Baby Sleep Guide – What to Know to Get Your Baby to Bed
“Are you getting any sleep?”
It’s the first question most new parents hear—and most of us answer with our own versions of, “Not really.”
That’s because baby sleep is like the holy grail of early parenthood. Not only is it necessary for our babies’ growth and development (not to mention moods) it’s important for parents’ wellbeing. With the constant need to feed of early infancy to sleep regressions every few months, it’s no wonder many parents spend sleepless nights looking for answers.
In this guide we’ll run through the basics of baby sleep requirements, provide tips for getting your baby to sleep safely, outline how to establish a sleep schedule and routine and give an overview of sleep training. Whether you’re a soon-to-be parent, a seasoned veteran looking for new ideas or you’re reading this in the middle of the night with a fussy baby, don’t worry. You’ll get through this, and we’ve got your back.
How Much Sleep does My Baby Need?
Babies grow and develop rapidly during their first two years, so they need a lot of sleep. In fact, by age two, children have spent about 40 percent of their time asleep. It can be difficult, though, to gauge exactly how much sleep your baby needs at different ages. While every baby is different and there is a range for what’s considered “normal,” the table below provides some guidance on hours of sleep by age:
Total Hours of Sleep
Hours of Night Sleep
Hours of Day Sleep
Number of Naps
Naps throughout day
Your baby’s sleep patterns will change a great deal over his or her first two years. For newborns, sleep is dictated by how often they need to eat, which is typically every two to three hours. As they gain weight and grow, babies are able to go for longer stretches between feedings at night, though they may still wake up for comfort. Newborn sleep is unpredictable, but will become more organized as the months go on.
The important thing is to provide a safe, comfortable sleep environment for your baby whenever he or she needs to sleep. Starting healthy sleep habits at the beginning will serve your child well in the long run.
When will My Baby Sleep through the Night?
After the first few sleepless nights with a new baby, many parents start to ask when their little one will sleep through the night. First, it’s worth defining what sleeping through the night actually means. While many experts define it as sleeping longer than five hours at a time, most sleep-deprived parents would say it’s eight or more. It’s also important to remember that babies born prematurely or with any health issues will have different needs, so it’s a good idea to consult your pediatrician.
The age at which babies begin to sleep through the night varies. Young babies need to wake every few hours to feed. As they grow and their stomachs can hold more, they can sleep for longer stretches. Many babies are technically able to sleep for six to eight hours around two months old, but most don’t drop night feedings until later. By six months, about two-thirds of babies sleep through the night.
One key to sleeping through the night is the ability to self soothe. We all wake up during the night but are able to fall back to sleep. This ability to fall asleep on one’s own is not innate—it’s learned. Once your baby develops a normal circadian rhythm around three months, he or she can start to learn to self soothe to fall asleep. Try putting your baby to bed drowsy (i.e. yawning, fluttering eyelids) instead of fully asleep. Giving your baby a pacifier will also help. You might have some protest at first, but once your baby can self soothe, you are both one step closer to a good night’s sleep.
How to Help Your Baby Fall Asleep
The phrase “sleep like a baby” implies that babies fall asleep soundly at the drop of a hat. Any parent who has spent an hour rocking a newborn will tell you that the reality is a little different. Still, there are many steps parents can take to help their baby fall asleep more easily.
In this section, we’ll explore what it takes to ensure your baby is well rested. It starts with creating a safe, calm sleep environment. As your baby gets older, creating a somewhat predictable schedule will help your little one get the sleep he or she needs. Other steps, like establishing a bedtime routine, can signal to your baby that it’s time for bed and help eliminate a lot of protesting.
Create a Safe Sleep Environment
The ideal sleep environment for a baby is safe and makes him or her feel secure. In addition to safety precautions we’ll discuss below, a calm sleep environment will help your baby feel ready to settle in for bed or naptime. Here’s how to set that sleepy mood:
Dim the lights: Our circadian rhythms are regulated by light and dark, meaning we feel sleepy when it’s dark. Turn the lights down as you get your baby ready for bed. Consider a few minutes of rocking by the light of a nightlight. You can even use curtains to create a similar feel at naptime, but you might want to hold off on blackout curtains unless you want your baby to be unable to sleep in anything but pitch black.
