As I say in our Newborn Care class, sleep feels like the kryptonite of our parenting generation. In addition to concerns for your baby's wellness, the reality is that newborn sleep requires parents to wake frequently and interrupted sleep (at best) / sleep deprivation (at worst) can be a real challenge for some new parents. It's also a common trigger for Postpartum Mood + Anxiety Disorders. We're diving into the issues of sleep a bit more this month with a guest blog from Liz Harden of Little Dipper Wellness. She discusses her own struggles with sleep in the early days of parenting, the range of normal for infant sleep in the first six months, and the idea of "sleep teaching." ...
I had no clue what to expect in sleep when I came home with my first child. He was just going to “sleep like a baby,” right? Well, he did sleep like a baby. But not in the way that idiom brings to mind. Instead, he was up every 30 minute to three hours around the clock. And he didn’t just fall asleep when he was tired like I thought he would. He needed me to help him fall asleep, and stay asleep–around the clock. This reality, which is absolutely normal in the early weeks and months of new parenthood, completely rocked my world. I was afraid that something was wrong with my baby, and with me as a Mom.
At the time, my career was in health services research. I lived in a world of data and number-crunching and I had the mindset that every problem can be solved with enough research–even my newborn and his sleep (spoiler alert: I was wrong). Since I had no trusted source for sleep support, I turned to the internet in an attempt to solve my sleep problems. I read everything I could find related to baby sleep. And that rabbit hole, plus a few baby sleep books I bought, led to extreme overwhelm. Experts were telling me what I should do, but none of them knew me or my baby, and they all said something different: CIO, co-sleep, respond to baby, don’t respond, sleep training is evil and will ruin your child for life, sleep training is the only way you’ll survive and if you don’t do it now your kid will be ruined forever. If you’ve ever googled: “how to help my baby sleep,” you’ve probably encountered this world of contradictions. I was confused, exhausted, and desperate.
In an effort to control what I couldn’t, I began tracking every poop, nursing session, minute of sleep, spit up, and so on. In retrospect, I see now that I was suffering from postpartum anxiety. Neither the obsessive research or tracking gave me answers and my nervous system was fried. Given what we know about the link between perinatal mood disorders and sleep deprivation, it’s no surprise that the baseline level of anxiety that I’d always experienced kicked into high gear when I was sleeping no more than two or three hours at a time. So for me, sleep deprivation looked like anxiety and OCD. If you see any glimpse of this in yourself, please tell someone and seek support–getting help is best for both you and your baby.
I wish I’d prepared ahead of time for the fact that sleep deprivation takes its toll, and that just because you’re on leave with your baby doesn’t mean that it’s going to feel like a break. I also wish I could go back in time 11 years and ease the worries of that new parent. And share the knowledge of what was normal so she could have planned ahead instead of feeling sucker-punched. And provided the community and village for her that’s available today through trusted sources like Birthsmarter. That way, my partner and I could have devised a plan for support before our PPA set in.
I can’t go back in time to help that younger version of myself, but I can at least share these nuggets of wisdom with you. I want you to know I didn’t: that YOU are an awesome parent, and the best parent for your child, no matter how short your baby's sleep periods are, or how exhausted you currently feel.
The internet rabbit hole of baby sleep is far deeper now than it was when I was a new mom– so many influencers, more reliance on social media for information, more pressure to post pictures of your perfect baby, and the explosion of the baby sleep industry (and its general marketing strategy to point out how your baby’s sleep is broken and how their product can fix it). If you’re confused about baby sleep, if your baby’s sleep is “normal,” or how to improve sleep, it’s no wonder!
So, let’s get into what’s normal in baby sleep in the first 6 months, in a non-judgy, non-pushy, evidence-based kind of way. I don’t want you getting stuck in that fearsome rabbit hole! If you want more of the nitty gritty details like schedule frameworks and specific timing recommendations, download this free Sleep Needs by Age guide or check out my blog on “Getting the Timing Right.” After we talk about what to expect in sleep, I’ll share my thoughts on the contentious world of sleep training, perhaps the most divisive of all parenting topics in the first year.
What is normal sleep for a newborn?
I’m not going to offer an exact number of hours a newborn should sleep because the window of “normal” is large and varied. Instead, just know that they can’t stay awake long at all and that while newborns spend much of their early weeks snoozing–even 70% or more of their time is spent sleeping for many babies–the periods of sleep are short and there’s no discerning day from night. When they’re awake, they need feeding, diapering, loads of cuddles, and they don’t care if it’s 2:00 AM. Many new parents worry that something is wrong with their baby because of how frequently they sleep and how short the sleep periods are. But erratic sleep patterns and being held frequently are exactly what your baby needs to learn and grow. It’s also nature’s way of keeping newborns safe since they can’t fend for themselves.
Fortunately, as your baby’s circadian rhythm begins to develop (typically around the time they begin social smiling), sleep periods start lengthening at night and sleep gets a little less chaotic. But for now, expect the awake windows to be short. Your newborn should be awake about as long as it takes to feed and do a diaper change.
What is normal sleep for a 1 to 3 month old?
Compared to the first few weeks of life, a one to three month old may begin sleeping a bit more at night, with slightly longer awake periods during the day. But most babies are still waking at least a few times in the night at this age. Your baby might be able to handle 60 minutes awake at one month, 90 minutes awake by two months, and two hours awake by three months–but it's always better to err on the side of under-tiredness with babies. Please do not keep your baby awake longer in an effort to have them sleep more at night. It won’t work–in fact, it usually backfires with a cycle of overtiredness and worsened sleep. Again, if your baby is fussy, try reducing their awake windows because they may just be overtired.
