Friday, February 8, 2013

Reader Questions: Sleep Review

Over the last few weeks, many readers have sent in questions about infant sleep, several focusing on how older babies sleep.  So, today we will review some information about normal sleep at different ages. Then we will share some tips for tired parents and links to past posts about infant sleep.

Sleep Duration
All babies are different, but there are some general patterns of infant sleep duration at each age. The following is an excerpt from a past post we wrote about infant sleep. (Click here for the full post)
  • Newborns (birth to 6 weeks) wake frequently and erratically. Parents of newborns must be realistic, prepared, and ready to ask for help!
  • By 2 months, most babies are sleeping longer stretches, but waking 2-3 times during the night.
  • By 4 months, many babies start to sleep more like their parents, falling asleep into a deeper sleep and sleeping for 4-5 hours at once. Unfortunately, teething and changing routines can increase waking intermittently around this time.
  • By 6 months, some babies sleep for 6 hours while others are still waking more frequently, though not every night. There are so many changes typically occurring at 6 months, new skills, new activities, new travels, new teeth...older babies sleep well for a few nights, then wake again. It is no wonder that "sleep training" is so popular among parents of babies around this age. 
  • About 80% of babies sleep through most nights by 1 year of age.

Remember that sleeping through the night by research definition is about 6 hours of continuous sleep!

Why Babies Wake Up During the Night
Young babies wake up for 3 important reasons:
  • To eat frequently
  • They dream a lot (which helps their brains grow and develop) and wake easier when dreaming
  • Waking often helps them stay comfortable and safe

These reasons are described in more detail in one of our very first posts! Click here to read more about why it is important for young babies to wake up.

Older babies who are healthy and growing well may still waking at night. If your older baby wakes frequently at night, check the following:
  • Lights from TVs or video games flickering on the wall (steady nightlights are usually ok)
  • Caffeine in the breastfeeding mother's diet
  • Changes in daily routine or no consistent routine
  • Baby is overstimulated or overtired
  • Too much sleep during the day
  • The need to practice new motor skills
  • Noise, but only if it is sudden and quite loud (babies quickly get used to familiar noises)

For more information about the developmental reasons older babies wake, read our previous posts  Baby Behavior Mysteries: A 9 month old resists his crib and  provides Tips for dealing with a waking 9 month old.

Tips to Deal with an Older Waking Baby
The following is another excerpt from a past post (Click here for the full post) that offered alternatives to try in place of sleep training. Using these tips can help everyone get a little more sleep.
  • Establish routines!  Repeated activities and experiences are calming to babies and help them establish body rhythms that are closer to those of their parents. Bedtime routines allow babies time to shift naturally from a drowsy state into sleep. Babies will differ in how much time they need to become ready for sleep; many take at least 20 minutes. Believe it or not, you'll miss the bedtime routines when your children outgrow them.
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine for breastfeeding mothers (don't worry, you'll get to have that morning mocha again). Babies' bodies take a lot longer to get rid of caffeine than we do. Remember there is caffeine in tea, sodas, energy drinks, and other products. Read labels.
  • Make sure that baby isn't overstimulated close to bed time (this is easy to do if parents typically get home late from work). Watch for indications that your baby is drowsy and start your bedtime routine right away. If you wait too long, you might end with a screaming, overtired baby who will be less likely to sleep than a baby put to bed earlier.
  • Make sure that baby spends plenty of time awake during the day. Give babies plenty of chance to be active, moving, and practicing their new skills during the day.
  • Include a special bedtime toy in your bedtime ritual, something that is safe to leave with baby as he drifts into sleep.
  • Don't end your routine with baby being completely asleep. When babies are put down when they are very drowsy but before they are asleep, they may be better at putting themselves back to sleep if they wake in the night. This doesn't work with babies who hate feeling drowsy and resist sleeping at all costs! I had one of those! The trick is that the baby must be very drowsy or very accustomed to this as an end to the night time routine.
  • Recognize that most babies make noise when drifting to sleep or they are dreaming, don't assume that intermittent noises mean your baby needs you immediately. Give your older baby a few moments to fall asleep or get back to sleep on his own.
Additional posts about infant sleep:

We hope this review of infant sleep was helpful in answering some of your sleep questions. If not, let us know and we will do our best to provide the most up-to-date, evidence-based information!


  1. I have one of these too: This doesn't work with babies who hate feeling drowsy and resist sleeping at all costs! I had one of those! can I help him fall back asleep without nursing him? :)

  2. Netty - it can be so hard when babies fight falling asleep. Having a bedtime routine that is followed every night will help, and it doesn't have to include feeding. Often times respective, soothing motion (like rocking) or sound (like humming or singing) can help too. Other than that, the key is really patience. Over time it gets better!