Quiet down: As much as possible, ensure that there are no loud noises that could startle your baby as he or she is falling asleep. You might consider shutting the windows to muffle the sound of cars or the neighbor’s barking dog. A white noise machine is a must for many parents. Not only does it mimic the comforting sounds your baby heard in utero, it can help mask external sounds, so you don’t have to tiptoe around the house quite so much.
Try a swaddle and pacifier: For young babies who aren’t able to roll, a swaddle blanket can provide a feeling of security and also muffle the startle reflex. A pacifier is another great tool as it allows babies the comfort of sucking and enables them to self soothe.
Reduce the Risk of SIDS
SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is the sudden, unexplained death of an infant who is younger than one year old, and it’s most often associated with times when babies are asleep. It can be scary to think about, but it’s helpful to arm yourself with information on risk factors and how to lower your baby’s risk.
Risk factors include:
Low birth weight: The brains of babies born prematurely or as multiples may not be developed well enough to control breathing and heart rate.
Brain defects: Babies who are born without the ability to adequately regulate breathing are at a higher risk for SIDS.
Parents who smoke: Living in an environment where they are routinely exposed to smoke will increase a baby’s risk for SIDS.
While the exact cause of SIDS remains unknown, there are steps parents can take to reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related deaths, like suffocation and entrapment:
Back to sleep: Babies who are placed on their backs to sleep have a lower risk of SIDS. Babies placed on their stomachs are also at higher risk of having their airways blocked while sleeping.
Room sharing: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies sleep in their own crib or bassinet in their parents’ room for at least six months, if not a full year.
Bare sleep surface: Babies under one shouldn’t have anything in their cribs other than a mattress and fitted sheet. That includes no crib bumpers, loose blankets, stuffed animals or pillows.
Wearable blankets: Instead of loose blankets, dress your baby in breathable sleepwear plus a wearable blanket.
No bed-sharing: The AAP recommends that babies don’t share a bed with their parents or fall asleep on a couch, futon or chair. Bedside bassinets and co-sleepers that fit next to the bed can help keep your baby close while remaining safe. If you do choose to bed-share, take precautions like removing blankets that could cover your baby’s head, and never bed-share if you have been drinking or under the influence of any medications that can cause you to sleep deeply and not rouse easily.
Many new parents hear “sleep schedule” and have visions of putting their infants on a militant sleep program. A sleep schedule is less about rigid timetables and more about learning when your baby is naturally tired and arranging for him or her to sleep. It has the added benefit of allowing parents to plan their days and not be tied to the house wondering when their baby will want to nap.
There are a few tips to keep in mind when moving your baby toward a more predictable schedule:
Age matters: Don’t expect any predictability when your baby is a newborn. Young babies are driven by the need to feed and don’t yet have circadian rhythms. Around two months, but often closer to four, your baby will start to consolidate more sleep at night and have distinct naps during the day. Pay attention to when your baby is naturally tired and arrange for naps around those times.
Intervals vs. set time: We often refer to nap time, but it can be simpler to plan around intervals of awake time. For example, most babies between three and six months are ready for their morning nap about two hours after they wake up in the morning. It’s helpful to know your baby’s preferred awake intervals so you can put them down for a nap when they’re ready depending on when they last woke up.
Sleep begets sleep: Some babies seem like they could play all day, and parents might let them, thinking they’ll sleep better at night. It’s counterintuitive, but an overtired baby actually sleeps poorly. Allowing your child to nap during the day when needed will help ensure he or she goes to sleep more easily at night.
