Continuing in our sleep training series, today we are talking all about baby sleep! We’ll be covering what your child’s sleep needs are from newborn to 4 years old, including how to troubleshoot sleep, best practices, and pitfalls to avoid that you may regret later.
This post comes to you from Lindsey McGonegal from Sleep Little Lamb! Lindsey is a certified baby and toddler sleep consultant and helped us sleep train our own daughter with fantastic results. Take it away Lindsey!
One thing that every parent quickly learns is how frequently things change for your baby. They are developing rapidly and growing so fast. You can’t believe how quickly they grew out of size 1 diapers, or their favorite outfit! It’s no different with a baby’s sleep – things are constantly changing. What worked last week might no longer work this week, and you’re left scratching your head and wondering what to do now.
The good news is, although every baby is different, they tend to follow general timelines for things like sleep milestones, regressions, and physical development. The following is a brief guide to help you know what to expect at each age as far as sleep, and how to conquer the most common sleep challenges
Sleep for Newborns
Your main goal: Safety and soothing
Daily sleep requirements: 16-20 hours
Number of naps per day: 3-5
In the first few weeks of life, your newborn will likely be eating very frequently and sleeping in mostly small chunks of sleep – maybe 2-4 hours maximum. This is all normal as their stomachs are small and they’re trying to pack on the ounces by taking small meals very frequently. This is also to establish your milk supply if nursing. At the beginning of your little one’s life, your main goal should not be to establish a strict schedule or encourage long stretches of overnight sleep. Instead, it is to focus on following safe sleep practices and soothing your fussy baby. Unfortunately, soothing a baby while following safe sleep practices can be very difficult. Many newborns want to be held all night long, but it is of the utmost importance to place your baby to sleep on their backs, on a firm, flat surface, without pillows, heavy blankets, or stuffed toys. Avoid “sleepers” that have cushioned, raised sides. Here’s an article covering more details.
Now that you’ve established a safe sleep environment, you’ll want to learn how to best soothe your tiny one. Most newborns have a period during each day where they are especially fussy – the average newborn cries 1-3 hours per day, for no apparent reason! Most of it is just that they are in a brand new environment that is very overstimulating compared to the womb and that their little digestive and nervous systems are immature. While you’re making sure their weight gain is on track and ruling out any medical issues, following the “5 Ss” is super helpful: Swaddling, Shushing, Swaying, Side-lying, and Sucking (ideally on a pacifier.) Finding the perfect combination of these 5 techniques will help even the fussiest baby.
Make sure you get Little Lamb’s free newborn resource for more help!
Baby Sleep: 4 to 6-Months Old
Your main goal: Establishing a solid eating and sleeping routine
Daily sleep requirements: 14-16 hours
Number of naps per day: 3
Now that your baby has matured out of the newborn stage, they should (hopefully) be doing longer stretches of sleep at night and falling into some sort of routine for naps. You may be observing that they’re able to stay awake for longer periods of time and space out nursing or bottles a bit more. If not, this is something to work towards! Spacing out feeds to around 3-4 hours apart will help them tank up during the day so that they can sleep longer at night.
This is also the stage where you can get on a more predictable nap schedule. Your baby will likely hit the 4-month regression around 13-18 weeks. He may have been napping well and doing a decent stretch overnight, only to now be taking 40-minute naps and waking every 2 hours overnight! This is normal (and you can read more about it here) but the good news is, it means your baby’s sleep has now matured into more adult-like patterns. Their bodies are now aligned more closely with the circadian rhythm, so they’ll naturally want an earlier bedtime and to wake up around 6-7 am and they typically need 3 naps per day – morning, afternoon. They’re also more capable now of learning to self-soothe, so if sleep training is something that’s right for your family, you can now be confident that your baby can learn this helpful skill.
Sleep for Babies 7-14 Months Old
Your main goal: Continuing healthy sleep habits amidst developmental challenges
Daily sleep requirements: 13-15 hours
Number of naps per day: 2
Now that you’ve established healthy, safe sleep habits and a consistent schedule – and hopefully some independent sleep skills – your main goal is to maintain this. Easier said than done! Teething, nap transitions, separation anxiety, illness, and physical development like rolling, crawling, standing and walking, can all wreak havoc on your little one’s sleep. If you haven’t chosen to sleep train yet but are hitting your breaking point, it’s not too late. (At Little Lamb, we work directly with amazing but exhausted families to customize and implement a holistic sleep plan that gets everyone well-rested and feeling great!) If you’ve already established a healthy sleep routine but are now facing some of these challenges, do your best to balance meeting your child’s needs while not creating unsustainable new habits. So, if your child is sick and needs comfort all night – of course, give all the comfort and medicine and hugs needed! But once baby is better, resume your normal sleep routines. If your baby gets stuck in a weird position from rolling, give them a little time to work it out before running to the rescue. Then give them lots of practice at the new skill during the day so they can figure it out at night.
