Age and stage guide to baby sleep

Baby sleep is definitely one of the major obsessions for new parents. If settled babies = sane mothers, then there must be a whole lot of crazy mummies out there. Nearly every baby and toddler will go through periods – sometimes very long ones – of being unsettled when they’re meant to be sleeping.

“Sleeping through the night” is a quest that for some parents can seem totally unachievable. Other mums and dads dream of a baby or toddler that habitually goes down for daytime sleeps.

There is a lot of information – sometimes quite contradictory – about how to settle your bub. Some experts are big supporters of strict routines, others recommend opting for a more flexible structure.

We know that sleepless times are desperate times so we have sifted through the many theories and tips to bring you a comprehensive “ages and stages” guide to your baby’s sleep.

0-3 months: It’s all about the “tired signs”

The word “routine” is bandied around a lot when talking about sleep – yet if newborns are following a routine, for most new parents it’s a completely bizarre one.

It’s true – most newborns will spend about two-thirds of their time asleep during those first few weeks. But their wakeful, unsettled hours may be during the night when you’re trying to sleep, yet they sleep solidly throughout the day. Many babies find it difficult to distinguish between night and day at the start.

The key, whether you’ve adopted a flexible routine (a strict one is not usually recommended for those first weeks) or are following your baby’s lead, is to be able to spot the “tired signs”.

Once you’ve sighted one of these, it’s time to wind down the stimulation immediately and get her to bed before overtiredness sets in. Some experts say that you have just 10 minutes maximum to settle your baby once you’ve spotted a tired sign. [Remember to ensure your baby’s sleep environment is safe.]

Here are your cues to get baby to bed ASAP:

  • jerky arm and leg movements
  • yawning
  • glazed stare or even a cross-eyed look
  • arching backwards
  • sucking on fingers (this could be a sign your baby is trying to self-settle)
  • pulling at her ears
  • clenching her fists

The overall consensus (excluding the full-on ‘routine-at-any-cost’ proponents) is to spend those first weeks listening to your baby and working in with her sleep, feed and play needs. You’ll very likely be able to adopt a flexible regimen that suits both you and your bub.

Like you, just-hatched babies are flying a little blind so don’t leave them to cry for too long. If they’re over-tired and unsettled they may need your help to get sleep – and that’s absolutely okay!

3-6 months: Civilised sleeping patterns are possible!

At this age, your little one’s sleep patterns can start to make sense. You’re probably still too sleep-deprived to understand anything but it’s at around 4 months old, according to many sleep experts, that babies own natural circadian rhythms kick in.

What’s that? In simple terms, circadian rhythm refers to a 24-hour natural clock that influences the behaviour of humans, in fact all living organisms. The rhythm runs an intricate system of actions and responses within the body.

Science aside, it basically means that babies are now capable of distinguishing the difference between night and day – HOORAY! They move into what will become normal sleep cycles – i.e. active sleep (like an adult REM sleep in which they may twitch and their eyelids may flutter) and quiet sleep (usually the deeper sleep). These sleep cycles last about 40-50 minutes.

Does this mean my baby will wake every 50 minutes, you ask? Quite possibly, but in an ideal world she will only stir and then resettle for another 50 minutes. What all this means is that you can now start helping your baby establish civilised sleeping patterns. These tips may help you bring some order back into your life (but remember, many babies can take a long time to start sleeping the way you want them to).

Set bed and nap times

Your baby will probably have set these herself. Just take note of when she’s settling at night, and what her optimum nap times are during the day (there’ll be 2 or 3 naps each day) and try to stick to these times. The main thing is as long as she’s getting enough sleep.

Start a bedtime routine

This is a good time to get a bedtime ritual happening. Helps your poor sleep-starved brain know what to do next, as well as giving your bub all the cues she needs to know that it’s bedtime. This could include bath time, quiet cuddles, a lullaby, a wrapping baby ritual and a kiss goodnight.

Keep night-time wakings quiet and dark

You won’t need to change nappies at every feed now, nor should you be turning on lights and talking to your bub when she wakes at night. It’s night time and her circadian rhythms are kicking in to tell her it’s sleeping time (not playing and feeding time). So help her develop these. You will probably be able to drop to one feed a night during this period.

6-9 months: It’s all gone pear-shaped!

