Sleep Tips for the First Year

By Renee Wasserman, PT, MPH March 28, 2014
“How is your baby sleeping?” must be the most commonly-asked question new parents get during the first year of their baby’s life. "It's a given that babies get up a lot during the first three months, and it's important to have realistic expectations," says Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. Sure, there are a few lucky parents whose babies fall into a good sleep pattern and learn to fall asleep without much effort. However, most of us need to help our babies learn to become healthy sleepers. With these realistic sleep expectations and tips for survival, you can keep you and your little one well rested throughout her first year and beyond!

Newborns (0-6 weeks)
During the first few weeks after your baby is born, there is little you can do to control the amount she sleeps and when she sleeps. There is no set pattern, and she many continue to have day/night confusion for several weeks. Sleep patterns can be erratic and fussiness is very common during the first couple months. The good news is that her fussiness will usually peak around the 6-8 week mark. Since you can’t manage her sleeping at this stage, use this time to bond by spending lots of time together and getting to know one another.

Survival Tips:
  • Keep wake times short so that your little one stays well rested.
  • Recreate the womb by using a sound machine (placed on the other side of your baby’s room and set to low or medium volume) and swaddle your baby.
  • Dim the lights in the evening and get plenty of natural sunlight during the day to help with the day/night confusion.
  • Always follow the Back-to-Sleep Campaign’s safety recommendations–-sleep your baby on her back and clear the crib of all toys, bedding, blankets, and bumpers. 
Two-to-Three Months Old
Your baby is probably starting to smile (and not just when having gas!). Not only is this a fun time to see her personality start to blossom, it is also a good time to start laying a healthy sleep foundation. While it is still too early to put your baby on a sleep schedule, you may start to see longer stretches of nighttime sleep (4-6 hours). Your little one is likely napping 4-5 times per day. This is a good age to start practicing putting her to sleep while she is drowsy but awake.

Survival Tips:
  • Work towards having your baby sleep in a consistent place for all sleep.
  • Begin using a pre-sleep routine to help her wind down and get ready for sleep.
  • Watch her wakeful periods. A two-month-old baby generally can’t stay awake for more than an hour and some babies need to be back asleep before the hour is up. Keeping her well rested will keep her from becoming overtired.
  • While she is not old enough for sleep training, try leaving her alone for a few minutes at a time to see if she can learn to put herself to sleep on her own.
Four-to-Six Months Old
At 16 weeks, your baby is developmentally ready to start working towards a daytime schedule. Now is a good time to be sure she is sleeping in a consistent place for all naps and night sleep. She should be getting nice consolidated stretches of sleep at night. Continue to give your little one lots of opportunities to practice soothing herself to sleep at both nights and naps. Most babies are taking three naps each day. These naps often fall around 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 3 p.m.

Survival Tips:
  • Be sure the temperature in the room is cool for sleeping. The ideal sleeping temperature is 65-70 degrees.
  • If your baby is rolling, stop swaddling and transition her to a sleep sack.
  • Continue to use a consistent, calming routine before all naps and nighttime.
  • Day sleep can take weeks to settle, so lots of patience and consistency are very important.
  • Be sure to get your baby to sleep for naps and for night before she becomes overtired. Remember that an overtired child often has a harder time settling for sleep and wakes more often during the night and earlier in the morning.
Six-to-Nine Months Old
Daytime sleep should really be settling at this point. Many babies begin to drop the third nap around six or seven months and some never really take to it. By nine months, your baby should be taking two naps each day. It is reasonable to still feed your baby once a night, but by nine months (if not sooner), most babies can sleep through the night without a feed.

Survival Tips:
  • If your baby does not take a third nap, be sure to get her to bed early enough so that she does not become overtired.
  • Remember that sleep begets sleep, so an earlier bedtime should not result in an earlier wake time.
Developmental leaps like crawling, standing, and walking can put a minor hiccup in sleep. Stick with the schedule that you know works. Spend lots of time practicing the new skill when she is awake and know that this, too, shall pass within a couple of weeks.

Ten-to-Twelve Months Old
By now your little one’s sleep should be fairly consistent. She should be taking two naps each day around 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. that last for a total of 2-3 hours each day. Expect the afternoon nap to become the longer of the two naps. When planning for the future, keep in mind that most babies transition to one nap between 15 and 18 months. Do your best to hold onto two naps each day for as long as possible.

Survival Tip:
  • Developmental leaps and teething should only be a hiccup in your little one’s sleep if a healthy foundation has been established.
Remind yourselves that consolidated night and day sleep take time, patience, and consistency to evolve, but are so necessary for your baby to develop and grow both physically and mentally. The more you prioritize her sleep from the very beginning, the better off you, your baby, and your family will be!

Renee Wasserman, PT, MPH, founder of SleepyHead Solutions, is a Family Sleep Institute-certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant. She offers many services including phone, email, Skype/FaceTime, and in-person consultations to solve your child’s sleep challenges. Feel free to email her with any questions. You can find out more information at her website and on her Facebook page.