What's the best sleep schedule for my new baby?

 I’ve also heard that her brain won’t develop properly if she doesn’t take naps when she’s supposed to.  But other friends tell me that their babies never had a schedule at all and it doesn’t make a difference. At this point, we barely know what time it is anyway (our baby is a month old), but I’m afraid to wait too long and never have a baby who gets enough sleep.  It seems like every opinion I get is different. Every new mom I’ve talked to says they ever know when their babies are going to sleep from one day to the next.

For some parents a predictable nap schedule is like the holy grail, worth seeking no matter what sacrifice.  Other parents don’t feel that they can live with the restrictions needed to achieve a predictable schedule and are willing put up with the consequences. No matter what you hear, there is no perfect solution.  Even parents who are able to build their days around the napping needs of a firstborn sometimes find that the second baby’s naps wind up being on the go so that the older child can get to pre-school or a play date.  

Fortunately, most babies a pretty resilient, and despite dire predictions of sleep experts, they are unlikely to have any long term consequences from irregular daytime sleep, as long as they get the sleep they need in 24 hours. Most babies need at least 14 hours of sleep per 24 hour day during their first six months of life.  Some babies need even more.  A few need less, but in my experience, a baby who gets by on 13 hours is sometimes extra fussy in between naps. A baby who is sleep deprived is less easy to care for, and probably misses out on pleasant interactions throughout the day. That can affect how you relate to one another.  It’s more fun to play with a baby who is alert and happy than one who fusses and tires easily.

Not every baby struggles with naps.  Some have a rhythm that makes it impossible for parents to keep them awake if their inborn clock signals sleep time.  You might wish for a baby like that but a parent who has a baby who loves to sleep can find it hard to meet a friend at the park or squeeze in a trip to the store in between naps.  Part of the reason that you haven’t talked to many other moms whose babies sleep well during the day is that the moms whose babies are napping are at home--perhaps wishing they could be out and about.  

Here’s what you can do now to help your baby nap better. During the first two to three months (longer if your baby was born early), your baby’s sleep will be frequently interrupted by her need to eat.  Frequent feedings are essential for babies! It is the rare baby who can sleep longer than four hours in her newborn period.  Those who do will often need to feed even more often when they are awake and so may sleep even less during the day.  By about about three months most babies have developed a more predictable day/night pattern, with longer stretches of sleep at night and more predictable naps during the day.

What is reasonable to expect?  That’s what gets tricky, because babies are very different.  If you assume that your baby will have a predictable nap time at 3 months because one of your mom’s group friends swear it can happen, you may be disappointed. Babies in this age range naturally have three or four shorter than one hour naps every day, and they may have short snoozes while they are nursing or when they’re in a car or baby carrier.  Some babies might have a 45 minute nap followed by a 1 1/2 hour nap followed by two 30 minute naps! However, you can begin to develop routines that will help her to become more predictable--but maybe not until she’s six months old!  

The key is to have a routine rather than a planned schedule.  A routine is the sequence of events that signal ”time for sleep” . After a while, your baby will begin to respond to cues that help her relax into sleep when she’s tired.  As she gets older, you will start to notice the early signals that she is ready for sleep.  Her eyes might look glazed over, her gaze may wander,  or she may flail her arms a little.  This is the time to start a simple, short routine.  If you wait for the later signals of fatigue, such as yawns and eye rubbing your baby may be too overtired to fall asleep easily. 

Bit by bit, you will intertwine the routine with her times of being ready for sleep.  Bit by bit, her natural rhythms will evolve and you will develop a schedule that works for her.  If she is like most babies, she will need more naps, more often than you might think.  Baby naps can be short!

Here is the average--but not for every baby!--distribution of sleep for most babies:

The most common time for the first nap of the day to begin is 1 1/2 to 2 hours after wake-up time in the morning.  This is almost universally true. That means that you have time to feed, change, play and hardly anything else before it’s time to sleep.  Typically (not always!) the pattern that emerges for the rest of the day is one of two hours awake between each nap.  If the naps vary wildly in length, you will find that you may have to watch carefully for cues to begin the next nap.  

0-3 months:  15-16 hours of sleep interrupted by feeding and quiet alert times, sometimes by fussy and distressed times. Emerging day/night patterns.

3-6 months: 14-16 hours of sleep total with longer periods at night. Three to four naps during the day, ranging in length. May be able to sleep 11-12 hours total at night, 4-6 hours without feeding at night.

6 to 9 months: 13-15 hours of sleep total. Average 10-12 hours at night, sometimes with one feeding. Sleeps 2-3 hours during the day in 2-3 naps.

A one month old baby is ready now for an evening “routine”.  By now you are probably noticing a natural fading at the end of the day, sometime between six and eight p.m.  If you let a baby stay up much later than that, she’s likely to get more and more fussy and often will have more difficulty falling asleep.  Even though you want to play with your baby in the evening, you have to balance that desire with the overall effect on her mood.  If you keep her up and she can still drift into sleep easily, no problem.  But if you are spending a long time soothing an obviously exhausted baby into nighttime sleep, it’s likely that you are asking too much of her at bedtime. If one parent can’t be home early enough for bedtime, one solution is to mold your schedule to hers--go to bed early and start the day early, when she’s fresh.  An imperfect solution, of course, but one that often makes more sense than having a nightly bedtime struggle.

But daytime schedules are different, especially in these early months.  For now, your baby’s job description is basically: eat, grow, rest, sleep.  If you try to make her wait when she’s hungry or play with her when she’s tired, you’re fighting against nature.  If you follow her lead for now, you will become more and more tuned in to her signs and signals, and you will learn together what she needs and how far you can push her--for now.

 

Meg Zweiback R.N., CPNP is an infant sleep consultant in Oakland, California