It’s so hard to know what ‘normal’ is when it comes to infant sleep as our expectations are heavily skewed by cultural norms, social media, TV, books, doctors and even well-meaning friends and family. I’m sure as new parents, we all expect newborn babies to wake frequently and need our attention in the night but we often then assume that after this initial stage, sleep will just get better and better. Unfortunately for most families, this just isn’t true.
Our culture perpetuates a lot of unrealistic expectations around sleep. When we strive to meet these unrealistic expectations, we can often feel stress, guilt, frustration and even failure. Understanding what is normal and age-appropriate can start to give you the freedom to accept your child’s needs rather than trying to force them into something that just isn’t developmentally appropriate.
For example, if you are expecting your baby to be sleeping through the night by 6 months (you hear this everywhere!), you might be surprised to find out that research shows only 16% (1) of 6 month olds are sleeping through. Understanding that waking in the night at this age is actually the norm can stop you feeling like you are failing or doing something wrong.
So before I move to talking you through specific expectations at different ages, there are three things I want you to know about sleep:
1. Sleep is not linear
2. Waking in the night is normal for the first year of life and often beyond
3. Responding to your baby in the night is always the right thing to do
With this in mind, I will now take you through an outline of what you should realistically expect with sleep over the first two years of your baby’s life. Remember that all babies are different, some babies need much more sleep than others, nap more or less than the average and need more or less parental support in the night. It’s always best to watch your little one’s cues and trust your intuition.
Sleep: 0-12 weeks
In the newborn stage (0-12 weeks), or the 4th trimester, babies thrive when the womb environment is replicated. Babies are looking for closeness and connection and often don’t want to be put down. In the first few weeks, sleep is normally spread across 24 hours as babies are not born with an established circadian rhythm. Sleep is often irregular and inconsistent and it’s normal for them to need a lot of support to fall asleep and stay asleep. Learning and following your baby’s cues is important and trying to force a sleep schedule is likely to cause a lot of stress for everyone. Babies are lighter sleepers than adults so they will wake more easily and this is an important protective factor. They also have tiny tummies so will need to feed often too.
Sleep: 3-6 months
As your baby moves towards 3 months of age you MAY start seeing some longer stretches of sleep although regular night waking and feeding is normal and common. When your baby reaches the 4-6 month stage, it’s common to feel that everything is falling apart. There are some huge developmental leaps at this age and babies who were previously sleeping well may start to wake up a lot more at night. Night feeding is still common and you may notice that they need considerably less sleep than they did during the first 3 months. Short naps, contact naps and motion naps are all really normal.
Sleep: 6-9 months
As your baby progresses towards 6-9 months, they have a LOT going on. They are going through huge physical changes as they start to crawl, pull up to stand and sit up on their own. They are also learning to eat proper foods and separation anxiety can start to kick in. All of these things can cause more frequent waking around this age. It’s normal for your baby to want to practice their new skills in the night.
Sleep: 9-12 months
Then as we approach their first birthday, sleep can start to settle down for a while. It’s normal to still need parental support to fall asleep and back to sleep. Some little ones will start to take a longer first nap and resist the second nap but are not really ready to drop to one nap yet. It’s normal for them to still wake in the night especially around the time they start to walk.
Sleep: 12-18 months
Many young toddlers still wake at night and still feed at night although some now have an increased ability to transition between cycles without parental support. The age at which your baby or toddler starts to routinely sleep for long stretches at night without need varies greatly and can often depend on your child’s temperament. Finding the right time to drop from two to one nap can be tricky and there may be a transition phase where your child needs two naps on the busier days.
Sleep: 18-24 months
As your child approaches two years of age, you may find that they are sleeping for much longer stretches. However, one large study (2) reported 26% of toddlers were still waking in the night at 18 months. Some toddlers will now be ready to night wean if they haven’t already but many parents choose to continue breastfeeding at night if it is working for the family.
So there is my quick summary of what to expect during your baby’s first two years of life. I hope that knowing what is normal sets you up with realistic expectations to allow you to parent confidently, to understand that you are not failing and to be reassured that your baby is not broken. However, if you are struggling with sleep (or lack of), there are many gentle and responsive ways to improve sleep without leaving your baby to cry alone. If you would like some support with this, feel free to schedule a call with me today.
(1) Sadler S (1994) Prof Care Mother Child 1994 Aug-Sep;4(6):166-7.
(2) Hysing, M. et al. (2014). Trajectories and Predictors of Nocturnal Awakenings and Sleep Duration in Infants. Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 309-316.