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Parents Guide on Sleep for Babies

Babies Aren’t Born with Set Sleep Patterns

baby-sleep When a newborn comes home with the family for the first time, there is a period of adjustment for everyone.  While at the hospital, there are nurses to help; you are able to rest every time they take the baby to the nursery. You don’t have to cook or clean.  It’s quite a different thing once you are home and you have complete responsibility for this new life.  If you are first-time parents, your baby will be teaching you a lot as you both go on this adventure.  Even if you are pros at this parenting thing, every child is different, so there will always be new things to learn.

RELATED: Download Our Ages & Stages Chart: Birth to 5 Years Old

Sleep is now at a premium.  One of the best things you can do, especially in the first few weeks, is to nap any time the baby naps. Your body needs to adjust, and you will be tired.  At first, the baby will likely be sleeping for about two hours at a time.  You’ll find yourself in a pattern of nursing, napping and new diapers.  Don’t try to force the baby to stay awake, or go to sleep at certain times. They have small tummies and need food frequently and will tend to fall asleep shortly after nursing.

Once the baby is about a month old, you will probably notice a change in their sleep habits.  They will begin to sleep a bit longer at a stretch, around three hours at a time.  Naps during the day may be about two or three hours each.  You will notice they start to stay awake a bit longer after nursing.  Watch for those signs that the baby is starting to get sleepy, like yawning or getting a glazed look. Once you get to know your child, you will start to see a pattern of when they are ready to sleep, and start a pre-nap or bedtime routine.

Between three and six months, most babies will begin to sleep through the night.  It may not be a consistent thing at first, but their stomachs are able to hold more food and won’t need to feed as often.  You need to decide how to deal with those nights that the baby may slip back into the old pattern of waking off and on through the night.  Do you use the “cry it out” method?  Do you try co-sleeping? Do you use the “peek in and check” method?

All three of these methods have their supporters and critics.  It is up to you to decide what works best for your family. However, most doctors agree that forcing any behavior on an infant younger than one year is counterproductive.  If something isn’t working, try something else, while trying to maintain a routine of some sort at bedtime.

By about nine months, not only is everyone starting to get more sleep at night, your baby may only be napping once in the early afternoon.  It is important that you find the best time for your baby to nap.  If the nap is too early, they will probably be cranky by bedtime.  If it is too late, or too long, bedtime will become a real nightmare.  Look for the signs that they need a nap, and start the nap routine.  If you need to adjust the start time of the nap, do so gradually by about thirty minutes a time until you find the right balance.   By establishing the routines early, and adjusting them as the sleep needs change, you will find everyone is much happier.  It takes time, but it will be worth it once everyone is getting a good night’s sleep.

How Much Sleep Does My Baby Need?

When you bring home that newborn from the hospital, you soon realize that sleeping like a baby doesn’t mean what most people usually take it to mean.  Babies need a lot of sleep; however, it takes time before they can sleep through the night.  The amount of sleep children need changes as they get older.  While every child is different, there are some basic guidelines that can help you know if your child is getting enough sleep during that all-important first year.   Newborn – When you first come home with that baby, you may feel like you are in a constant cycle of feeding and napping. This is completely normal.  Newborns will sleep about sixteen hours a day, spread out in about two hour segments around the clock.  When the stomach is still so small, babies need to eat frequently, especially if you are nursing.  It is a good idea, especially when you first get home from the hospital, to nap during the day when the baby naps.  You will be on their sleep schedule for a while.   Some nursing mothers use a co-sleeping method so that they lose less sleep until the baby begins to sleep through the night.  By keeping the baby close, they feel secure and aren’t waking up frightened during the night.  If you are bottle-feeding, you might try taking turns with the feedings with your partner, so both of you get a little more sleep.

