Class 3 - Infant Sleep 101

Getting good sleep with a new baby in the home is always complicated, and the internet is rife with misinformation and oversimplification. Over the course of my career, I’ve identified the most common pitfalls, and the best ways to get your family back on track. This class brings my best practices together in one place.

A Few Important Points to Keep in Mind

Corrected Age

  • This guide is divided into age ranges because a baby’s brain is vastly different from one month to the next during the first year. Please read my article on development in babies born early to understand how your baby’s gestational age at birth (weeks and days) should change your expectations. For example, if your baby is 2 months old, but was born 2 weeks early, you should expect them to have the sleep patterns of a 6 week old. There’s a big difference between the two.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

  • I developed these guidelines based on sleep consults with families whose babies were not sleeping well. If you’re happy with your baby’s sleep, I would not recommend changing your practices. If things suddenly go downhill, return to this guide for help.

Growth Spurts

  • Your baby’s rate of growth is faster in the first 4 months than at any other time in her life. These growth spurts come with cluster feeding: frequent feedings which may not last as long as they did previously. They are designed to increase your milk supply to meet your baby’s growing demands. Therefore, in the first 4 months of life, if your baby is not sleeping well with lots of crying, the first thing to do is make sure she is not hungry again, or hungry for more if she just finished feeding.

Why Do Sleep Problems Happen?

  • After 4 months of life, in my experience, 99% of sleep problems come from one of three things:
    • Most common by far is being overtired when you put them down. This goes for naps and bedtime. Usually both.
      • Naps - the wake window before the first or second nap is too long.
      • Bedtime - the baby is going to sleep too late.
    • Next is an imperfect sleep environment. The perfect environment is different for different ages.
    • Least common is needing more food.

Your Baby Will Be Fine!

  • It’s next to impossible to put things correctly into perspective when you aren’t sleeping yourself. It’s easy to worry that poor sleep is going to hold your baby back in life. The truth is that your baby is going to be fine either way! This is about you getting the sleep you need to be the best parent, partner, and employee you can be.

SIDS Prevention

  • No sleep class is complete without a discussion on preventing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the first year of life. Please read our guide to sleep safety for SIDS prevention to make sure you understand the risks and prevention strategies.

Birth to 2 Weeks

  • This one’s easy: In the first 2 weeks of life, if your baby is awake, you can assume she's hungry.

2 Weeks to 2 Months - Chaos Theory

  • This period is marked by growth spurts (usually three of them), which are accompanied by cluster feeding.
    • During a growth spurt, a baby how was sleeping for 3-4 hour stretches at night, is now waking up every 30 minutes to eat.
    • These spurts usually last 3-5 days.
    • If you baby is crying, always assume they're hungry, especially if they just finished eating.
  • Naps are all over the place, and have no consistent timing or duration.
  • The location and timing for day and night sleep don't impact how long they
  • Understandably, it’s a very difficult time for families.
  • At the 2 month visit, parents are usually happy with the sleep they are getting because it’s so much better than it was at 2 weeks and 1 month of life.

2 Months to 4 Months

Night Sleep

  • Melatonin Production - Around 2 months of life (or whenever they have a consistent social smile), a baby’s brain starts to make melatonin, which is the chemical that helps establish our sleep cycles. As a result, they can usually start sleeping longer at night. 
    • Melatonin secretion peaks between 6-8pm in this age group.
      • 6:00-6:30pm is a good starting point.
      • At this age, putting her down very drowsy or asleep means she is already overtired.
  • Feed her before bed. You may need to start the feed before 6pm. Don’t force feed if she doesn’t seem interested.
  • Environment
    • Light-proof the room to make it as dark as possible.
      • The goal is that you can’t see your hands in front of your face.
      • When light enters the eye, it suppresses melatonin secretion from the brain.
    • Use a sound machine with white or brown noise.
      • Don’t use a timer.
        • It should run for the duration of sleep.
      • Place the machine at least 200cm from your baby’s ears, and turn down the volume.
        • It isn’t there so much to block out noise, as it is to create a rhythmic sound to put babies back to sleep if they wake up during the night.

Day Sleep

  • Until 3-4 months of life, there’s no rhyme or reason to the naps.
    • Sometimes they’re short little cat-naps, other times they last hours.
    • As long as the sleep environment is safe, it won’t matter where they take their naps, or when you put them down.
  • All babies develop differently, so if you think your baby is ready for a nap schedule, please see the next section for napping guidelines.

4 Months to 12 Months

Night Sleep

  • The exact same principles for 2-4 month night sleep apply through 12 months of life. Please review them in the last section.
  • Avoid any temptation to move the bedtime later.

Day Sleep

  • Around 4 months of life the baby’s brain starts wanting longer naps, and most of the rules for overnight sleep should be applied for sleep during the day.
  • Timing (Wake Windows)
    • The time you put your baby down for a naps should be based on how long she has been awake, not on the time of day.
    • If you wait too long, she will already be overtired and she won’t sleep as well or as long.
    • Most babies should not be awake for more than 2-3 hours between naps.
      • To make sure your baby is not already overtired, I recommend shooting for 2 hours of awake time, as a good starting place.
  • Environment
    • So dark you can’t see your hands in front of your face. This is a tall order during the day, and sometimes requires black trash bags on the windows.
    • Sound machine running the duration of the nap (see above).
  • Number of naps
    • Most 4 month olds take 2-4 naps per day.
    • 85% of 6 month-olds take 2 naps per day. 15% take 3 per day
    • Almost all 9 and 12 month olds take 2 naps per day.
  • Duration
    • The first two naps of the day should last at least 1 hour.
    • If they are less than 1 hour, move closer to 90 minutes between sleep and/or improve the sleep environment.
    • Don’t expect anything from the 3rd or 4th naps. If they happen, the 3rd and/or 4th naps are inconsistent in terms of timing and duration.