Your baby’s sleeping patterns

One of the most common exclamations from new parents is ‘my baby won’t sleep’. This article explains why newborn babies sleeping patterns fluctuate and also how to encourage sleep.

This article includes:
Night-time waking
Understanding day and night 
Encouraging sleep
Sleep training approaches
Safe sleeping guidelines
Your own sleep
Bedtime
Further information

Babies need a lot of sleep because they have so much new information to process and they are growing and developing at such a fast pace.

Night-time waking

If your baby keeps waking up at night it can become very tiring. Night waking in the early weeks and months is normal newborn behaviour. Most babies are unable to sleep through the night — particularly those younger than 12 weeks. Young babies have small stomachs so they need to spread their feeding over a 24-hour period. However, as babies grow they tend to sleep for longer periods at night.

While for adults about four-fifths of sleep is deep sleep at night; babies spend more time in light sleep. This means they can wake up more easily than adults.

Understanding day and night

At first, babies don’t know that night-time is for sleep and day-time is for being awake. They gradually develop this knowledge over the first few months but early on you may find your baby waking too early or at night. By the age of three to six months, and sometimes earlier, patterns begin to emerge with day-time naps becoming increasingly shorter and night-time sleeps longer. Babies’ sleep can also be affected by exposure to daylight and their body temperature. Time spent in daylight, especially the afternoons, seems to help babies to sleep longer at night.

Sometimes parents are encouraged to keep their babies awake during the day so that they will sleep better at night — but the results of this are variable, and difficult to be sure of, especially as babies change their sleeping and waking patterns as they grow, whatever you do. Preventing a tired baby from sleeping can be stressful in itself, as they may cry and fuss, and drop off to sleep anyway! 

Clock changes - daylight saving time

When it comes to the clock changes – in spring and in autumn – some parents prepare for this a week or so in advance. If your baby or toddler is in a predictable sleeping routine, you might want to adjust it by 10 or 15 minute increments each evening and morning. Keep the room where your baby sleeps darker, so they are unaware of, and unstimulated by, the brighter evenings or mornings when the clocks change. 

Some people just keep to the same times and alter daytime naps or have lots of fresh air and exercise the day before the clocks change. If your baby is an early riser you may need to take a nap in the day or go to bed earlier yourself.

Usually any disruption caused by the clock change will be temporary and even if you do nothing they will naturally adapt to the new time over a few days.

Encouraging sleep

If your baby won't sleep alone and you want to encourage your baby to sleep on their own, you could try one or more of the following:

  • Place them sleepy, but awake, in their cot at bedtime with a favourite toy. This has been shown in research studies to increase the proportion of babies who go to sleep without a parent being present and the length of time babies sleep at night.
  • Introduce a regular bedtime routine, such as a bath, or reading a book together. This has also been found to assist settling and sleep.
  • Turn down the light and minimise talking, playing and disturbance when your baby wakes during the night.
  • With young babies under a year, some people find that additional feeds during the evening, or semi-waking their baby for a feed between 10pm and midnight, can help them sleep for longer stretches at night. This is sometimes called ‘dream feeding’. This approach can be used for both breastfed and formula-fed babies. The research evidence on the effectiveness of this approach is mixed.
  • Try to encourage continuity in your baby's sleep by trying to get them to rest in the same place the majority of the time.

During the early weeks and months, some babies need more help than others to soothe themselves and fall asleep. Keep going with your routine and try to apply the above tips as much as you can.

Sleep training approaches

Some parents explore sleep training approaches to encourage a regular sleeping pattern.

One way of sleep training is controlled crying, which involves putting baby down to sleep at regular times to go to sleep on their own. Parents can leave the room and return to check on the baby at regular intervals, and to settle the baby once more. Some parents stay with the baby, without removing the baby from the cot. Each approach can involve prolonged bouts of crying.

Another method is known as ‘crying it out’ which means leaving the baby to fall asleep after increasingly long periods without soothing.

Any form of sleep training involving crying is controversial. Concerns have been raised about the long-term effects of this approach, because it can be stressful for the baby. Some parents find the thought of leaving their baby to cry stressful themselves. For others, it may feel like the only option left to encourage their baby to get off to sleep on their own. If you do want to try sleep training, it’s important to be realistic about how often and why your baby wakes frequently (see above).

You should also make sure there aren’t any physical or medical reasons for frequent night waking, such as reflux, before trying any sleep training methods with your baby.

Speak to your health visitor. There may also be local sleep support services in your area, where you can discuss what options feel comfortable to you.

Unsoothable crying

Unfortunately, some babies keep on crying for no apparent reason, even when you’ve tried everything.  They may be suffering from colic, which is characterised as ‘excessive crying or extended and repeated periods of crying or fussing in babies who are otherwise healthy and thriving’.

Colic usually begins within the first few weeks of life and generally ends at around 12 weeks. Caring for a baby who is suffering from colic can be exhausting as well as distressing. Make sure you get all the help you can, from your partner, relatives, friends, health visitor or GP.

Safe sleeping guidelines

The risk of cot death or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is increased:

  • For premature or small-for-dates babies.
  • By smoking during pregnancy or anyone smoking in the baby’s presence.
  • Using a duvet or pillow for a baby under one year old.
  • Sleeping with another child.
  • Sleeping with an adult who has been smoking, drinking alcohol or taking any drugs which cause drowsiness or affect depth of sleep.

Sleeping on a sofa or any other soft surface also carries much higher risks for your baby. There are also safe sleeping guidelines depending on where your baby sleeps. Read more about co-sleeping safely with your baby and sleeping safely in a cot. 

Your own sleep

Having your sleep disrupted or going without sleep when your baby keeps waking up can be physically and emotionally draining. And sometimes, it might feel like your baby just doesn’t want to sleep, despite everything you try. If you have disturbed nights, getting through the day can be more difficult. However, it is important to keep in mind that this period of sleep disruption won’t last forever.

If you can arrange times when you can catch-up on sleep during the day and allow yourself to leave non-essential jobs undone in the early weeks at least, you may find it easier to cope.

If you are finding it difficult to sleep when your baby sleeps even though you feel exhausted, talk to your health visitor or your GP, as although this is common, it could be an indication of postnatal depression.

Bedtime

Most babies will develop a regular sleep pattern over time, although these will continue to change as they grow. Eventually, you will probably find that they have a regular bedtime so you can finally get that longed-for night’s sleep.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

The Lullaby Trust has lots of useful information and support for parents about safe sleep.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.