  • One Month – By the time the baby is about one month old, they are starting to be awake more, as they are learning about the world around them.  They will usually sleep about fifteen hours a day, with around six hours of that time during the day.  You will quickly pick up on the cues that the baby is ready for a nap; some will fall asleep shortly after a feed or even while they are feeding.
  • Three Months – Now is the time that every parent lives for: the baby normally begins to sleep through the night.  By about three months, their stomach has grown and they can eat more, so they can sleep longer at a stretch during the night.  They still sleep about fifteen hours, but their naptime decreases to about five hours.  Not every child will start to sleep through the night right at three months.  Some take a little longer.  When you start to introduce some solid foods, that also usually helps the baby begin to sleep longer at night.
  • Six Months – At six months, babies drop to needing about fourteen hours of sleep each day, with only about four hours at naptime.  However, sometimes at about six months, infants will still wake up during the night.  If they are sleeping in their own room, they will wake and realize that mom is not right there.  Sometimes they will go back to sleep, but sometimes they just need to know you are there.
  • Nine Months – Nine months is another milestone. By now, they should be sleeping through the night regularly.  While they still need about fourteen hours of sleep, they begin to nap less. They may only nap about three hours during the day.
  • Twelve Months – By the time the baby is about a year old, they will normally be sleeping about thirteen hours a day.  They will sleep about ten or eleven at night, with a two or three hour nap during the day.  Some children may not want to even nap at all.  They are too busy exploring their world, but it is still a good idea to try to encourage naptime.

As with most growth milestones, no two children are exactly alike.  Be flexible, but still try to ensure that your baby is getting enough rest.  It will make life easier for all of you.

How Often Should Babies Nap?

Newborns require about sixteen hours of sleep a day, with about half of that being made up of naps during the day.  Babies will usually sleep about two hours at a time at first, gradually sleeping longer at night.  However, most children still need naps until they are about four.  If a baby doesn’t nap enough during the day, or too much, it will affect their night-time sleep.

It is important to set up a nap routine, just as it is important to have a bedtime routine.  While these routines can have some steps in common, like having the pacifier or a lullaby, having slight differences is fine.  The nap routine should be a bit shorter, as sometimes the babies will become more awake and have a second wind and be harder to put down for a nap.  Your baby will start to give you hints that they are ready for a nap, beyond the obvious yawning.  They will rub their eyes, not want to play with their toys, and sometimes just start getting cranky.  Sometimes they will ask for their pacifier or to nurse, even if they aren’t hungry.

So how often, and how long, should babies nap?  It varies by age and by the child.  Newborns normally have a very “on again off again” schedule.  They normally sleep around two hours at a time around the clock.  As long as they are getting about sixteen hours in a twenty-four hour period, the length between naps may vary.  As the child gets older, the naps get longer and spaced further apart.

By about one month old, babies usually need about an hour less sleep and are able to sleep about three hours or so between feedings. So they have about nine hours spread through the night with about six hours of napping by day.  They will adjust to the new schedule, so be aware that you may have to adjust your daily routine to fit their needs.     Three months old is about the age when many babies are finally able to sleep through the night.  This is a huge relief for parents, as they are able to start getting more sleep as well.  Babies start sleeping about nine or ten hours at night and only nap about five hours.

At six months, babies usually only need about two two-hour naps during the day.  They will still be sleeping about ten hours or so at night.  You may find the baby waking during the night.  It could be that they just need reassurance that you are there.  It could also mean they need their naptime adjusted.  Sometimes children who nap too much during the day will wake up during the night.

After about nine months, most children only need one nap.  They will probably nap about three hours, maybe even only two, as they get closer to a year old.  They are much more active and the longer nap during the early afternoon will let them be rested for their activities for the rest of the day and not be too awake by bedtime.

As they become toddlers, many children are very resistant to a nap.  It is a good idea to at least encourage a “quiet time” when they snuggle up with you for a story time.  Or you could encourage them to be in their room and play quietly; a nap might sneak up on them.

Creating a Bedtime Routine to Help Baby Sleep

When it is time to go to bed, adults have our routines: a cup of tea, a good book, watch a little TV, brush your teeth, or take a relaxing bath.  No matter what routine you have, it helps you to sleep better.  Babies are no different.  They need a routine to help them get to sleep as well.  It is up to you to find out what works best for your baby.

For babies, the routines can be fairly simple and shouldn’t take too long.  If it takes too long, the baby can sometimes get a second wind and be harder to get to sleep.  A bath is a nice start to the evening.  There are even soothing baby baths that are nice to use. Then you can snuggle them into some comfy pajamas.

