"Most newborns are asleep for three to four hours and then awake for one to two hours," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep. "We don't know exactly why they need so much rest, but we suspect it's because sleep plays an instrumental role in early brain development."
Newborns lack a circadian rhythm, so their sleep is evenly divided throughout a 24-hour day. They can nod off any time, anywhere, even when the TV is blaring and the dog is barking. Some babies fall asleep when they're tired and wake up when they're hungry. Others sleep all day and stay up most of the night. If you've found that your little one is in the latter category, take heart: Your baby will probably outgrow this day-night confusion at around 6 weeks of age, when melatonin production begins and contributes to the development of a biological clock.
If your baby has her days and nights mixed up, expose her to bright light during the day so she starts to connect sunshine with being awake and alert, advises pediatric sleep specialist Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. Also, keep the shades open in the daytime (except when she's napping); wake her for feedings so she doesn't catch too many zzz's; and take her outside for a walk to stimulate her and expose her to natural light. At night, aim to put her down between 7 P.M. and 8 P.M. (this is a good bedtime for the first two years, so you might as well get in the habit). If you need to go into her room for a feeding or diaper change, keep lights dim, and try not to talk to her too much. You'll help her associate darkness with sleeping.
This stage brings big changes in Sleepyland! By 3 to 4 months, babies become more consistent in their routine: They eat more at meals, so they're able to get the bulk of their sleep during the night (anywhere from six to eight hours at a stretch) before they wake up to feed. They usually take two naps a day, of varying lengths; some are as brief as 30 minutes, and others as long as two or three hours. "Babies need daytime sleep to restore their alertness," Dr. Owens says. "They tend to have their own nap rhythm, perhaps napping longer in the morning than in the afternoon."
Infants typically wake up four to six times a night. While most babies this age are now able to soothe themselves, your tot's ability to fall back to sleep without being fed, rocked, or cuddled depends on your routine. "If you nurse or rock your baby to sleep in the evening, you'll be doing the same thing at 1 A.M. and 3 A.M.," Dr. Owens says. It's best to put your sweetie in his crib at naptime and at bedtime when he's drowsy but awake. Be on the lookout for glassy eyes, droopy eyelids, and yawning: They're signs that you're in the zone. Your little one might cry, but he'll eventually doze off, and he'll start to connect sleeping with being in his crib, not your arms. "The earlier you help your baby learn to comfort himself, the easier it will be for him to get the hang of falling asleep on his own," Mindell says. "Babies who can drift off independently are better able to sleep well throughout the night than those who need help. And babies who snooze well are more alert and less fussy during the day."
Introducing a bedtime routine also paves the way for your peanut to develop good lifelong sleep habits. At night, choose a few calming activities that he'll start to associate with sleep, such as taking a bath, getting into pj's, and softly singing a round of "You Are My Sunshine."
At 6 months of age, babies are getting their nutritional needs met during the day, so they can make it through the night without a feeding. (But they may get up anyway!) You may have noticed a nap routine falling into place too. Most babies nap two to four hours during the day, but schedules vary: Your child may take a morning nap around 9:30 A.M. and an afternoon nap at 2:30 P.M. Or she may take three or four naps that last 30 to 45 minutes. How will you know whether she is getting enough shut-eye? Take note of her behavior in the late afternoon after she's had her nap but has been awake a while. "If your baby isn't cranky, then she's getting enough sleep," says sleep expert Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, in Chicago, and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. "However, if she's irritable, she may be signaling a need for more sleep during the day and night." Try putting her down a bit earlier for naps and bedtime. She'll probably brighten right up!
Most babies now nap in the morning and afternoon, which means you might actually get a chance to chip away at that Mount Everest of a laundry pile. On the unfortunate flip side, even the best sleeper will start waking again in the middle of the night. "The neurological changes that enable developmental milestones also affect sleep, which is why sleep often falls apart a week or two before a major change is about to happen, whether it's walking or talking," Dr. Mindell explains. And once the milestone has occurred, a baby would much rather practice walking, talking, or crawling than sleeping!
Another slumber saboteur: Your tot now understands cause and effect. He knows his actions get a reaction from Mommy and Daddy, so he may cry and pop up in his crib to test you. Beware! Your little angel is setting a trap. "The first two times a baby bounces up, parents usually put him back down in the crib," Dr. Mindell says. "But the third time, they say, 'He can't settle himself down.' So they take a different tactic by rocking him back to sleep." But giving in sends your tot the message that he doesn't have to go to sleep by himself. Instead, give him a quick hug, and put him back down in the crib. Within a week or two, he'll figure out that you won't rock or soothe him back to sweet dreams. If putting him down doesn't solve it, you may need to leave your munchkin to sort it out himself, Dr. Mindell says.
After her first birthday, your sweetie will switch to one luxuriously long post-lunch nap that lasts from 90 minutes to three hours. A consistent bedtime routine is now even more important: It transitions your child from active toddler to sound snoozer, helping her get adequate nighttime sleep, Dr. Owens says. Do something that calms her, whether it's reading a book or snuggling with a pet. Your child may now have a harder time letting you leave the room after you turn out the light, and that's normal. Separation anxiety begins at 9 to 12 months and peaks at 18 months. "Before now, baby's credo was 'out of sight, out of mind.' But now she can visualize you when you're not around, and this can be distressing," Dr. Owens says. A transitional object, such as a stuffed toy, can bring in the sandman.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.