When [my daughter] Emi was born, I placed her crib in a separate room close to ours in our small apartment in Japan. When she awoke at night, I got up from my bed, went to her room, and rocked her back to sleep. By the time I had my second child, Mari, I had discovered an easier way of dealing with nighttime waking and feeding, so that I missed very little sleep. For her first few months, she slept on a small futon on the floor next to ours. Before going to bed, I prepared a clean diaper at the end of her futon. When she woke in the night, I sat up, changed her diaper, and pulled her to my side, and we both fell back asleep as she nursed.
When your baby is born, she does not know the difference between night and day, so her sleeping patterns are random. At six to nine weeks, she may adjust to sleeping cycles, but it could be four or five months before her biological clock matures to the point that she mostly sleeps at night and is mostly awake during the day. Her biological clock is driven by circadian patterns connected to environmental cycles of light and dark, temperature, seasons, and tides.
Your baby’s main activity for her first year is sleep. She needs 14 to 15 hours or more each day, generally in two- to three-hour increments. These increments vary, depending on each child’s needs, and your baby may require more or less sleep than the average. At times of rapid growth, she will need more sleep, and as she grows and develops, her sleep needs will change. As your baby grows, she experiences two types of sleep.
Amount of Sleep Required for the First Three Years
- Birth to 6 months: 15 to 16 hours
- 6 to 12 months: 14 to 15 hours
- 1 to 2 years: 12 to 14 hours
- 2 to 3 years: 12 to 13 hours
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
In this cycle of sleep, active dreaming occurs, and your baby’s brain gets the nourishment it needs for rapid growth and functioning. While in REM sleep, which is a relatively light stage of sleep, your baby’s heart rate increases, she may move her arms and legs, her eyes may move under the lids, and she may suck or make sounds. Newborns spend most of their sleep time in this stage because their sleep cycles are shorter due to being awakened by hunger or wet diapers. As your baby grows and her systems mature, often by age two, she will spend only about a quarter of her sleep time in REM sleep, just as adults do.
Non-rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep
This is a deeper sleep and starts at around four months old. It includes three cycles of deep sleep and rest, which replenish and strengthen your baby’s body. During non-REM sleep, a growth hormone is released, causing your baby to actually grow while sleeping.
Although a newborn sleeps a lot at first, she also wakes up often because her physical systems are not fully developed yet. For instance, her underdeveloped digestive system can cause her to wake up with an upset stomach or gas. Burping your baby after she eats can help prevent her from waking due to gas. Hunger can also disturb her sleep. Your newborn’s stomach is small, so it cannot hold much food. In her first few months, she wakes to be fed. Breast-fed babies usually wake more frequently because breast milk is lighter and more easily digested, whereas formula-fed babies tend to sleep for longer stretches since formula is heavier and is more difficult to digest.
When your baby is two to three months old, swaddling may be helpful to settle her down and to make her feel secure so that she can go back to sleep. Swaddling means wrapping your baby in a blanket so that she has the snug feeling of being inside her mother’s womb. When she is swaddled, she cannot move her limbs, and this helps her fall asleep. The current school of thought to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is to make sure that babies are on their back when sleeping. If your baby can roll over on her own, then she should not be swaddled. Note that swaddling too tightly may increase the risk of hip or shoulder dysplasia or dislocation.
As your baby gets older, she can sleep for longer cycles. A soothing, dark environment helps her to distinguish night and day. You can keep her comfortable as she sleeps by providing an extra-absorbent diaper. When using a cloth diaper, use a diaper doubler or a larger size. For a disposable diaper, use a nighttime-absorbency version. In addition, sleep bags (sleeveless wearable blankets that are closed at the bottom), footies, or pajamas in breathable fabrics can help regulate her temperature, so she does not wake up from being too hot or too cold.
The food you eat while breast-feeding, and the food your baby eats in general, can directly affect her sleep quality and quantity. Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates, producing a slow, steady rise in insulin, which helps tryptophan enter her brain and trigger the production of serotonin, which promotes restful sleep. Leafy greens and sesame seeds are sources of calcium, which can also activate tryptophan. Magnesium works in your baby’s body as a muscle relaxant. Cherries are rich in melatonin, an antioxidant that helps regulate sleep. Salty or dry foods can create muscle tension, so your baby may have difficulty relaxing, and caffeine and sugary foods can make sleep difficult. In addition, teething, antibiotics, and vaccinations can interrupt sleep.
Going to Sleep
If your baby or toddler has difficulty going to sleep, separation anxiety can be a factor. In response, some parents choose co-sleeping to comfort their babies to sleep, as well as to encourage connection. Others see their baby going to sleep as an opportunity to help their baby learn to self-soothe. They put their baby in a separate bed or a bassinet while still awake and allow her to go to sleep on her own. The goal is that the baby will find that she can calm herself and drift off to sleep independently.
While some parents believe it is best to let their baby cry it out and learn to self-soothe that way, I could never let my babies cry. To me, it seemed too disruptive to their nervous system and too disturbing to their ability to develop a secure attachment. In addition, I could not bear the pain of hearing them cry. I felt that proactively creating a bedtime routine was the best way to help them develop regular sleep habits.
A bedtime routine, including nursing or a bottle, rocking, massage, soothing music, or a bedtime story, can help your baby develop positive associations with sleep. Older children can also find comfort in rituals, such as sleeping with a special plush toy or blanket or wearing certain pajamas. A warm bath and a massage before bed can help your baby wind down from the day, prepare her for sleep, improve circulation, and remove excess salt from her system.
The bedtime routines that you establish in your child’s first years can turn into more age-appropriate bedtime rituals as she grows. For example, reading a book can replace feeding or cuddling. Whatever the age of your child, a positive, firm routine increases her sense of security and helps her sleep well.
A sleep log can help you gather objective data about your baby’s sleep patterns and increase awareness of your own activities and behaviors related to her sleep. For her first three to four months, your baby’s sleep may be irregular while she adjusts to the many factors that affect her sleep. Over time, she will probably develop more regular patterns and habits. Regularity helps her feel safe because she knows what to expect. It also helps her fall asleep more easily.