After that, sitting together in a rocking chair is a nice way to spend some time together before the baby nods off to sleep.  Singing or playing some lullabies while you rock can help relax the baby to sleep.  You have to be careful not to move too soon to put the baby in the crib, or you may find yourself starting over.  Watch for steady breathing, and relaxed arms and legs.

Another wonderful addition to any bedtime routine is reading bedtime stories.  This is one that will continue as the baby gets older. Children love bedtime stories, and it also encourages them to become readers themselves.   It may take awhile to find what works best for your baby at bedtime.  Give it a week or two before you make any changes to see if the baby will adjust to it.  If it’s still not working, try a slight change, only replacing one part of the routine.  Eventually, you will find the right combination.

Consistency is the key, once you’ve established a routine that works.  It may be hard to keep up with at times, but babies need that steady habit.  Once they are used to it, bedtime won’t be a struggle, but an enjoyable time for both of you.

Baby Massage to Help Relax Your Baby into Sleep

There are very few things more relaxing than a massage.  Giving babies massages has been proven to not only help them relax but has shown to improve their sleep habits.  By relaxing them before bedtime, they can fall into a deeper sleep sooner.  It can also help with colicky babies.   Studies have shown that massage has helped premature babies gain more weight quicker.  According to one study, “preemies who were massaged three times daily for ten days gained almost 50 percent more weight, were more active and alert and were able to leave the hospital six days earlier than other premature infants” (Nelsson-Ryan).  Physical contact is so important, especially in the first few weeks, before babies are able to see well.   There are places that offer training in infant massage, as well as videos.  However, a few simple techniques are all you need to get started.  You can use baby lotion, or natural oils such as almond or vegetable oil with natural fragrances added.  You shouldn’t use the oil on the head or face area.

First, be sure the baby is not too fussy and able to lay still, about an hour after a feeding.  Some recommend removing everything, including the diaper.  However, you may want to leave the diaper on to avoid any accidents until you massage the stomach.

Find a safe, soft place where the baby won’t roll off onto the floor.  Be sure that the room is at a comfortable temperature.  Lay the baby on the back, and smile and talk gently while you do the massage.

Start with the head and face, using only as much pressure as you would use if you were to press on your eyelid without causing discomfort.  Work from the forehead to the top of the head, moving in gentle strokes.  Move from the center toward the outside and back.

Carefully work your way down the neck and shoulders area, again using very light pressure.  Work on each arm by making a ring from your thumb and finger, sliding down the arm.  Roll the arm gently between your hands.  Massage the hands and fingers as well.   Then, massage gently down the stomach area, in circles.  If you’ve had the diaper on, remove it to expose the stomach and then replace it before you begin the legs.  Work down each leg, similar to the way you did the arms.  Gently bend the legs toward the stomach. This can help gas bubbles that may be trapped to move out.  This also helps with the colicky babies.

Once you finish with the legs and feet, turn the baby over and start from the back of the head and work your way down to the feet again. Do not actually massage the spine area.  You can make gentle circles with your fingertips on the back.  Complete the massage down to the toes again.

Some babies will only want a couple of minutes of massage to start with.  Once the baby gets used to the massage, you can increase the time spent.  It may soon become the favorite part of the day.  This is something that both the mother and father can share in with the baby, creating a special bond.

Safety Concerns for Baby While Sleeping

Becoming a parent for the first time can be overwhelming, not matter how well prepared you may feel.  Once the baby arrives, everything changes.  You go through so many emotions and changes, but the most important thing is making sure the baby is healthy and safe.  Your home is baby-proofed, but what about the baby’s crib?

SIDS has become an ever increasing worry for parents of newborns.  SIDS is something that can strike without warning in an otherwise seemingly healthy infant.  SIDS is usually the diagnoses for infant deaths when all other possibilities have been ruled out after a thorough investigation.  However, SIDS is not a simple case of the baby suffocating.

There is no definite answer as to what actually causes SIDS, as there is new research done each year.  The occurrence of SIDS has reduced by 50% since 1983. There are a few things you can do to help reduce the risk of SIDS even more.   One of the most common words of advice is “Put your baby to sleep on their back”.  Newborns should always sleep on their back on a firm mattress and tight-fitting sheets.  Sleeping on their stomachs can cause problems such the baby breathing too much carbon dioxide back in with each breath.  Sleeping on their stomach increases the instances of sleep apnea as well.

