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Baby Sleep Basics

Many parents experience sleep struggles with their little ones. Sleep struggles include taking a long time to get baby to fall asleep, short 40 minute naps, frequent night waking and early morning wake ups. 

I frequently speak with parents after 4 months of age who tell me how well their baby slept at 3 months. They were getting 6-9 hour stretches of sleep, sometimes with only 1 night feed, but then their baby hit the 4 month sleep regression and now their baby wakes up roughly every 3 hours in the night. Why does this happen? 

At any age between 4 and 24 months, there are two main reasons your baby struggles with sleep. 

  1. Your baby is reliant on something external to fall asleep. Then they surface between sleep cycles in the night, which all humans do, they look for that same external factor to help relax them back down to sleep. We sometimes refer to this as a sleep association or sleep crutch. The main sleep crutches are: sucking, touch, motion. Sucking refers to sucking from a bottle, breast or pacifier. Motion refers to motion in a swing, carrier, car seat or stroller and touch is being held or co-sleeping.
  2. Over time, maybe days to even weeks, your baby has fallen into a sleep debt and now is stuck in a negative feedback loop. Your baby is overtired, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Classic signs of overtiredness are:

  • Falling asleep at bedtime and waking up 10-20 minutes into sleep
  • Waking every hour after 12am

While the drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is a learned habit. Physiologically our bodies need sleep. We can’t live without it. Your baby will sleep eventually. Biology will make that happen, but again, how your baby falls asleep is a learned habit. 

Think about yourself. If I said to you tonight that you couldn’t sleep in your favorite position and I’m taking away your pillow, that would be uncomfortable for you. You would toss and turn and be a little frustrated, but after a while you would learn a new way to fall asleep. The same is true of our little ones older than 4 months. They are capable of learning new ways of falling asleep but they need guidance and more structure. 

We often think about getting our babies to sleep as being one quick tip! There should be a quick teaching method we can implement to turn things around. But think about your own sleep. When you’re having a little bout of insomnia, it doesn’t necessarily go away in just one night. Sometimes you have to work to get your sleep back on track with regular bedtimes, watching what you’re eating, winding down routines and more consistency in your behavior. 

The same is true of our little ones. We need to set them up for success with timing of sleep, environmental factors and messaging around sleep. When you feel that the way your baby sleeps is unsustainable, that’s the time when you work on changing the way your baby falls asleep at bedtime, so that can be reproduced on a night waking. Sleep is a learned behavior. You learn with consistency and repetition. Having a different response to the same condition will make it harder for your little one to learn. So when sometimes they wake in the night and you feed them and other times you rock them back to sleep or let them cry, it’s confusing for them. They’re not sure what will happen and so the behavior continues. 

In my method, The Helping Babies Sleep Method; The Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep, I’ve broken this down into 5 pillars with step by step actions. Most people need all 5 pillars in place to have great sleep. 

Pillar 1: Understanding the drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is learned.

Pillar 2: Using Timing to help you implement a flexible schedule. Putting your baby down too early or too late for their age will make it harder for them to settle.

Pillar 3: Being an Intentional Feeder. Feeding on demand is very important but if you’re having sleep challenges one of the most common challenges is mistaking the signs of fatigue for the signs of hunger and perpetuating what I call the snacking cycle. In the snacking cycle you have short frequent feeds. Your baby is somewhat a “distracted” feeder and takes short quick feeds 24/7. It makes it harder for your baby to get longer stretches of night time sleep because the calories are distributed over 24 hours.

Pillar 4: Messaging Sleep. This includes setting the stage and safe environment for sleep and having a bedtime/naptime routine that is consistent.

Pillar 5: Responding. This is what most people think about when they think about sleep teaching. This is the stage, when you’ve worked on the other 4 and still find yourself and your baby struggling with sleep, that you work on changing the way your baby falls asleep and decide how you will respond to protests to change. There are many variations of sleep teaching that might include you in the room right beside your LO offering physical and verbal reassurance or might mean you leaving the room until they fall asleep, or something in between Knowing that sleep is a learned behavior you can now understand that your child will protest change because it makes things uncomfortable for her in the short term, but in the long term they’ll be self soothing and sleeping more than they are now. And that is a good thing. 

A quick overview of how much sleep your baby needs by month:

  • 4 – 24 months, aim for 11 hours overnight sleep 
  • 4-5 months – 3-4 hours of naps
  • 6-8 months – 2-3 hours of naps
  • 9 months and onwards – 1.5 to 3 hours of naps

These are simply guidelines – a great place to start when you’re struggling with sleep.

As a final note, how well your baby sleeps is not an indication of how good of a parent you are. You just haven’t figured out what works for YOUR little person… YET. You will get there and I hope this lesson on understanding how sleep is so much more than bedtime and the pillars of the Helping Babies Sleep Method will help you get there.

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