Congratulations! If you are reading this you are expecting a child and want to know what their sleep needs are or your baby is already born and you want to make sure their baby sleep needs are met. Either way, you deserve a big round of applause because you want to be informed on your child’s sleep and this is the first step. That is where it all starts.
As we all know, in the womb babies sleep up to 95% of the day. The main reason why they sleep so much is because they are growing all the time. In the womb, they are being rocked every single time you move and your heartbeat and the air entering and exiting your lungs are always present like the perfect music to put them to sleep. One thing to remember is that babies while living in the womb never were stopped from falling asleep. They were able to do it as much as they needed it and whenever they needed it. This won’t be the case after the birth.
The transition from the womb to earthside is drastic and very sudden. Babies go from the perfectly designed environment for them to the loud, dry place full of noises, new smells, and feelings they never experienced and need to learn what they mean. They can’t sleep as much as they used to but we can help them get the sleep they need. Let’s look at how much sleep a child needs during the first 12 months of their life.
Newborns (0-3 months) need a lot of sleep. They are somewhere within 14 – 17 hours of sleep within a 24 hour period. They are on the higher end of that range right after birth. Closer to 3 months of age they may be closer to 15 hours of sleep in 24 hours. Do you wonder why? The answer is simple. Newborns need so much sleep due to everything being new to them. I really mean everything. From the feeling of wearing clothes, being swaddled, being touched to everyday noises and smells. The feeling of hunger and tiredness is new for them as well. Another big and important skill they need to learn is to eat and digest food. They need to learn how to suck and it takes so much energy and patience. In the womb, they sucked but not for nutrition. Nutrition was delivered to them through the umbilical cord. Now they need to do it on their own and it is exhausting. Also, the food that they were receiving in the womb wasn’t going to their stomach to be digested. Now the stomach is receiving breastmilk or formula and needs to work on breaking it down. This process burns calories and makes them tired as well.
One of the challenges during the early days and weeks, for you as a parent and for your little one will be to learn the common language. To do this you will need to observe your child and respond to their hunger, tiredness, boredom, and content cues. Your baby is learning how to express their needs and feelings when you are learning how to read and understand them. Life isn’t black and white so the learning period won’t be so clean cut either. There will be times you will misunderstand your child’s cues and it is okay. You are a team and you are learning all of it together. Everything is a new experience for you and them and both of you need to process it and get used to it.
The bottom line is: they have never experienced the life we live and something normal for you is totally new and unknown for them. Taking a step back, slowing down, and allowing everyone to adjust and learn about the new world is a really important piece of the 4th trimester/your baby’s first 3 months of life. Allowing them to sleep as much as their tiny bodies need will allow the transition to be smoother for them.
Somewhere around 4 months of age, your child will go through something society calls sleep regression and a lot of sleep consultants and coaches call it a sleep progression. During that time your child will still need a lot of sleep but their sleep will be changing from 2 stage sleep to 4 stage sleep. It will cause a disturbance in sleep routine and patterns. How big? Nobody knows. It depends on how well your child will cope with the changes and how fast they will be able to adjust to them. They will still need 12 – 15 hours of sleep. They will be better at showing you their needs and it will be easier for you to read those cues. A lot of parents say this baby sleep regression period is rough because you get used to certain routines and patterns and now everything is changing. The good news is it is a period with a beginning and end. It won’t last forever.
Next, we move in the 5 – 11 months range. Yes! 7 long months. Don’t worry there will be plenty of changes to keep you on your toes but they will be smaller and less drastic. During those months babies will need anywhere from 12 – 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. Depending on how much they sleep during the night and what their individual infant sleep needs are you will be able to figure out how much daytime sleep they need.
The reason why they still need so much sleep is the development and growth they are undergoing during those months. I’m talking about learning how to bubble, rollover, stand up, crawl, maybe even walk, and more. First, they need to learn those skills, get comfortable performing them and then master them. Each step requires a lot of focus, concentration and it is mentally tiring.
Exploring the world — new smells, sounds, textures — is a part of learning and it stimulates their little brains and forces them to take frequent nap breaks to organize all this new information. There is always something new to learn and explore, and it never stops. Their brain just learns how to handle more information at any given moment and not get overstimulated as fast as it did in the past.
Last but not least 12 months of age. This is a time your child may start showing you signs of being ready to drop to one nap a day. Mostly this transition happens between 14 – 16 months and it can happen as late as 18 months or even later if your child’s sleep needs are high or their daytime sleep isn’t enough. 12 months and beyond your child will need 11 – 14 hours of sleep in 24 hours. It will all depend on how many naps they need and what is happening in their life. 12 months of age and up is where your child’s speech and walking skills emerge. If you pay super close attention you will realize they aren’t emerging at the same time. They both take a lot of thinking, focusing, and stimulation and children aren’t able to focus on both of them at the same time. You will hear a parent say “We had an early walker.” or “We had an early talker.”. Both of those kids were on track. They just prioritize one skill over the other. So knowing how much work it is you probably understand why they still need so much sleep.
So here you have it. Babies need so much sleep not because they want to ruin your life and sleep all the time. They need it to be able to function, focus and learn new skills. Their brain undergoes so much stress due to growing mentally and physically so it needs frequent breaks to be able to organize all the information. The end goal is to help your child be happy, well rested, and ready to explore the big world. They are so little just for a short time. Prioritizing sleep and helping them get sleep is important and will teach them to prioritize their sleep when they are older.
An interesting piece of information about babies’ sleep is that when they sleep they spend a lot more time in REM sleep than we adults do. We know that during deep REM sleep all the information recalled will be getting organized and processed letting our brain decide what is important to keep and what not to. Knowing it makes so much sense why babies spend so much time in this kind of sleep. They learn so much new information each and every day and their brains work hard to manage it.
So next time your child shows you their tired cues, slow down. Offer them sleep time. Support them the way they need to be supported during that moment and take a minute to remind yourself about all the wonderful skills they recently learned. The whole world is their playground and they will have plenty of time as they grow to explore it. Today they need an extra nap, an extra hour of sleep. Remember it won’t last forever.