Babies have very short sleep cycles. They need to feed often so they wake often. Remember to respond to a baby, especially when they are crying. As they grow, their sleep cycles get longer. Babies also need to have a safe place to sleep.
Infant sleep patterns
Newborn babies have very short sleep cycles – so they wake up and need to feed often (newborn babies need to breastfeed at least 8 times over a 24-hour period).
- Babies' sleep patterns will change as they grow.
- Newborns might mix up their days and nights, which means they might sleep longer during the day and be more alert and feed more frequently at night.
A more predictable sleep pattern can be encouraged by keeping a newborn's environment bright and noisy during the day and keeping it quiet and dark at night. Taking a baby out in the fresh air during the day can help to set their sleep cycle – and yours too!
Remember that every baby’s sleep needs and sleeping patterns are different.
- Babies from birth to 3 months old need about 14-17 hours of sleep, including naps, and may be alert for one to three hour stretches.
- 4 to 11 month olds sleep about 12-16 hours in a 24-hour day; this includes daytime napping.
- By one year of age, most children will sleep a total of 11- 14 hours per day, including daytime napping, with more consistent bedtimes and wake up times.
Sleeping through the night
Believe it or not, “sleeping through the night," according to the “sleep experts,” is five hours! That might not mean sleeping through the night in your books… but a baby might be sleeping through the night by this definition. Most babies don’t sleep through the night until at least 8-9 months.
Newborns need to wake many times during the night because they have small tummies that cannot hold large amounts of milk. Breast milk is digested quickly so most young babies will need to breastfeed at least eight times in 24 hours.
It is completely normal for babies to wake up at night. Some reasons for waking include:
- Sensitivity to temperature, light, noise or touch
- Growth spurts
- Learning new things/ developmental milestones
- Loneliness (needing a cuddle)
It's very important to respond to a baby when they are crying.
Helping babies sleep better
All babies are different and some babies need more help getting to sleep and staying asleep than others. Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure to help a baby sleep all night long. A baby’s temperament plays a big part in how they sleep. Starting solid foods does not help babies sleep through the night.
Settling a baby
Learning and recognizing a baby's sleep cues (such as a blank look, yawning, rubbing their face or ears) helps you notice when they are getting tired and when to encourage sleep. These ideas may help to encourage sleep:
- Hold the baby
- Keep their sleeping environment dark
- Sing, create white noise (e.g., fan) or play relaxing music. If using a white noise machine, consider placing it as far away from the infant as possible, at a low volume and for a short amount of time.
- Avoid using screen devices to help a baby sleep
- Provide motion. Try to rock or sway with baby, walk with baby safely in a carrier or stroller.
Bedtime and nap routines
Having a bedtime routine can help to improve a baby’s sleep patterns. You can start an evening routine (it may only be one or two of the following activities) to give a clear signal to the baby that sleep time is coming. Try to follow the steps in the same order each night so that the routine becomes a cue for the baby to get ready for sleep.
You can try the following activities to help prepare a baby for sleep
- Reading (choose a set number of books)
- Dimming lights
A consistent, predictable daily routine (external link) helps children develop regular sleep habits, making them feel settled. Remember, getting outdoors most days is a great part of a daily routine.
Some babies have trouble taking daytime naps. Lack of daytime sleep can affect babies' nighttime sleep, so a good nap routine can help their overall sleeping patterns. Sometime after 3 months, babies will start to have more predictable sleep habits and you can expect a more regular nap schedule. Nap routines can also give them cues that it is time to take a nap during the day. Nap routine should be shorter than bedtime routine and have fewer steps.
- Keep a journal of the times they get sleepy and want to take a nap for a few days so that you know what times they need to nap.
- From the journal, decide on a nap schedule (the number of naps needed depends on the age of the baby).
- For 1-2 weeks, try to get the baby to sleep at those times. You might need to try different ideas to help get the baby to sleep at those times.
- Once the baby is on a more regular schedule of napping, you can try easier methods of getting the baby to sleep.
- If they are used to sleeping at certain times, it should be easier to get them to sleep for their nap.
If a baby is taking short naps, then try this tip.
- Go to the baby shortly before the time they usually wake up.
- As soon as the baby shows signs of waking, help them get back to sleep by patting or rubbing them, humming, shushing, singing or whatever else works to soothe them back to sleep.
Responding to crying
It is very important to respond to a baby when they are crying. This tells them that you are there for them when they need you so they learn to trust you.
Research has shown that babies who are picked up consistently when they cry in the first six months actually cry less in the second six months of life than those babies who are not picked up consistently when they cry.
Why do babies cry?
Crying is the only way that a baby can let you know how they feel. Some reasons a baby might cry are:
- Pain or discomfort
- Too hot / cold
- Tired or over-stimulated
- Needing a diaper change
- Just because
It can be difficult to figure out why a baby is crying. It's normal to feel upset when you do not know why. If you feel like you might lose control, then place the baby in a safe place and leave them there for a few minutes while you try to relax or call someone for help.
