It can be hard for a new parent to tell how much sleep their baby needs, and some parents may be worried their child isn’t getting enough shuteye. While infant sleep disturbance is very common, actual instances of sleep deprivation are rare.
Newborns wake up frequently and have no rhythm to their sleep patterns. They wake up when they’re hungry and typically sleep the rest of the time. A typical newborn will sleep 16-17 hours a day, although often only in 2- to 3-hour stretches of time.
This on/off cycle will last for several weeks, until the circadian rhythm kicks in. Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle of physical, mental and behavioral changes that people (and animals) follow naturally. It’s what drives our “body clocks” that tell us it’s time to eat or sleep.
A baby’s circadian rhythm will begin to emerge around 2-3 months of age. By the fourth month, a baby will typically follow a predictable pattern. Until the baby’s body clock is running, it’s the parents who are at risk of sleep deprivation! By 5 months of age, babies are often sleeping at least 6-8 hours a night.
A baby can quickly become overtired, which can lead to sleep problems if not recognized by the caregiver. An overtired baby may actually be more active and fussy. This can be caused by skipping naps or putting the baby to bed too late at night. Sometimes, a parent’s well-meaning attempts to soothe an overtired, fussy baby by bouncing or rocking may only worsen the problem, as this only leads to the overstimulation. An overstimulated baby may sleep for shorter periods and wake up more often. This starts a chain reaction that can impact feeding schedule as well.
To avoid an overtired baby, introduce a regular sleeping schedule at a few months of age and practice good sleep hygiene:
- Aim to have your baby in bed between 6-8 p.m.
- About 20-30 minutes before bedtime, dim lights and create a peaceful environment with soft music, rocking, and/or cuddling.
- If your baby is fussy in those late afternoon hours, consider reducing the stimulation for a brief period of time (perhaps swaddled in a dimly lit room) to allow the child to settle.
- Establish a regular feeding schedule.
- Time certain activities to coincide. For example, change your baby’s diaper before feeding. This will make your baby more alert and ready to eat. Afterward, your baby can fall asleep well-fed, dry and comfortable.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, July 2019
- Newborns usually sleep around 17 hours a day, normally in 2-3-hour blocks of time.
- Body clocks, or circadian rhythm, kick in for babies around 3 months of age.
- Skipping naps or putting your baby to bed too late at night can cause a baby to be overtired and fussy.