Is your baby sleeping too much? Not enough?
Starting at a young age, sleep habits play an essential role in physical, mental, and emotional development. While it's only natural to worry about your child's sleep schedule, healthy sleep basics are usually straightforward. Here's a complete look at how many hours of sleep babies need, how to improve the quality of their sleep, and everything else you need to know.
Baby Sleep Needs: An Overview
First, new parents should always remember this: Sleep guidelines present an average range. So if your baby falls outside of the "norm" slightly, it's usually not a cause for alarm.
All babies are different, so try not to compare your child's sleep habits to those of others. Instead, consult with your pediatrician if you have specific sleep-related questions.
The National Sleep Foundation created the following daily sleep guidelines:
- 0 to 3 months – 14 to 17 hours
- 4 to 11 months – 12 to 15 hours
- 1 to 2 years old – 11 to 14 hours
- 3 to 5 years – 11 to 13 hours
- 6 to 13 years old – 9 to 11 hours
The recommended hours refer to all sleep within 24 hours, including both naps and nighttime sleeping. Of course, an individual's needs will change daily, but generally, children need less sleep as they grow older.
Early Sleep Stages
Sleep needs constantly change during the first year. Babies aren't born with a circadian rhythm, the natural processes that help regulate sleep. While the circadian rhythm develops, sleep patterns will be erratic.
Newborns (0 to 3 Months)
Newborns sleep a lot, but they also have the most inconsistent sleep schedule of any age. They'll typically spend most of their night sleeping but will rarely sleep through it without interruption.
As mentioned above, the National Sleep Foundation recommends newborns get between 14 and 17 hours of sleep a day. But this is, by far, the most flexible recommendation. Unfortunately, both the American Association of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics don't list sleep recommendations for children under four months.
Newborns usually won't sleep for long stretches of time. Instead, they'll wake up every two to four hours for feeding, changing, or a desire to cuddle.
Try to develop a rough feeding and nap schedule, but don't feel too discouraged if your baby struggles with consistency. The first three months often pose the biggest sleep challenges.
Infants (4 to 11 months)
Your baby's sleep patterns will undergo two periods of change during infancy.
4 to 6 months
From ages four to six months, babies will sleep about 12 to 16 hours a day. Sleep is generally more consolidated and predictable.
Babies will begin sleeping through the night more regularly. "Sleeping through the night" refers to a stretch of five hours or more of uninterrupted sleep.
Additionally, naps usually become more consistent. By the time babies reach five months, they'll nap about three times a day, usually roughly around the same time.
7 to 11 months
Sleep needs remain the same, between 12 to 16 hours a day. However, you'll likely see longer periods of uninterrupted sleep at night, with stretches lasting as long as 12 hours.
Also, naps will typically drop down to two a day, one in the mid-morning and another in the afternoon. The total time spent napping each day averages between two and three hours.
Why Do Infants Need So Much Sleep?
During their first year of life, most babies will sleep for at least half the day. For most of us, that's the most amount of sleep we'll need in our entire lives. What do little bodies need with all that rest?
- Brain Development – Sleep allows the brain to build networks responsible for learning.
- Physical Development – Sleep helps facilitate growth and motor skills.
- Emotional Development - Sleep helps with behavior-related brain functions.
While sleep plays a lifelong role in proper development, many of the core brain functions are strongly established during the first 12 months.
The Sleep Needs of Premature Babies
Babies born prematurely often face a variety of health challenges, including different sleep needs. Preemies need more sleep for a longer period of months than other babies. They can even spend up to 90% of the day asleep.
However, even though they need more sleep, they're typically also very light sleepers. Their sleep schedule is usually far less consistent, too.
After about 12 months, most preemie sleeping patterns will adjust, and start to resemble the schedule of a full-term infant.
How Feeding Methods Affects Sleep
Some (usually slight) differences in sleeping occur depending on whether a baby is bottle or breastfed.
Digesting formula takes longer than digesting breast milk, which means bottle-fed infants can end up sleeping for longer periods and waking up less often during the night compared to breastfed babies.
Keep in mind these differences typically only apply during the first nine months. Also, regardless of which method is used, babies still need the same amount of sleep each day.
Sleeping Too Much and Sleeping Too Little
While some deviation from the average recommended amount of sleep is fine, you want to watch for anything excessive.
Infants can sleep too much. Too much sleep creates issues with feeding. If an infant oversleeps, they miss opportunities for much-needed nutrition.
Babies need to feed between eight and 12 times each day, which works out to about once every three to four hours. If your baby regularly sleeps around 17 hours a day (the upper range of the recommended level), they could end up not eating enough.
During the first three to four weeks, you'll need to wake your baby up during the day for feedings. Experts typically recommend feeding your baby every three to four hours. If your infant is unable to stay awake to eat at least eight times a day, you'll want to reach out to your pediatrician.
A lack of sleep is another potential problem. While a short night of sleep every once in a while is no big deal, chronic undersleeping can lead to developmental issues.
Watch for signs of overtiredness, including:
- During the day, they only sleep for short periods (catnaps instead of naps)
- They're excessively cranky, fussy, and unable to handle frustration
- They fall asleep at odd times, such as when eating
Of course, all infants will exhibit these behaviors occasionally. You're looking for significant, repeated instances. One easy way to spot issues is by keeping a sleep journal, where you record your baby's daily sleep activity each day.
Tips for Healthy Sleep Habits
A newborn's sleep schedule during the first few months will almost certainly be chaotic. However, the earlier you start implementing good sleep hygiene practices, the more control you'll have over when and how well they sleep.
Identify Why They're Waking Up
Babies commonly wake up for two reasons:
- They're hungry
- They need changing
If you find that your baby often wakes up, but isn't hungry and doesn't need changing, take note. They might be experiencing a growth spurt, illness, or another issue. You'll want to check with your pediatrician if your baby repeatedly wakes up for unknown reasons.
Put Your Baby to Bed When They're Drowsy
The ideal time to put your baby into their crib is when they're sleepy but not asleep. Letting them fall asleep in their crib helps them associate the space with sleeping.
After you put them down, give them time to settle. Babies might cry, fuss, or move around. Many times, you can leave them alone for a short while, and they'll fall asleep on their own.
Focus on the Difference Between Night and Day
When your baby naps during the day, keep lights and house sounds at normal levels. You can put them in their crib and close the door to their room, but don't dim the lights or make extraordinary efforts to stay quiet.
At night, take the opposite approach. Keep lights in their room off entirely or use a nightlight. Also, try to stay as quiet as possible around the sleeping baby. Treating each time portion differently helps babies associate night with longer periods of sleep.
Always Practice Sleep Safety
Above all, always maintain a safe sleeping environment for your baby. Newborns should sleep on their back until they can roll over both ways on their own, which usually happens around six months of age.
Additionally, babies should only sleep on a firm mattress. Keep the crib free from loose bedding, stuffed animals, and pillows. They're all potential choking hazards.
It’s also recommended that you invest in a video baby monitor so that you’re able to have the reassurance that your little one is sleeping soundly.
In the early days and weeks of a baby's life, new parents will likely feel as if they aren't getting any sleep at all! Fortunately, that feeling is perfectly natural.
Understanding the average amount of sleep required at each age and how to spot potential sleep-related issues will help you establish healthy sleep habits for your little one. By consistently promoting proper sleep hygiene, your baby will stay happy, healthy, and comfortable – and you'll get a great night's rest, too!