Every baby’s sleep schedule is a little different, but below are some examples for different ages:
Four Months Old
Eight Months Old
Fifteen Months Old
Late afternoon nap
Establish a Nighttime Routine
Babies thrive on routine because it helps them feel secure by being able to predict what’s next. A bedtime routine can also help your baby wind down for the night and go to sleep with less protest.
While you can establish a bedtime routine at any time, it usually makes the most sense to do so when you’re past the newborn days and your baby has a more predictable schedule and bedtime. Benefits of establishing a bedtime routine include:
Bonding time: The time parents spend getting their baby ready for bed can be special for everyone involved. Especially for working parents, it can be a time to slow down, talk and cuddle with their baby.
Winding down: Most of us can’t go directly from a busy, active day right to bed and expect to fall asleep immediately. Babies are the same. While a little quiet play before bedtime is great, don’t expect to go straight from a tickle fight one minute to a sleeping baby the next. Incorporate calming activities, like a bath, stories and nursing or a bottle, to help your baby settle down.
Feeling loved: Bedtime routines should involve lots of cuddles and affection to let your baby know he or she is loved and safe. Especially as babies grow and develop separation anxiety, taking the time to be together before bed will help ease your child’s mind when you finally say, “Goodnight.”
Security: When babies know what to expect, they feel secure. After a while, your child will learn that bath, then book, then bottle, for example, will lead to bed. While some variation is fine and life does happen, providing predictability will help make bedtime peaceful.
Everyone’s bedtime routine will be different, but might look something like this:
6:30 p.m.: Bathtime
6:45 p.m.: Pajamas
7 p.m.: Nurse or bottle
7:15 p.m.: Read books
7:25 p.m.: Sing a lullaby and rock
7:30 p.m.: Place drowsy baby in crib and kiss goodnight
You may decide to have some variability, like bath time every other night, but sticking with the same general elements and order will be better for your baby and for you.
Sleep training is essentially helping your baby learn to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. There are a variety of techniques with a great deal of advocates behind each. Sleep training can be a divisive topic, as parents and medical professionals have strong opinions about using certain techniques (or using no techniques) over others.
Tuck in no way wants to tell you how to care for your baby, but we want you to have all the information possible to make the best decision for you and your family. We’ll review sleep training basics as well as different methods.
When to Start Sleep Training
Parents decide to sleep train at different ages depending on their baby. It’s important to remember that most babies aren’t ready for sleep training until about four to six months. That’s because this is the time that babies develop circadian rhythms, or normal sleep-wake cycle. It’s also at this time that many babies can go for long stretches at night without needing to feed.
Four to six months is thought of as the sleep training sweet spot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sleep train later. Sleep training can be just as effective for an older baby, but it might be more difficult. For example, older babies who can move around in their cribs might have a harder time learning to settle down on their own. It can also be more difficult if your baby is in the midst of a separation anxiety phase.
If you decide sleep training isn’t for you, that’s completely fine, and doesn’t mean your baby won’t be a good sleeper long term. If you’d like to give it a try, here are two key signs that indicate sleep training might help you and your baby:
Sleep “crutches:” Your baby relies on you to fall asleep. You have to rock, nurse or otherwise hold your baby until he or she is asleep.
Frequent awakenings: Your baby still wakes often during the night and not just to feed. He or she can’t go back to sleep unless you intervene.
Sleep training can be difficult, but it’s often harder for parents than it is for babies! If you decide to try sleep training, stick with it. The ability to fall asleep on one’s own is a skill that will serve your baby well and ensure he or she gets the sleep needed in those early years.
How long does it take to sleep train a baby?
Especially when they’re in the thick of sleep training, parents wonder how long it will take to work. The exact length of time varies depending on your baby and on the method you choose. Most methods take about a week, but some babies take to sleep training as quickly as a couple of nights and some take a couple of weeks. “No tears” methods may take longer. The important thing is to be consistent, and if you decide to try a specific method, follow through with it for at least a week. It will take some repetition of this new routine for your baby to learn.
