Let’s face it, parents spend a lot of time obsessing over sleep. Is your baby getting enough? Are they napping too much? But it turns out there is a scientific reason that your little one is in the mood for a 3am party while you can barely keep your eyes open long enough for moonlight feed. Babies operate on a sleep pattern that is completely different to an adult sleep pattern. “Unlike an adult’s sleep cycle, which is 90 minutes, a baby’s sleep cycle for the first six months will be approximately 45 minutes,” explains Julie Mallon, a UAE-based sleep consultant with Nurture to Sleep and Babies & Beyond. “For the first three months, babies are also unable to distinguish between day and night and so parents must begin to rely on two sleep mechanisms: a baby’s circadian rhythm and sleep pressure [the drive to sleep] to help their child fall asleep.”
And just to make things even more confusing, an infant’s sleep pattern will change dramatically during the first year of their life. “Throughout the first year of your baby’s sleep journey, it is important to establish a gentle sleep routine, but also to be aware of the developmental leaps, which will explain changes in behaviour and sleeping patterns,” adds Julie. Thankfully, our sleep experts are here to decode exactly how much sleep your baby needs for optimum development at each age and stage so that you can all rest easy...
0 to 12 weeks
Sleep required: “Newborns need from 14-17 hours of sleep, but rarely in long segments. They’ll need to feed every 1-3 hours and sleep every 1-2 hours,” says paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe, author of The Baby Sleep Solution.
Potential challenges: “Learning to read your baby’s body language for sleep and helping them sleep before they get overtired,” says Lucy. Aside from tiny yawns, look out for them pulling at their ears, closing their fists and their eyes glazing over/ staring into the distance,
Developmental milestones: “The early weeks post birth can be erratic and draining. The main focus should be on making sure that you meet baby’s needs and not on any concerns about ‘bad habits’.”
Top tips: “A good start is to aim for a flexible feeding and sleeping balance to the day, with a wake time ideally no later than 7.30am and always with a feed,” says Lucy.
12 weeks to 6 months
Sleep required: Roughly 12-15 hours (3-5 hours day time, 7-10 hours night time)*, although unlikely to be all in one long stretch and will probably be broken up with feeds.
Potential challenges: “The ‘4-month regression’ can appear now and by 16 weeks neurologically the character of sleep locks into place and many report that whatever progress they have made is lost! Don’t worry it will regroup, but you may need to make adjustments,” says Lucy.
Developmental milestones: Melatonin plays a key role in regulating our body clocks, but babies only start producing it at around 12 weeks, according to gentle sleep expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith. This can therefore be a good time to try and encourage a more regular routine.
Top tips: As sleep times may begin to be more organised, at this point you can aim to regulate day time naps into a morning, lunchtime and afternoon rest.
Read more Can you potty-train a newborn?
6 months to 9 months
Sleep required: “The total sleep requirement for this age group is 12-14 hours, including just over three hours of day time sleep,” says Babies & Beyond’s Julie Mallon.
Potential Challenges: “There are a number of factors which can affect a baby’s sleep at this time, namely teething and the onset of separation anxiety which can result in big disruptions of sleep.”
Developmental milestones: “This is a time for huge steps in gross motor development and many parents notice sleep disruption around these developmental milestones. There are also a number of studies which confirm that when babies are learning to crawl they have a harder time learning to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Julie.
Top tips: “Sleep is not intuitive; it is a skill, which is learnt behaviour. With consistency, persistence and gentle behaviour modification, your child will learn the skill of falling asleep and staying asleep when given the opportunity,” says Julie.
9 months to 12 months
Sleep required: 11-14 hours (1.5-2 hours day time, 11 hours night time)*
Potential challenges: “This is often described as the ‘Pre-toddler stage’ as your baby will start to shift from baby to earlier toddler behaviour,” says Julie.
Developmental milestones: “At around 10 months, your baby can start to develop very strong emotions and separation anxiety. The emphasis here is when a child is experiencing separation anxiety is to be responsive and flexible to your child’s needs. Research shows that when a family can be more flexible and responsive during a time of regression the child will adapt more quickly to the change and sleep is not as disrupted as anticipated.”
Top tips: “In terms of sleep tips, one of the most important is routine, routine, routine. This will help establish when a baby eats and sleeps. It does not need to be rigid but when there is structure and predictability we move out of fright, fight and flight mode and allow our bodies to rest. Our children do the same,” says Julie.
Your three steps to getting forty winks:
1. Put your baby in their cot “sleepy but awake “or “awake and aware” advises Julie.
2. Identify what your baby’s “sleep prop“ is and if it is sustainable at 3am. “White noise is a healthy, positive sleep association. However, if their sleep prop is you patting or rocking, gradually you will need to teach your baby how to sleep without this prop,” says Julie.
3. Watch your baby’s “wake window”. “On waking from a nap if they appear overtired the likelihood is you have missed their wake window” and next time place them for their nap earlier.”
*Sleep Requirements Supplied by The National Sleep Foundation