Baby Sleep Guide, Part 1: Setting Expectations and Good Sleep Habits from Day One
This is Part One of a two-part series on baby sleep. For Part Two: Sleep Training 101, click here
I’m going to be honest: this is an article that I’ve been dreading writing.
Why? As a pediatrician, I should be thrilled by the chance to help parents and their children sleep better. But I also know that sleep poses an almost universal problem, a struggle for millions of babies and parents, very few of whom find satisfying answers in the dozens of baby sleep books that are out there.
So, you know, no pressure or anything!
One problem is that good sleep can often seem like something that’s totally out of your hands. One of my mentors, a wise pediatrician named Dr. David Nelson, once told me “so much of sleep has to do with the temperament of the baby.” Feisty kids tend to be feisty sleepers, mellow kids are mellow sleepers, and most babies are somewhere in between.
But does that mean that it’s just the luck of the draw—that if you’re up all night long with a rough sleeper, there’s nothing you can do but simply accept your fate?
Luckily, there is plenty that you can do as a parent to either prep your baby early on for good sleep habits, or to help guide your baby to a comfortable place if sleeping has already become an issue.
I think we all step into this parenting thing knowing that newborns are up a lot at night. But beyond that, what exactly should a parent expect over the first few months of babyhood?
Newborns typically wake up to eat every two to three hours, sometimes even every hour in the evening (a process called “cluster feeding”). They’ll often fall asleep after they eat in these first few weeks.
Babies can also have day and night reversed for the whole first month. If you think about it, when the baby was in the womb, she spent nine months being rocked to sleep whenever her mom moved around in the daytime—that’s why many pregnant women feel their babies kicking when they sit down to read or watch TV at night. It takes a few weeks for your baby to break that habit. To help speed things along, keep quiet and have the lights dim or off during night feedings. In the daytime, live a normal, bright, noisy life instead of tiptoeing around while the baby naps. Taking these simple steps can help ensure that your baby will have days and nights figured out by somewhere around a month or shortly thereafter.
Around two months, most babies are sleeping for two- to four-hour stretches at night and taking catnaps of varying times during the day. But this is where some babies start to stand out from the crowd and begin sleeping for six- or even eight-hour stretches. I call these guys “magic babies.” They are definitely not the average two-month-old, yet it seems like we all have a sibling or friend whose kid started sleeping like a champ at two months. That’s why this is about the time that some parents start to worry that they’re doing something wrong and might reach out to a sleep book for the first time. (Pro tip: if you have a “magic baby,” don’t tell anyone unless you want to make frenemies fast!)
Somewhere between four and six months, those catnaps start to coalesce into more fixed, scheduled naps. In babies under this age, you might see that their naps fit a pattern—that your baby is awake for a certain amount of time (say, an hour or an hour and a half) pretty routinely before he’s ready for a nap. The time of day might vary, but the time between the naps is roughly the same. Starting around four to six months, however, you’ll see that your baby’s naps fit more of a schedule—that you can look at a clock and say, “Oh, it’s 10:00, it’s time for a nap.” You’ll begin to see that your baby’s naps start to follow the time of day, and you might end up with one long nap, one short nap, and one somewhere in between.
This is also around the time that even those babies who aren’t “magic babies” might start to sleep through the night. But what does “through the night” really mean? You may want to sit down for this… Technically, through the night at 4-6 months is actually just 4-6 hours. Yup, I know. What’s worse is that the longest stretch is usually the first stretch of sleep, after which most babies are up every 2-3 hours. This means that most parents don’t really get to enjoy a long stretch—if you put the baby down and then you stay up for a couple of hours, even if your baby is sleeping 4-6 hours “through the night,” you are essentially up every two or three hours each night.
Yet even this less-satisfying definition of “through the night” can be disrupted around four months because of the dreaded “4-month sleep regression.” The occasional longish stretch of sleep that you may have gotten at three months is now out the window. In its place is a baby who’s harder to put down to sleep and is waking up at random times. Another sleep regression occurs around nine months. At both ages, your baby is going through a lot of impressive developmental milestones (smiling, giggling at four months; crawling and more at nine), his brain is maturing, and sleep patterns change.
It’s during the 4-month sleep regression that most parents start to think about sleep training their baby.
But is there anything you can do before then to help set up good habits from the start?