Parents buy cute bedding, have matching comforters, bumper pads and other things.  Unfortunately, these things may contribute to SIDS.  The bumper pads can reduce the flow of fresh oxygen into the crib.  Stuffed animals are also a danger in the crib.  If comforters get near the infant’s face, it can cause the same rebreathing of carbon dioxide as if sleeping on the stomach.   Another thing to keep in mind is the proper amount of clothing during cold weather. The baby needs to be warm, but not overly warm, as this can also cause problems.  Since you shouldn’t use a comforter, there are other options.  A warm sleeper that has feet and mittens attached are usually enough.  Another option is a sleep sack.  It is kind of like a sleeping bag with head and armholes.  It keeps the baby warm and safe.  They aren’t able to squirm out of it, like they could a blanket.  Swaddling newborns is also a good alternative when done correctly.   While some infants are more susceptible to SIDS, such as those with low birth weight or exposure to second-hand smoke, it is important to take all the precautions you can to help prevent the heartache of losing a child to SIDS.

Baby Bedding Necessities

Decorating the nursery is one of the first things expectant parents tend to do.  There are so many adorable things to choose from. There are a few must-haves that every new baby will need when they first come home from the hospital.

Every baby needs somewhere to sleep, so a crib is a good start.  Some people prefer to have the baby in a bassinet or cradle in their room until the baby is a bit older.  This way the baby is close by at night, and the smaller size of the bassinet makes the adjustment a little easier for some babies.  Co-sleepers are also popular, as it keeps the baby even closer for late night feedings, but is still in their own space.  Take your time when shopping to make sure you are getting the best quality for the money.   Having the right mattress for the crib is also crucial.  It should be a new, firm mattress.  The mattress also needs to fit snugly in the crib. If you can fit two fingers between the edge of the mattress and the crib frame, the mattress is too small.   You can never have enough sheets.  When those inevitable leaks happen, it is good to have plenty of replacement sheets handy for quick changes during the night or naptime.  It is also important that the sheets fit well.  If they are too loose, they can tangle around the baby at night.

Most people love the adorable comforter sets.  They come with matching bumper pads and sheets.  However, research has shown that it is best to not have the comforter and bumper pads in the crib as they can contribute to SIDS when the baby is less than a year old. You can still get the sets, and simply use the comforter while snuggling in the rocker until the baby is old enough to use it in the crib.   A great alternative to the comforters for keeping the baby warm is the baby sack.  These are like sleeping bags with head and armholes.  They keep the baby warm and they aren’t able to squirm out from under them like they can a blanket.    Once you’ve purchased the bedding for the baby’s room, be sure to wash it first with a gentle baby detergent.  It will help reduce any possible dye residue on the product, as well as give it a nice, fresh scent.

Natural Baby Sheets and Blankets Can Help Baby Sleep

Many families are concerned about the amount of chemicals in our everyday lives.  While we might not be able to remove all the chemicals our family is exposed to, we can reduce the amount in the home.  When a new baby comes into the family, it is just as important to surround the baby with all-natural products.  Since babies sleep nearly half of the day, it only makes sense to make sure they are sleeping in a safe environment.   There are many styles of all-natural bedding.  You can find blankets, sheets, swaddling blankets – pretty much the same selection you would have with other baby bedding options.  They even come in a wide variety of colors, not just neutral tones.   Having organic bedding is better for your baby’s health – as opposed to the 50/50 non-organic cotton and polyester blend that is made from a petrochemical.  These chemicals can irritate the tender newborn skin.  Another chemical found in bedding and other fabrics is the fire-retardant chemical PBDE.  This chemical is sprayed on to the product, so it gets into the environment quicker than other chemicals.   Many people have allergic reactions to some of the chemicals in household goods.  By reducing the amount of chemicals your family is exposed to, it will reduce the risk of allergic reactions.   If you check with your local baby specialty store, they may have a limited selection of all-natural products.  There are several websites where you can purchase organic bedding.  Many of them specialize in baby blankets, but some carry bedding for larger beds as well. The price is comparable to other bedding sets.

RELATED: Download Our Ages & Stages Chart: Birth to 5 Years Old