If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
Immediately after your baby is born, you will see what people mean when they say “sleeping like a baby.” For a few days, babies sleep almost all the time. They barely suck and normally lose weight during this time. A few days later, babies begin to wake up more. This increased wakefulness reflects the normal maturation of your baby’s nervous system. The baby looks around more with wider eyes and is able to suck with more strength and for longer periods. Within days, the weight loss stops and a dramatic growth in weight, height, and head circumference begins. Also, slightly longer periods of wakefulness begin to appear after a few days. Although your baby is intently interested in you and is quickly able to recognize your face and voice, she is not yet curious about objects such as toys or mobiles. She does not appear to care about the general buzz or noises, colors, or other activities surrounding her, and therefore she falls asleep almost anywhere. All babies gradually seem to become more aware of action, motion, voices, noises, vibrations, lights, wind, and so forth as they become more curious. At that point they often do not “sleep like a baby.”
Brief intervals of wakefulness between naps prevents your baby from becoming overtired. Experiment with the first morning nap beginning after only one hour of wakefulness from night sleep. This will prevent a second wind. Brief intervals of wakefulness and brief nap durations will result in many naps each day. Parents have told me to emphasize the point that babies need many naps because it is not intuitively obvious. Babies need to return to sleep within one to two hours after waking from a nap.
Watch your baby closely for drowsy signs (Blog Post 9). If you soothe her during the beginning of drowsiness, most likely she will easily fall asleep. The exception is the colicky baby, who might not fall asleep easily; these babies need longer and more complex soothing efforts to help them fall asleep.
What happens if you miss this window of drowsiness? Your baby will become overtired if she cannot fall asleep because the duration of wakefulness preceding the attempted nap is too long or there is too much stimulation around her. When you or your baby becomes overtired, the body is stressed. Chemical changes then occur to fight the fatigue, and this interferes with the ability to easily fall asleep and stay asleep—that is, the baby gets a second wind. Babies vary in their ability to self-soothe and deal with this stress, and parents vary in their ability to soothe their babies. Not all babies go bonkers if they are kept up a little too long. But you will have a more peaceful and better-sleeping baby if you respect her need to sleep again within one to two hours after waking.
Some young babies will need dark and quiet environments to sleep well, and others will appear to be less sensitive to what is going on around them. Respect your baby’s individuality and do not try to force her to meet your lifestyle. I like the analogy with feeding: We do not withhold food when our baby is hungry. We try to anticipate when she will be hungry, so that we will be somewhere calm where we can feed her. We do not feed her on the run. The same applies for napping. If your newborn does not fall asleep, continue trying to soothe. Do not let her cry or ignore her.
Nap rhythms begin to emerge around 3–4 months of age. As your baby becomes more aware of her environment, she is less likely to sleep well in brightly lit or noisy places in the stroller. A goal is to use her emerging nap rhythms as an aid to obtain long periods of deep day sleep. Now parents better have the opportunity to “catch the wave” of developing drowsiness and synchronize their soothing to a drowsy-but-awake state with the nap wave before it crashes into a second wind. The midmorning nap becomes more regular before the midday nap. Typically, the approximate times are around 9:00 A.M. and between 12:00 and 2:00 P.M. An additional nap or naps occur in the late afternoon or early evening. The midmorning and midday naps may be brief at first, but between 4 and 6 months of age they become more predictable and longer, so that eventually, each nap is 1 to 2 hours long. Often there is one late-afternoon nap, but it may not occur every day and it is usually briefer than the midmorning and midday naps.
After 3–6 months of age, it is possible to inadvertently put your baby to sleep for a nap before or past the time of her biological drowsiness, with the unwanted consequence of accumulating a sleep deficit from no naps or poor-quality naps. Please remember that good-quality naps are those that occur during the biological rhythm of daytime drowsiness, and naps while you are outside and in motion might be less restorative than motionless naps at home or in a quiet park.
Regular sleep schedules in general help anchor healthy sleep. But don’t be a slave to a sleep schedule. Exceptions to your sleep plan, such as skipping naps or staying up late for holidays or special occasions, are fine once or twice a month, but not much more often. Well-rested children tolerate these events and recover quickly. Early bedtimes or naps at home are socially limiting. But it is liberating to be out with a well-rested child who never fusses, and it is liberating for a couple to have relaxed private time in the evening when their child easily falls asleep early at night.
As nap rhythms mature, the naps will become more predictable and longer if and only if they are in sync with biological nap cycles. Although they will not occur at exactly the same clock time every day, you will be able to watch the clock a little more. If you have good timing, you might not see drowsy signs, because you are perfectly catching the sleep wave. Because drowsy signs might be absent and because the naps are now getting longer, you want to move away from the notion of brief intervals of wakefulness and focus more on the clock-time window when your child takes her nap best.
By 6 months of age, 80% of children are taking 2 naps a day and 20% are taking 3 naps a day. The range of total amount of daytime sleep time is wide and the average is 3.5 hours.