’t happen overnight. It takes a while for a baby’s biological rhythms to develop, with your ultimate goal of getting his sleep patterns to match his internal mechanisms. Give it time, and it will develop naturally. Your challenge as a parent is to be sensitive to those moments when his body is telling him (and you) that he’s ready for sleep. Otherwise, you may be putting him down in his crib or bed way too early or way too late, and the ease with which he falls asleep – and the restorative capacity of that sleep – will be affected.
To see whether your child is getting enough sleep – particularly – quality sleep – observe him at the end of the day. Is he sweet, adaptable, friendly, cooperative, independent, and engaging? Or is he whiny, crabby, excitable, wired, and irritable? He may be running out of steam as the day draws to a close, all because of mild but chronic sleep deprivation. So if he’s consistently melting down, you may need to make some adjustments in the times in which you put him to sleep.
Some babies cry every night when they’re placed in their crib for sleep; others almost never do. For many parents, it can be gut-wrenching when a child cries in his crib for long periods of time. As your baby wails and pleads for your attention, your heart may be breaking, and it can be anguishing to keep your distance while you wait for him to fall asleep. Or you might feel frustration or anger at his apparent unwillingness or inability to quiet down and sleep. Even just a few minutes of tears can seem like an eternity.
Often concerned about why their baby is crying, parents may wonder whether the infant is simply letting off steam, is feeling lonely, or whether he’s really in distress. Many parents just give in, rushing to their infant’s crib side, unable to bear the sound of sobs.
Not surprisingly, some of the most common questions asked of a pediatrician are “Should I let my baby cry himself to sleep, or should I pick him up and comfort him?”, as well as the more fundamental question “How much sleep should he really be getting?” To a large degree, the answers to these questions depend on the age of the child. Here are your baby’s sleep patterns by age.
During this period, your baby will spend most of his time asleep. When you put him down to sleep, or when he awakens, try to avoid letting him cry. Instead, respond to those tears, and do whatever you can to soothe your baby, such as singing quietly, talking to him quietly, playing soft music, keeping the lights dim, and/or rocking him gently. Pick him up if necessary, putting him down again five to ten minutes later. By minimizing his discomfort in whatever way works, you’ll maximize his sleep time and its quality.
When is an infant of this age ready for sleep, whether he’s in tears? In general, after he has been awake for one to two hours he needs sleep. Sometimes he may need to fall asleep even before an hour goes by and rarely he may stay awake for three hours. No matter what the circumstances, he will begin to show signs of being overtired and irritable if he doesn’t get his nap when he needs it. So start soothing him to sleep. After he’s been awake for an hour or two, he may need to be soothed. Put him down in his crib when he’s drowsy but still awake ( this approach will be helpful for daytime napping.) If you wait too long, he’s likely to become cranky, and have even more difficulty falling asleep.
Your baby’s sleep-wake schedule will begin to settle into more of a routine at this time. He will begin to sleep longer at night, and exhibit signs off drowsiness (and perhaps some crying) earlier. For example, while he may have once been ready for sleep between 9 and 11 p.m., some children start to need sleep somewhat earlier, perhaps between 6 and 8 p.m. His longest sleep period will be in the evening, lasting for three to five hours.
Variations exist, of course, so be sensitive to your own baby’s needs and anticipate that he may require an earlier bedtime-no longer at 11p.m but rather at 8p.m. So to minimize crying, put your child to sleep earlier, spend some time soothing him if needed (although if he fusses a little, it won’t cause any harm), and let his own biological rhythm dictate whether it will turn into a thirty-minute nap or a four-hour snooze.
As you and your baby get in tune with his rhythms, he’ll gradually learn to soothe himself to sleep when you put him down. As that happens, there will be little or no crying. By about three months of age, most babies sleep six to eight hours through the night without disruption. If he awakens too early, you might be able to encourage him to go back to sleep by soothing him, and keeping the lights off and the shades drawn.
With a four-month-old, and continuing into the weeks and months ahead, keep working at being sensitive to your baby’s bodily rhythms, which will minimize episodes of crying. From four months through the rest of the first year of life, most infants need at least two naps-one at mid-morning and the other at midday; some children may nap a third time later in the afternoon. Try to get him on a schedule of napping at about 9 a.m. then at 1 p.m, and finally a late afternoon. Let him nap for as long as he wishes unless he has difficulty falling asleep at night; in that case, talk to your pediatrician about awakening him from his afternoon nap a littler earlier than he might wake up on his own. By about nine months of age, try to dispense with late afternoon naps so he’ll be ready for bedtime for the night at an earlier time than if those late afternoon naps continued.
At this age, a child’s nighttime sleep will be his longest sleep period of the day, and by about eight months old, it should last from ten to twelve hours without him awakening for a nighttime feeding. But if a child of this age seems overtired and he cries at the mere sight of his bed, his naps may be too short ( less than thirty minutes long,) or perhaps you’re putting him to bed too late at night. In the latter case, place him in bed much earlier, at least temporarily-perhaps at 5:30 or 6 p.m.-to respond to his excessive tiredness. If he cries, check on him and console him with a few comforting words. Change his diaper if needed, make sure he is comfortable, but keep the lights dim and don’t arouse him more fully by picking him up and walking with him. Then leave the room quietly. As the days and weeks pass, gradually give him less attention at night, which will help him stop anticipating that you’ll show up whenever he cries or calls out for you, and he’ll be more likely to learn self-soothing.
Its important to keep in mind that there are times when you may need to let your baby cry himself to sleep; it won’t cause any harm and there’s no need to worry about the possible messages behind those tears. Remember, you have all day to show your infant how much you love him and care for him. At night, he’ll get the message that nighttime is for sleeping, and on those nights when you let him cry, you’re helping him learn to soothe himself. He won’t be thinking that you’re abandoning him or that you don’t love him anymore, he knows by your daytime behaviors that this isn’t the case at all. In other words, there’s no need to worry.
