Establishing good sleep habits early can stop baby sleep problems before they start. Learn about baby sleep at every age, why a routine matters, and how to swaddle your baby .
Typical sleep patterns for newborns
Newborns sleep a lot – typically up to 16 to 17 hours a day. But most babies don't stay asleep for more than two to four hours at a time, day or night, during the first few weeks of life.
The result? Lots of sleep for your baby and a very irregular – and tiring – schedule for you. As a new parent, you'll probably be up several times during the night to change, feed, and comfort him.
Why newborn sleep patterns are unpredictable
Baby sleep cycles are far shorter than those of adults, and babies spend more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is thought to be necessary for the extraordinary development happening in their brain.
All this unpredictability is a necessary phase for your baby and it doesn't last long – though it may seem like an eternity when you're sleep-deprived.
When your baby will start to sleep longer
At 6 to 8 weeks of age, most babies begin to sleep for shorter periods during the day and longer periods at night, though most continue to wake up to feed during the night. They also have shorter periods of REM sleep, and longer periods of deep, non-REM sleep.
Somewhere between 4 and 6 months, experts say, most babies are capable of sleeping for a stretch of 8 to 12 hours through the night. Some infants sleep for a long stretch at night as early as 6 weeks, but many babies don't reach that milestone until they're 5 or 6 months old and some continue to wake up at night into toddlerhood. You can help your baby get there sooner, if that's your goal, by teaching him good sleep habits from the start.
How to establish good baby sleep habits
Here are some tips to help your baby settle down to sleep:
Give your baby a chance to nap frequently. For the first six to eight weeks, most babies aren't able to stay up much longer than two hours at a time. If you wait longer than that to put your baby down, he may be overtired and have trouble falling asleep.
Teach your baby the difference between day and night. Some infants are night owls (something you may have gotten a hint of during pregnancy) and will be wide awake just when you want to hit the hay. For the first few days you won't be able to do much about this. But once your baby is about 2 weeks old, you can start teaching him to distinguish night from day.
When he's alert and awake during the day, interact and play with him as much as you can, keep the house and his room light and bright, and don't worry about minimizing regular daytime noises like the phone, music, or dishwasher. If he tends to sleep through feedings, wake him up.
At night, don't play with him when he wakes up. Keep the lights and noise level low, and don't spend too much time talking to him. Before long he should begin to figure out that nighttime is for sleeping.
Look for signs that your baby's tired. Watch your baby for signs that he's tired. Is he rubbing his eyes, pulling on his ear, or being more fussy than normal? If you spot these or any other signs of sleepiness, try putting him down to sleep. You'll soon develop a sixth sense about your baby's daily rhythms and patterns, and you'll know instinctively when he's ready for a nap.
Consider a bedtime routine for your baby. It's never too early to start trying to follow a bedtime routine. It can be something as simple as getting your baby changed for bed, singing a lullaby, and giving him a kiss goodnight.
When is it safe to let my baby sleep on his tummy?
To reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), experts recommend that you place your baby on his back when you put him down to sleep during his first year. The risk of SIDS peaks between 1 and 4 months of age but remains a threat until babies are 12 months.
Once your baby is strong enough to roll from back to front and front to back by himself, you don't need to worry about him rolling onto his stomach during sleep. But you should still put him down to sleep on his back until he is a year old.
Of course, you'll also want to follow other precautions to reduce the risk of SIDS throughout your baby's first year. Make sure his mattress is firm with just a fitted sheet over it and there's nothing else in his crib – no pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, or even crib bumpers. Don't overheat the room or overdress your baby, and don't let anyone smoke near him.
Preventing SIDS is the most important reason to put your baby to sleep on her back, but a study published in 2003 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found other benefits, too: Infants who sleep on their back suffer from fewer ear infections, fevers, and stuffy noses than babies who sleep in other positions.
By the way, there's no need to worry that your baby is more likely to choke or aspirate (if she spits up, for example) while she's on her back. Studies have shown that there is no increase in the likelihood of this happening to a baby sleeping on her back.