There are so many studies that claim to prove the number of hours a baby should sleep. But these studies vary on what the exact number should be. The fact is, as humans, we don’t conform to an exact science - we’re all different.
That’s the very reason there will be variations in what the research tells us and variation in how much your baby will sleep.
But, in terms of hours, how much should my baby sleep?
Babies vary from day to day, so how can there be a perfect number of hours they should sleep? Some sleep longer while others have fewer hours than ‘normal’ but are happy and thriving. The range of ‘normal’ varies enormously. The best way to assess what’s right for your baby is to monitor your baby’s behaviour.
Essentially, are they tired and need more sleep? If they’re grizzly or fussy and mostly unhappy when awake, then it’s highly possible your baby needs to be offered more sleep opportunities more often. Like adults, babies don’t function at their happiest if they’re not getting enough sleep!
Sure, but how many naps are normal?
Naturally, the number of naps varies between babies and over the course of each day. Some babies feed well and will sleep for 3 or even up to 4-5 hours, though often after that they may have a couple of short naps and feed in quick succession. Other healthy and happy babies feed more often and have more naps. That’s why it’s critical to read your own baby’s behaviour to see what they need each day.
Some baby sleep tips to help
Just because they wake...
Most babies are not able to power on for hours without sleep. Yes, babies can be awake for long, long periods but usually at the expense of calmness and contentedness. These babies are often unsettled and overtired even though they may look aware, alert and very active. If you look closely, you’ll probably see they’re a little too active.
They become distressed easily and often for no obvious reason. This behaviour is a good sign that your baby is probably overtired and wants to sleep.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m hungry.
Our babies have tiny tummies and small energy reserves. They can only hold small amounts of milk at a time, so they often only nap for a little while before they get hungry again. Babies should often wake, feed and sleep again quite soon.
This cycle will repeat throughout the day, especially for young babies.
Baby sleep ‘regression’
Around 6-8 weeks, 16 weeks and again at around 7-8 months, sleep might become fragmented. These are all normal periods of development and to be expected, so resist the urge to ‘train’ your baby to sleep when they are progressing through a disrupted phase.
Each phase will pass, and big sleeps will return, especially if you remain alert to tired signs, times for comforting and times for just a little space. If your baby is supported through these developmental shifts, then they can just progress on to the next phase. As babies become more mobile, they may begin to have interrupted sleeps as well, but this too will pass. Read more about how to come during infant sleep regression.
Also, with increased mobility may come a need to sleep for longer periods, so your baby may have longer naps during the day to recuperate. Again, every baby is different, and if we accept the differences and read the babies cues and behaviours, everyone will be happier.
Don’t force it
Focusing on how much sleep a baby should get, and insisting your baby must sleep for a predetermined number of hours or at particular times, may have the opposite effect to what you’re hoping to achieve. If your baby finds settling for sleep times stressful, they may be unable to settle because they’ve come to associate sleep with distress.
If you want to help your baby sleep, then help them find calm, which helps them more easily drift off to sleep. Research now tells us that if we respond to a baby's distress at sleep time in caring ways, they can sleep for longer while at the same time experience reduced stress levels.
Signs your baby is tired and ready for sleep
So how do you know if your baby is getting the right amount of sleep? Look at them.
- Watch for tired signs because they’re the only real indicators that tell you how much sleep YOUR baby needs;
- Your baby may well sleep more or fewer hours than other babies. If they’re gaining weight, if they’re happy, feeding well and settling for sleep with relative ease, then your baby is getting the right hours of sleep;
- Resist the urge to make your baby sleep when they are not showing any tired signs at all;
- Tired signs are what we see when the brain is preparing the body for sleep, so if you offer sleep opportunities when the brain is already preparing for sleep, then drifting to sleep will happen more easily; and
- However, if you miss the tired signs, your baby can quite quickly become overtired and getting an overtired baby to sleep can be really difficult for both baby and parents.
Learn more about what tired signs look like and what to look out for.
Helen Stevens. Registered Nurse, Midwife and Maternal Child and Family Health Nurse, with qualifications in Infant Mental Health and a range of early childhood interventions. As author, researcher, educator and clinician, she has specialised in infant sleep for over 20 years and has world recognition for her work. Go to www.helenstevens.com.au for more great information and help for parents.