It is very likely that the only time a baby or young child will be left unattended is while they sleep. Make sure that children are sleeping where they will be safe.
Visit Is Your Child Safe? Sleep Time (external link) for more information.
Safe sleep for babies
The safest place for a baby to sleep is in a crib, cradle or bassinet that meets Health Canada Safety Standards (external) is in their parent/caregiver's room for the first 6 months of life. The most important way to reduce a baby’s risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is to put them on their back to sleep on a firm, flat surface. It is not safe for a baby to sleep for long periods of time in products such as strollers, car sears, swings, bouncers, slings or baby carriers.
Watch this video (external link) on safe sleep for babies.
Infants with specific medical conditions might need alternate sleep positions as advised by a healthcare provider.
Preventing SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
SIDS (also known as crib death) refers to the sudden and unexpected death of a healthy baby less than one year of age.
Take these 5 steps to reduce the risk of SIDS:
- Provide a smoke-free environment, before and after the baby is born.
- Always place a baby on their back to sleep, at naptime and night time.
- Provide a baby with a safe sleep environment that has a firm surface and no pillows, comforters, quilts or bumper pads. If using a sleep sack as a type of sleep clothing make sure it fits properly.
- Place the baby to sleep in a crib, cradle or bassinet next to the parent/caregiver's bed.
For more information about safe sleep for babies, check out the Public Health Agency of Canada's Safe Sleep for Your Baby brochure (external link).
Health Canada has extensive information about crib safety (external link) and tips for purchasing a crib for an infant. Remember these tips:
- Look for a label so that you know when the crib was made.
- Cribs made before 1986 are not safe.
- As of December 2016, the sale, importation, manufacture or advertisement of traditional drop-side cribs is prohibited
Follow these safety considerations:
- Do not modify a baby’s crib in any way and check it regularly to make sure that no parts or screws are loose.
- Crib, cradle or bassinet posts should not be more than 1.5mm (1/16 inch) high and their bars no more than 6 cm (2 3/8 inches) apart
- The crib mattress should be firm and fit tightly to the edges of the crib with no gaps.
- Bumper pads, stuffed toys, comforters, blankets and sleep positioners are not recommended.
- If using a mobile or toy bar, then remove it when the baby can push up on their hands and knees.
- Use a fitted crib mattress
- Do not harness or tie a baby in their bed.
- Make sure that nothing outside the crib is within baby’s grabbing reach, such as blind cords, lamps, shelves, curtains, etc.
- Move the crib mattress to its lowest level when the baby can push up on their hands and knees.
- A crib should not be used if the child is taller than 90 cm or if the child is able to climb out of it
Sharing a room with a baby or “room-sharing (external link)” refers to placing a baby on a separate sleep surface (in a crib or cradle or bassinet) to sleep in the same room where a parent/caregiver sleeps. Ideally, the baby should be within arm’s reach of where the parent/caregiver is sleeping. Health Canada recommends room-sharing with a baby until at least six months of age.
Benefits of room-sharing:
- Reduces risk of SIDS for babies under 6 months
- Helps establish and maintain breastmilk supply
- Helps make nighttime breastfeeding easier
- Makes it easier to respond to the baby and promotes attachment
- Helps parent/caregiver get more sleep
- Provides reassurance that the baby is safe
Bed-sharing is when a baby sleeps on the same sleep surface (in the same bed) as a parent/caregiver. Health Canada does not recommend bed-sharing due to risks of baby suffocation and falls-related injuries.
However if choosing to bed-share (bed sharing should be done in a bed and never on sofas or in recliners) use this safety checklist:
- Breastfeed: A breastfed baby will sleep at the level of the breast (away from the pillow) and will wake frequently to nurse.
- No Smoking: Second-hand smoke exposes a baby to harmful chemicals which puts them at an increased risk of SIDS
- No drug or alcohol use: Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal) changes the way a parent/caregiver sleeps and reacts. Sharing a bed with a baby when under the influence of drugs or alcohol puts the baby at risk.
- Not for preemies, or babies with health issues: Babies that are born before 37 weeks, and babies with serious health problems may be at an increased risk for SIDS or suffocation
- Place the baby on their back: This will usually just happen naturally as the baby finishes feeding at the breast.
- No swaddling or overdressing the baby: Dress the baby in a light sleeper or onesie, or in the same number of layers that you are wearing. Overheating may put a baby at risk.
- Choose a safe sleep surface: Bedsharing should only be done in a bed and never on sofas or in recliners. The bed should have a firm mattress and heavy comforters and blankets should be removed. Ensure there are no spaces where the baby could become stuck or fall out of bed.
- Baby loungers, nests or pods (portable pad with soft base and siding) and other soft products are not recommended for infant sleep. These products could increase the risk of suffocation and should not be placed in adult bed for the baby to sleep in.
If unable to follow these safety practices, it is safest for a baby to sleep on a separate sleep surface in a parent/caregiver's bedroom.