What are baby sleep cues?
Look for subtle tired signs like disengaging, movements slowing down, staring off in the distance, or their eyes becoming less alert. These are the early signs of sleepiness, that if you catch and start moving toward sleep, will make falling asleep and staying asleep much easier. If you see a yawn, eye rubbing or pulling at their ears, head straight to bed! If they are crying and super cranky, it’s likely they’re overtired.
When does the circadian rhythm develop?
Your baby’s circadian rhythm will begin developing around the time of social smiling, and almost always by 3 or 4 months of age. When you start seeing fewer poopy diapers at night and longer stretches of sleep (4+ hours), you’ll know this is happening. A lot of families find themselves in a flow with sleep around 2 to 3 months.
What is normal sleep for a 4 or 5 month old baby?
Your baby may be able to handle two hours awake by now. They likely sleep 10 to 12 hours at night (total–not necessarily straight through) and take 3 or 4 naps per day. But continue watching for those subtle sleepy cues–overtiredness will trigger hormones like cortisol in an effort to keep them awake. This makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Sleep patterns make a big and permanent change during this timeframe, usually around 4 months of age. You may have heard of the dreaded “4 month sleep regression.” But this period of time is actually a progression–babies start sleeping in stages and cycles, just like adults, and the period marks a turning point in baby sleep. Where they may have slept soundly for many hours around 2 to 3 months, they now cycle in and out of sleep, every hour or two, throughout the night. If they haven't learned know how to get back to sleep on their own, they'll likely need your help each time they move from one sleep cycle to the next.
What is normal sleep for a 6 month old baby?
Sleep often falls into a groove by 6 months of age. With the help of a more mature circadian rhythm, they’re able to sleep longer stretches at night and daytime sleep becomes more organized (typically into two solid naps and a third catnap in the late afternoon). They typically sleep 10 to 12 hours (total–not necessarily straight through) at night and about 2-3 hours during the day, staying awake about 2-3 hour between sleep periods. If this isn’t your reality, and you want encourage it, now would be a great time to consider teaching them to fall asleep with less help from you. Most 6 month olds are developmentally capable of falling asleep on their own, and linking sleep cycles for longer stretches of nighttime sleep and better napping. But this doesn’t mean you need to let them cry it out!
I want my baby to sleep better. Do I have to sleep train?
Let’s talk straight for a minute about “sleep training,” the process of teaching a baby to fall asleep alone, without help from caregivers or sleep props. First of all, this is why parents do it: if you teach your baby to fall asleep independently, they’re more likely to fall back to sleep on their own at the end of a sleep cycle, which leads to longer stretches of night sleep and better naps.
But guess what, sleep training doesn’t have to mean cry it out!
Parents don’t have to choose between letting their baby cry for hours or holding them all night long. There’s a whole lot of ground between the extremes, and options for parents who want their child to learn sleep independence, but in a way that feels good in their hearts and jives with their parenting philosophy.
When parents teach their babies to fall asleep independently, in a systematic, sensitive, and well-informed way, I prefer the terms sleep teaching (you’re the teacher), sleep learning (your baby is the student), and sleep coaching (you’re your baby’s support system and cheerleader), to the pervasive term “sleep training.” The words teach, learn, and coach indicate that learning to sleep for longer stretches of time is a skill that babies have the capacity to develop, just like they will eventually learn to crawl, walk, or ride a bike, with lots of support and encouragement from you (and probably a few tears of frustration). As parents, we can provide the necessary environment and support for this learning to take place, whether it's falling asleep without sleep props or riding a bike.
There are countless methods and strategies for teaching independent baby sleep. While having options can be great, too many options can also be dizzying and lead to overwhelm–like I experienced with my first baby. It’s hard to know what feels right when 20 different experts or influencers are trying to push you toward their signature method. In an effort to help simplify things for parents, I lay out the most common “sleep training” methods here on my blog, and how to choose the right method for your unique family. This article shows you how to incorporate mindfulness into whatever approach you choose. Staying mindful while teaching your child any new skill will ensure you stay calm, confident, and centered, so that you may maintain clarity of the big picture and respond mindfully, rather than in knee-jerk reactions. No current mindfulness practice required to be successful with this!
Whether you’re pregnant, have a newborn, or a 6 month old, you’re capable of getting your best possible rest. Sleep won’t look exactly like it did before starting a family, but with a little intentionality and support, you can feel well-rested. Stay tuned for more from me and LIttle Dipper Sleep, to help you make stellar sleep a reality, and a family value.
Liz Harden, MPH, believes that every human deserves stellar sleep. As a certified sleep coach for more than nine years, Liz leads Little Dipper Sleep – a sleep coaching practice based in Chapel Hill, NC, serving clients worldwide. She and her team provide flexible, inclusive, evidence-based sleep coaching packages, programs, and classes to parents of kiddos, from newborns through elementary school and beyond. Known for creating the Mindful Method for SleepTM, Liz’s process equips parents with what nearly all sleep programs miss: the mindset tools and scientific insight they need to thrive and confidently set the stage for peaceful naptimes and bedtimes.
She shaped this approach with her Masters in Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education from UNC-Chapel Hill, a certification from the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants, multiple certifications in yoga (including kids yoga), and years working with The Baby Sleep Site and Huckleberry, the expert sleep app. Today, as an advocate for all tired humans, Liz is passionate about helping all families discover the magic of stellar sleep regardless of income level or background.
Liz currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC, with her husband and two kiddos who sleep well now but definitely didn’t come by it naturally. Her family also includes two ducks, Fluffy and Daffy, whose quacking thankfully doesn’t keep everybody awake.