At around ages ten to twelve months the baby’s morning nap will begin to taper off in the minority of children. At around twelve months of age, some babies may drop their morning nap. As that happens, you can start moving his nighttime bedtime somewhat earlier (perhaps by about twenty to thirty minutes only); the afternoon nap can be started a little sooner, too. The time when you put your baby down for nighttime sleep may vary for a while, depending on factors such as how tired your child seems, and the quality of his daytime napping.
The amount of time that your child spends napping will begin to change during this time of life. By age fifteen months about half (but certainly not yet all) children will be taking only one nap a day, typically in the afternoon. The morning nap may simply fade away on its own, although there could be some rough periods as this transition to a single daily nap takes place. Even so, for most children, the morning nap will gradually disappear. As that happens, if you put your child to bed earlier for the night, he’ll actually be less likely to miss those morning naps, and he’s more likely to wake up rested.
Nearly all children have transitioned to just a single afternoon nap, although this napping remains biologically important for them to function well during the rest of the day.
Most children continue needing a daytime nap so they’re not irritable and fussy by late afternoon. By about three years, the average child will sleep about two hours during the daytime. However, some will sleep more and others less (as little as an hour in some cases.) Try to make the timing of naps and night-time sleep regular, although the need for some flexibility is inevitable. Some children will go through periods where they resist napping, even though their body is telling them (and you) that they need a nap; in those instances, try out an earlier or later bedtime at night, and see if that helps your child rest better during the day.
The best rule of thumb is that your child’s naps should be long enough to be restorative. There is some evidence that longer naps tend to improve a child’s attention span and his ability to learn. Conversely, if he’s having very brief mini-naps that are just a few minutes in length, they simply won’t sustain him through the day. A child’s need for an afternoon nap about one to two hours in length will shorten after that. And research shows that 90% of three year olds are still napping.
Most children in this age range are ready for nighttime sleep between 7 and 9 p.m, or earlier if naps are brief or absent, and they’ll sleep through the night until about 6:30 to 8 a.m. Naps tend to become less common in some children by age three or four.
During this age, get in tune with your child’s need for sleep, and set a regular bedtime. With less napping time and greater physical activity, the sleep needs at night actually increase in some children. As a result, you may decide to extend your child’s sleep time by making his bedtime a little earlier.
So how do you prepare and soothe your child to sleep? Soothing techniques may vary based on the age of your child. Some gentle rubbing of his back can help at almost any age. For young infants, so can touching your own cheek to his in a rhythmic pattern that coincides with his own breathing. Patting him, kissing his forehead, or offering a pacifier, may be useful for young infants. White noise works well with newborns, such as a hairdryer, vacuum cleaner, air cleaner or a white noise machine.
Bedtime routines can start as early as four to six months of age, and they’ll help get your child ready for rest, uncommonly as he starts to associate them with sleep. Try reading him a story. Or give him a warm bath or massage, sing him a lullaby, or play soothing music. Cut down on your playtime with him right before bedtime, close the curtains, dim the lights, and unplug the phones.
More important than your choice of a specific routine or ritual, you need to continue to stay in rhythm with your child’s circadian clock. Remember, timing is the key to healthy sleep. So while its fine to sit quietly with your child for ten to twenty minutes and read him a story, what you choose to do is usually of less importance than the time you choose to do it.
With this is mind, many mothers and fathers try to change their own behaviors to encourage better sleep in their children. Yes, modern parents lead very busy lives. But whenever possible, they’ll arrange to be home when their baby needs to nap, rather than shopping or running errands. They’ll make sure that their infant naps in his own crib, rather than hoping that he’ll doze off in a baby carrier at a noisy restaurant while Mom or Dad is having lunch with friends. On vacations or holiday’s, they’ll try to minimize the disruptions that may keep a child awake long past the time he would have been napping or in bed for the night. In short, they become as protective as possible of their child’s sleep time, even if it limits and requires adjustment of their own activities. When it’s time to sleep, they’ll keep their child away from situations where there is a lot of stimulation, which can lead to crankiness and make sleep difficult. Family activities with the baby before bedtime should be low-key, so as not to overstimulate him.
If your baby is in child care during the first year of life, ask his caregivers to keep him on a regular napping schedule as much as possible. It should be the same schedule that you follow at home to minimize disruptions. Their willingness to adapt to your own preferences for napping may be an important factor when you’re choosing a facility.
Even with a cooperative child care staff, however the situation can become mixed up on the weekends. If your child has been in child care all week while you’ve been at your job, you’ll probably be eager to spend as much time as possible with him on Saturday and Sunday. You may give in to his crying or demands to play because of your own guilt about being away so much, and good quality naps may fall by the wayside. Then, after the weekend, the child care workers won’t need a calendar to tell that it’s Monday – they’ll know just by how irritable your child is from a change in his weekday sleep routines.
Nevertheless, some disruptions in sleep schedules are inevitable. Holidays, vacations, or a family gathering for Grandma’s birthday can keep your child from napping or getting to bed on time. Because the temperament of children varies, some are much more adaptable to changes like these than others; while one child will adjust to changing circumstances very easily, others may not.
As much as possible, respect your child’s nature, and try to maintain normal sleep routines. At the same time, if you know that a disruption of his sleep schedule is on the horizon he will fare better and adapt more successfully and have a cheerier disposition, if he is more rested ahead of time. So when you look ahead to a family party, for example, try to keep your child well rested in the preceding day or two so that this intrusion into his sleep schedule will unfold as smoothly as possible. The more rested your child is, the better his temperament and the more adaptable he will be to changes in his environment – and the better he will sleep.