There are a few steps you can take before you sleep train to help you be successful. Make sure to establish a specific bedtime and routine so your baby knows what to expect every night. Ensure your baby has a nap and feeding schedule during the day, so he or she is not overtired when you try to put him or her down for the night. Finally, don’t try sleep training if your baby is sick, you’re traveling or routines are otherwise thrown off at the moment.
Sleep Training Methods
There are a variety of sleep training methods, and there are parents who swear by each of them. If you choose one to try, remember to stick with it for at least a week.
No Tears Method
There are a few different methods that don’t involve letting your baby cry, and they follow the same general steps. Begin with creating a calm, safe environment for your baby before bed, and stick with an early bedtime. Allow your child to nurse or bottle feed like usual, but remove it when your baby is drowsy. If your baby cries, let him or her feed longer and then remove again. Keep this up until your baby falls asleep without feeding and then place your baby in his or her crib. The No Tears Method can take longer than other methods (up to two months), but it works well for many families.
Cry It Out (CIO) Method
When many people think of sleep training, they think of Cry It Out (CIO). This method involves placing your child in his or her crib awake and allowing your baby to learn to fall asleep on his or her own. The method gets its name from the tears that are inevitable as your baby learns to self soothe. Experts affirm that allowing your child to cry in this way isn’t harmful, and CIO still involves a comforting bedtime routine. There are two main CIO methods that differ in terms of what to do after you leave the room:
Weissbluth Method: The Weissbluth Method was developed by Dr. Marc Weissbluth. In this method, once you ensure your baby is comfortable in his or her crib and feels loved, you don’t come back into the room during the night. There are obvious exceptions if there’s an emergency or your baby sounds unusually upset (you know your baby best, after all). The theory is that babies best learn to self soothe when they are left alone to do so. Most babies cry less and less each night for a few nights until they’re able to go right to sleep on their own.
Ferber Method: The Ferber Method differs from the Weissbluth Method in that it involves periodically going into your baby’s room to console. It was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, and outlines a schedule for how long to wait each night before checking on your baby. The Ferber Method encourages parents to not pick up their baby but instead to provide a few back rubs and consoling words and then leave again. If your baby seems more comforted by frequent checks, the Ferber Method might be right for you. If your baby gets more upset each time you leave, you might consider the Weissbluth Method instead.
This method involves sitting in a chair next to your baby’s crib as he or she falls asleep. The parent generally doesn’t console the baby, but simply sits there to reassure the baby that he or she is nearby. Every night or two, move the chair a little farther from the crib until you are right outside the door. Eventually, you won’t need to be in the room at all.
Pick Up Put Down Method
In this method, you complete your bedtime routine and then place your baby in his or her crib drowsy but awake. If your baby doesn’t cry, leave the room. Once your baby does start to cry, wait a minute before going into the room, in case crying stops quickly. If you do go in, pick your baby up until he or she stops crying, then put your baby back down. Repeat this process until your baby goes to sleep. It can be a long process, but allows your baby to fall asleep independently while minimizing crying.
Wake and Sleep Technique
The Wake and Sleep Technique was developed by Dr. Harvey Karp. It involves teaching your baby to fall asleep independently while still providing the comfort of rocking and nursing, and advocates say you can try it as early as you want. Nurse, bottle feed or rock your baby to sleep as usual, but rouse your baby slightly after you place him or her in bed. It sounds counterintuitive, but your baby will be so drowsy, he or she will go back to sleep on his or her own while learning a valuable skill.
Getting your baby the sleep he or she needs can seem all-consuming, but the tips shared in this guide should help you feel better equipped. Remember that the sleep needs of babies change as they get older. While most babies can sleep through the night around three to six months, it can take longer to hit this coveted milestone. Creating a safe, comfortable sleep environment is vital, and developing a sleep schedule and routine can help you and your baby know what to expect. Sleep training can be a helpful tool for many parents who want their babies to learn to fall asleep independently.
One of the most important points to remember is that every baby is different and has different needs. You know your baby best, so trust your gut, and get some sleep when you can.