Baby Sleep: What is Normal?

White picket fence, green grass, and blue skies.

You’re so tired you forgot to put on underwear. There seems to be dried curry on your pants but that can’t POSSIBLY be right because you haven’t had Indian food in 2 weeks. Is that curry? Your baby just fell asleep in the car and you’re so desperate for a break that you’re going to just drive by your house and take a short jaunt to Canada. Because the minute you stop the car she’s going to wake up. And frankly if that happens you’re going to cry the ugly cry.

All the parenting books say the first year with a baby is spent in a haze of sleep deprivation caused by night feedings, teething, ear infections, etc. The other Moms in your playgroup look equally exhausted and your neighbor is still night-nursing her 5-year-old. So this is all normal. Right?

Is There Normal Baby Sleep?

In a word, yes.

For the first few weeks after birth, baby sleep may be all over the map. They may sleep so much you find yourself wondering why other new mommies seem so tired. Or they may never sleep for more than 45-minute windows leaving you wondering how you can possibly make it through one more night.

Most newborn babies are extra fussy for a few hours in the evening, often from 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM. This is known as the “witching hour.” Everybody is exhausted and you can’t even play “pass the cranky baby” because all the people you want to pass the baby to (grandparents, friends, etc.) are at home lounging on the couch thinking about how glad they are not to have a fussy newborn to deal with.

It’s a rough time for everybody and the fussiness and non-sleeping tends to peak at 6 weeks. That doesn’t mean you end up with an easy baby at the 7 week mark but things start to gradually get easier from that point on.

Somewhere between 2 to 6 months your baby will consolidate their naps. This means that instead of taking 4-5 tiny naps throughout the day they’ll take ~3 chunky (45+ minute) naps. However regardless of the configuration of their naps (many small vs. few longer) the total amount of time they spend napping and the total hours of sleep at night should be close to the targets outline in the chart below.

Baby Sleep: How Much, When, How Long

Age # Naps Duration of Naps Time Between Naps Bedtime Hrs of Sleep @ Night Total Hrs of Sleep per Day
Birth – 6 Weeks 4-8 15 minutes – 4 hours 45 min – 1 hour Variable but often late 9:00 – 11:00 PM 8-14 14-18 hours
6 Weeks – 3 Months 3-4 30 minutes – 2 hours 1 hour – 1 hour 45 minutes Variable but often late 8:00 – 11:00 PM 8-13 11-15 hours
3-6 Months 3 1-2 hours ~2 hours 8:00 – 10:00 PM 9-12 12-14 hours
6-9 Months 3 1-2 hours 2-3 hours 8:00 – 10:00 PM 9-12 12-14 hours
9-12 Months 2 1-2 hours ~3 hours 7:00 – 8:00 PM 10-12 12-14 hours
12-18 Months 1-2 1-2 hours 3 hours 7:00 – 8:00 PM 10-12 12-14 hours
18 Months – 3 Years 1 1-2 hours NA 7:00 – 8:00 PM 10-12 11-14 hours

Sources: Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, R. Ferber, M.D. & Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, M. Weissbluth, M.D.

Keep track of how much your baby is sleeping for a few days. If you’re somewhere close to the numbers in the chart you’re doing OK. If not, maybe it’s time to make a change.

Common Baby Sleep Problems

Baby is Awake Too Long

Use the chart as a guideline. If your baby is awake dramatically longer than what is indicated in the “time between naps” column, she is likely overtired. This is probably the #1 sleep problem that trips up parents with babies under 1. People think babies will simply fall asleep when they need sleep. It would be great if babies worked that way. It would also be great if babies were born knowing how to use the potty. Sadly neither of these is the case.

Baby is Not Getting Enough Sleep

Your baby should not be getting substantially less sleep than is indicated in the “Total Hrs per Day” column. I can’t tell you how often people try to convince me that their baby just doesn’t need that much sleep.

Bollocks.

I’m not saying that helping babies get the sleep they need is easy. Nor am I saying that you should beat yourself up if you’re doing everything you possibly can and your baby isn’t quite getting as much sleep as you would like. But I AM saying that the chart gives you a pretty good idea of how much sleep your child needs. If you’re vastly off the mark, that’s OK. But let’s keep working towards these numbers as a goal.

Bedtime is Too Late

This is the #2 sleep problem people run into. Typically it is caused by two things. The first is that younger babies (under 6 months) tend to take naps late in the afternoon or early evening which means their bedtime is fairly late (9:00PM – 10:30PM). Whey they stop sleeping in the late afternoon their bedtime should be moved up closer to 7:00PM (parents forget this step and keep the original late bedtime). The second cause is that babies generally wake up far earlier than you would like to. Parents will do just about anything to try to get their baby to sleep past 6:00 AM and they often think that keeping them up later at night will do the trick. However generally keeping your baby up late just reduces the total amount of sleep they’re getting and leads to a chronically sleep-deprived baby.
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No day is so bad it can’t be fixed with a nap. ~Carrie Snow
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Baby Doesn’t Nap at All

If your child is under 3 they almost always need to take a nap. I see parents all the time who have a 2 year old who doesn’t nap who will tell me about how “Little Timmy decided to stop napping just after his 2nd birthday.” Why did Little Timmy get a vote in this decision? Naps are your friend. Even if it seems inconvenient (especially if you have a non-napping older sibling) to maintain a consistent nap schedule with your 2-3 year old preschooler, this is something their little body needs (even if they don’t seem to WANT to do it). Two year old kids are challenging boundaries all day long and are likely to challenge naps as well. Don’t confuse this with a signal that they no longer need a nap.

Baby is Getting Too Much Sleep

I used to believe that there was no such thing as a kid who sleeps too much. In fact I always wanted to be the parent of one of these kids. But I’ve come to learn that some kids who sleep more than expected often have some underlying medical issue that leaves them unusually tired. This is REALLY rare, most often your kid is sleeping longer because you got lucky. If you’re worried, the most frequent causes of sleeping TOO much are sleep apnea and things like celiac disease that hinder your child’s ability to absorb nutrients. Both of which are totally manageable conditions. But if your baby is over 3 months old and seems to sleep far more than what is suggested in the chart, it’s probably time to talk to your pediatrician just make sure everything is OK.

This chart is pretty handy (she pats herself on back) so you may want to download and print out a copy to keep on your fridge for future reference.
[button type=”download” link=”https://www.preciouslittlesleep.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Sleep-By-Age.pdf”]DOWNLOAD SLEEP CHART[/button]
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