You were so proud. Your little bub finally started putting in a regular 6-8 hour stretch of uninterrupted sleeping and you thought you’d turned a corner. You even started using the term “sleeping through”. Suddenly he’s waking again – and, worse still, taking an hour or more to re-settle.

What causes this middle-of-the-night horror?

  • Major milestones: here’s the silver lining to your sleep-deprived cloud – when previously good-sleeping babies start waking in the middle of the night it’s often associated with their development. At 2am, he thinks it’s a good idea to practice a bit of rolling, or some commando crawling in his cot.
  • Separation anxiety: around this age babies can become quite attached to their mums and they start to realise that sometimes Mummy’s not around. When they wake up at night and find you not there, they can become distressed.
  • Uncomfortable gums: teething is blamed for way too much but around this age, teeth will start to cut through the gums and it could be a little uncomfortable.

What to do?

In all cases, you will need to quietly (no lights, no loud noise) soothe, comfort and resettle your youngster and try to encourage the good sleep habits you know he has. For many babies who’ve already mastered self-settling before this annoying interlude, they will return to sleeping well within a few days or weeks.

9-12 months: Still not sleeping through?

Are you starting to despair that your baby will never sleep through? Think you’re raising some creature of the night? Don’t worry, according to all the experts, while babies CAN sleep through by this age, many are not.

When your bub is over 6 months old you can start “sleep training”. But it’s not going to happen overnight. Changing sleep habits can take anywhere from 3 nights to 2 weeks. So steel yourself for what can at times seem a little harrowing as you help your baby, and your family, get a good night’s sleep.

If you want to follow a tried-and-tested approach to getting your bub to sleep, here are two approaches favoured by the experts.

  • Controlled comforting/crying: this is a hotly debated method but many parents and experts sing its praises. In highly simplified terms, it’s a process of gradually reducing your attention to crying and calling out. It can be a heart-wrenching experience for parents as there can be a lot of crying, so steel yourself for some tricky nights and make sure your partner is on side. This process can take a bit longer.
  • Camping out: this is when parents stay in the room with their fussing baby to provide reassurance, gradually reducing the amount of help they give they baby to settle. Some incorporate a “camp bed” on the floor for parents, which over time is slowly moved out of the room. Research suggests that the process involves less crying than the controlled comforting.

For some tips of getting your baby to sleep click here.

12-24 months: Dishing up on daytime naps

Sleep begets sleep. Seriously, the better (not necessarily the longer) your tot sleeps during the day, the more settled he will be at night.

In his second year, he still needs his daytimes nap/s – probably around 15-18 months he may cut back to one super sleep day in the early afternoon. But he really, really needs that one sleep, although he may not know it.

Without it, he will become over-tired, fractious and unhappy. He will be more difficult to settle at night and may wake during the night more often.

So what to do if your toddler refuses daytime downtime? Here are 4 must-read tips:

  1. Have a naptime routine – it might be a shortened version of your night-time one but your toddler will know that this means sleep.
    2. Limit distractions. Darken his room and limit noises which may keep him awake.
    3. Provide incentives – tell your tot about that after he has a nap, you’ll do something fun like go to the playground.
    4. If all else fails, make sure your little one at least has quiet time, leaving him in there for at least an hour.

2-3 years: Bedtime battles

Here’s a comforting fact for all parents of poor sleeping toddlers – more than 40% of young children between 2 and 3 years, will still wake once or twice a night, with a smaller percentage waking more often than that.

Okay, here’s another fact, not so comforting – by the age of 2, toddlers may not be able to “grow out” of sleeping problems without your help.

  • Overtired = over-wired!

    Skipping needed naps or staying up later will not make your toddler easier to settle. When these little people become overtired, they can become over-stimulated and find it impossible to wind down. They are also more likely to have an unsettled sleep and wake several times during the night. Make sure they don’t get overtired and if they need a nap during the day, make sure they get it. Put them to bed at a reasonable hour (for example if your toddler gets up at 6am they should be going to bed around 7.30pm).

  • Internal clocks matter

    Your toddler is a creature of habit. Put them to bed at the same time every night and you’ll find that is when they get tired. As with all ages, following a routine which shows them it’s bedtime is crucial.

  • Falling asleep independently

    Turn off the main lights and leave the room while your toddler is still awake. That way, if she wakes in the middle of the night she won’t be surprised by the darkness, or her surroundings, and will self settle.

Find out how much sleep your tot needs here.

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