By Kathryn Peck / Medically reviewed by Dr. Samantha Ball, DO
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an exhausted, sleep-deprived parent with a little one at home. But know this, you’re not alone in the sleep struggle. This fact alone explains why there are so many theories, methods, and products out there designed to help get parents through this phase - or at least get through the night.
Know this, you’re not alone in the sleep struggle.
“Why doesn’t my baby sleep?” you might ask, as I did with each of my children. Well, it could be any number of reasons. Or none of these reasons.
They say that there’s an adjustment period for newborns who are still getting used to their new sleep patterns (which, honestly, as a mom of 4, never made sense to me!). Experts predict that newborns generally sleep 14-17 hours per day, but this is often broken up into naps throughout the day. And what’s really frustrating for new parents: a newborn’s nights and days are often mixed up at first. They sleep all day and are awake all night. (This is how I managed to binge watch all 8 seasons of “Game of Thrones”; take your small victories when you can.)
A newborn’s nocturnal clock should correct itself as it grows and adjusts, but there are a few ways to help nudge this transition along a bit quicker: you could consider limiting naps during the day to 3 hours, or you could consider making your baby’s room appear very different when it’s daytime vs. nighttime. For instance, at nighttime, keep your baby’s room very dark, or perhaps use a sound machine only at night.
Experts recommend that newborns and infants sleep on their backs, as stomach sleeping may lead to a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). That said, some newborns just don’t like sleeping on their backs. In this case, a swaddle might be the answer until your baby can get used to the idea of sleeping on his/her back.
Some newborns might also expect to eat every hour or so. But this is a habit that can be broken by the time they are two or three months old. Speak to your pediatrician first, but there is a time when newborn feedings can be stretched out a bit, and that translates to longer periods of sleep for your baby (and you!).
Babies around 4 to 5 months old should be sleeping 10-16 hours per day (this includes 2-3 naps per day), according to experts. But what tends to happen so often at this age, and I speak from experience, is that you just got into a good sleep routine and it suddenly disappears. You’re back where you started with frequent nighttime wake-ups. That’s sleep regression.
But what tends to happen so often at this age, and I speak from experience, is that you just got into a good sleep routine and it suddenly disappears.
Sleep regression is a routine glitch on the sleep scale that many babies go through around 4 months (also 6 months, 8 or 10 months, and 12 months - okay, okay … any time). You’ll know sleep regression when it hits, and you’ll just have to wait it out. Stick with your routines, and trust that it’s just temporary. In a few days, things will be back to normal.
Also at this age, nap times are often changing for babies. Some babies might drop a nap, even though the stretch to bedtime is too long for them. Unfortunately this can leave you with a fussy baby. But nap times definitely affect nighttime sleeping.
By the time your baby is 6 months old, they should be sleeping 10-11 hours with 2 naps a day. Experts say that babies at this age are completely capable of sleeping through the night (although to be honest, mine never did).
Have you transitioned from a bassinet to a crib around this time? That transition may also trigger a disruption in sleep patterns as well. (For tips on getting through this particular transition, check out our post: “Ch-Ch-Changes: Easing the Transition from Bassinet to Crib.”)
At 6 months, if your baby still needs to be fed or rocked to sleep, it might be time to consider sleep training (gasp!) or better referred to as self-soothing training. There are different methods to consider, but the ultimate goal is to disassociate feedings with sleeping and to teach your baby how to fall asleep without help from a parent and how to fall back asleep when he/she wakes during the night.
Methods you might come across include:
Cry it out or Extinction method. This involves putting your baby to bed and letting them cry until they fall asleep without comfort from you. As long as your baby is changed, fed, and in a safe environment, you don’t go back into their room until morning or until your baby needs to eat again.
Ferber method. Also referred to as "graduated extinction, this involves allowing your baby to cry for a set amount of time before checking in. The set amounts of time get longer and longer until your baby falls asleep, and the idea is that after a few nights, as you gradually increase the length of timed intervals and thus decrease the time you spend in your baby’s room, your baby will learn how to soothe themselves without your help.
Chair method. This method involves sitting in a chair right next to your baby’s crib until they fall asleep. Simply move the chair a bit further away each night until you’re near the door and then out of the room.
Pick up, put down method. This involves putting your baby down to sleep when they are drowsy but awake, and letting them settle themselves for a bit. After a few minutes you can pick your baby up, soothe them, and try it again and again, with the idea that eventually your baby will fall asleep.
And did we mention teething pain as a possible culprit? Some babies get their first tooth as early as 6 months old (which means teething pain can start even earlier). If this is the case, consider teething rings, soothing your baby with gentle pats, or even baby acetaminophen before bedtime (after checking with your pediatrician).
Any disruption in regular routines can also affect sleep routines. Common colds and ear infections; traveling and sleeping in new environments; even major milestones like crawling and walking can disrupt regular sleep routines in babies.
These early months are fraught with change, and while you're looking everywhere for answers, sometimes there aren’t any.
Please note: This is for educational and informational purposes only and is not meant to substitute individual medical advice. For specific and individual advice, always talk to your doctor.
About the author: Kathryn is the owner of Bicycle Pie and mom of 4 little ones. Also a writer, editor, and former owner of one of Boston's premiere baby boutiques, she continues to write about motherhood, children's products, family life, and all other things that test our skills and patience as parents.
About the reviewer: Dr. Samantha Ball, DO, is a pediatrician, cat mom, and advocate for children’s overall health and wellness. She is continually focused on supporting families through all stages in a realistic and evidence-based way. In addition to practicing medicine in Georgia, she shares experiences and her perspectives on topics including parenting tips, mental and physical health, and how to navigate the unexpected challenges that come about when raising kids.