Transitioning Your Baby from 3 Naps to 2
The other big transition to be aware of during this phase is the 3-2 nap transition. This usually happens around 7-8 months old. You’ll want a shorter morning nap, a longer afternoon nap, and to drop the third, late cat nap. You may need to compensate with an earlier bedtime for a while. For many parents, this is a nice transition because you don’t feel like you’re just constantly putting your baby to bed! The 3-2 nap transition is covered in-depth in Little Lamb’s Baby Sleep Survival Guide.
(Make sure you download Little Lamb’s free baby resource Nap Cheat Sheet for the First Year, which tells you how many naps and daytime/nighttime feeds babies need at each age.)
Sleep for Toddlers 15 to 24 Months
Your main goal: Sticking with clear boundaries around sleep
Daily sleep requirements: 12-14 hours
Number of naps per day: 1
The young toddler years can be a great time for sleep if you’ve put in the work early on. Many tots will be on a solid 1-nap schedule now and sleeping through the night 11-12 hours consistently. (The 2-1 nap transition should happen around 15-18 months – get my free nap transition guide here.) While you may hit a rough patch again with teething, illness, or separation anxiety, for the most part, you should all be sleeping great. (But if not, it’s still not too late!)
Where many sleep challenges now happen is in boundary testing. As any parent of a toddler knows, they are starting to find their voice and may have already learned their favorite new word, “No!” This will often be practiced at nap and bedtime. If you’re convinced it is only boundary testing and not some real anxiety around separation, do your best to stick with your plan, but you may also want to incorporate in some fun role play around sleeping. If there is some real anxiety, it may also help to spend some happy daylight hours in their room with toys and books, so that they don’t develop a negative association with their bedroom.
Sleep for Preschool-Aged Children 2.5 to 4 Years Old
Your main goal: Addressing new fears, potty training, limiting screen time, and providing an age-appropriate schedule
Daily sleep requirements: 11-13 hours
Number of naps per day: 1 nap that is phasing out soon
Sleep Challenges for Preschool-Aged Children
Just when you think you’ve hit a sweet spot, the preschool years can bring a whole new host of challenges to your child’s sleep. Even the best sleeper can still have disturbed sleep from other sources like nightmares, confusional arousals (like sleepwalking) and bed-wetting accidents. They also may have developed a true fear of the dark. Of course, you’ll always want to provide comfort and support wherever they need it but focus more on prevention wherever you can. For nightmares, make sure to process their day with them well before bedtime, and limit any media that may be too scary. Say no to all screen time and electronics in the 2 hours leading up to bedtime and limit it to less than 30 minutes per day. Providing a nightlight at this age may be a great comfort to your little one, but try to get one that’s not too bright (the room should still be at about a 7/10 darkness, with 10 being pitch black) and is on the red light spectrum.
If bedtime battles are a major issue at this age, you’ll first need to look at their daytime sleep. Always prioritize night-sleep over nap-sleep, so if a long daytime nap is causing late sleep onset, you’ll need to cut it down or cut it out completely. Most 3-year-olds will fight bedtime if they nap for more than 20 minutes or so. Make it your goal to have your child asleep by 7:30 pm and sleeping until at least 6:30 am. If your preschooler isn’t falling asleep until after 8 pm and/or is waking up before 6 am, they’re likely napping too long or too late. Dropping that last nap is really hard for parents to stomach, understandably. However, once they see how much more peaceful their evenings are and realize that it is so much better for their child to be getting that deep, restorative overnight sleep, it becomes a change they can embrace.
Thanks for joining me on this whirlwind journey through baby and toddler sleep! Make sure you’re following me on Instagram @sleeplittlelamb for daily baby and toddler sleep tips.
At Little Lamb, we customize an approach that fits each individual child in countless combinations of the above methods. If you would like help determining the best method for your family and support while implementing a holistic sleep plan, set up your free sleep call here.