Baby Sleeping Habits: What Every Parent Should Know

Smiling baby girl lying on a bed sleeping on blue sheets

Key Points

  • Baby sleeping habits change considerably over the first year.

  • Most babies sleep through the night after about six months, but nighttime waking is still common.

  • Encourage nighttime sleeping by establishing daytime and nighttime routines.

  • Watch for early signs of sleep disorders.

One of the most challenging things for a new parent to get used to is baby sleeping habits. There usually seems to be no pattern at all. You probably have many questions if you're awake at 2:00 AM trying to calm a suddenly restless infant. What are normal baby sleeping habits like, and what signals a disorder? When will the baby start to sleep on something more like an adult schedule?

You ask, and Snooze has answers. Read on to learn all about the remarkable development of baby sleeping habits, how to interpret them, and how to ease the baby into better sleep habits.

What Is a Normal Baby Sleep Pattern?

You might've heard of the four stages of sleep, which is the typical sleep cycle for adults and children after age five. In short, you go through three stages of progressively deeper sleep and then a fourth stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is when the most intensive dreaming occurs, and your eyes and sometimes other parts of your body twitch.

If you have a regular adult sleep pattern, you go through roughly 90-minute cycles of these four stages about six times a night. Babies, however, take a while to develop this adult pattern. Experts suggest that babies have only two stages, REM and non-REM, also known as active and quiet sleep. During active sleep, the baby's arms and legs move, eyelids flutter, breathing sounds agitated, and they might whimper or grunt. During quiet sleep, they're pretty much sacked out.

However, the more noticeable difference between a baby's sleep and an adult's is that adults normally sleep in seven- to nine-hour nighttime blocks, perhaps waking once or twice but usually dropping off again soon after. Babies follow a much more random pattern of sleeping and waking, which slowly solidifies into a normal day-night pattern. Here's how it usually develops.

Baby sleeps in the arms of their mother

Birth to 3 Months

The first two months of your baby's life involve a lot of sleeping — typically 14 to 18 hours in a 24-hour day. However, babies this age rarely stay asleep for long. The active-quiet sleep cycle usually lasts less than an hour, and active sleep takes up more than half of it. This is a much greater proportion than REM sleep in adults, which takes up around 20 percent of total sleep time. Babies are also capable of plunging straight from wakefulness into REM sleep, unlike most adults.

Newborns have a practical reason for waking so often: They're growing rapidly and need food, but their small stomachs can't hold much at once. Therefore, waking up to feed the baby at night is just part of new parenthood.

3 Months to 6 Months

After three months of age, a baby's sleep usually starts to get more nocturnal, though they still take long daytime naps. If you're lucky, they start sleeping through the night at this age but usually still wake up at least once.

The baby's cycle normally exhibits the adult pattern of quiet sleep first, then active sleep later. The proportion of time spent in active sleep also starts to diminish.

6 Months to 12 Months

After six months, total sleep time shrinks to around 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours, most occurring at night. At this age, most babies start to sleep through the night at least sometimes, though nighttime wake-up calls are still common. Children have more carrying capacity for food by now, so you can phase out nighttime feeding so long as they get enough to eat before bed.

Baby sleeps on their father's chest

Backsliding Is Normal

While the above describes the general pattern of sleep progression, "sleep regression," in which the baby returns to the sleep habits of a few months earlier, is also typical. This often comes from disruptions like growth spurts, changes in the household, and other minor stresses. You don't need to worry about sleep regressions unless they last more than a couple of weeks.

What Makes a Baby Restless at Night?

While you may have accepted that the baby will sometimes wake you up at night, you want to minimize that as much as possible. If the baby is waking up a lot at night, even in the latter half of their first year, what's the cause?


Babies need to eat often but get especially hungry during growth spurts. Typically, growth spurts occur at the age of two to three weeks, three months, and six months. Such times are also ripe for sleep regression, as the jacked-up metabolism makes it harder for the baby to settle down.

Separation Anxiety

Although it's normal in modern American society for kids to have separate rooms, that was not the case for most of human history, especially when it came to babies. Babies are helpless and dependent on adults, so it's unsurprising that they get nervous when left alone in the dark. Sometimes, a baby crying in the night simply wants company.

Digestive Issues

Babies' digestive systems are still forming in the first year, which is why they can only consume a limited range of foods. It's common for babies to get uncomfortable gas in their systems, both from troubled digestion and air swallowed while nursing. Vomiting something indigestible is also common among infants, though it could be a sign of illness if frequent.

Father holds baby on their shoulder where baby sleeps


Room temperature is an often-overlooked factor in good sleep. Adults generally sleep best in cool but not frigid rooms — think mid-60s — but infants, with their smaller bodies, need a little more warmth. If the baby is too warm or too cold, they often have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.

Sleep Disturbances

Babies spend a lot more time in REM sleep than adults, so they're probably having a lot of vivid dreams. Sometimes those dreams are bound to be bad, and the baby shows signs of distress while asleep and seems out of sorts when waking up.

Another phenomenon more common in children than adults is night terrors, in which the sleeper shows signs of fear and distress during non-REM sleep. With babies, it's tough to tell the difference because they can't talk about their dreams but likely experience both nightmares and night terrors.

How Do You Change Baby Sleep Patterns?

To some extent, you must let nature take its course as your child's sleep patterns evolve. However, there are some steps to take to encourage nighttime sleeping and discourage restlessness during the baby's first year.

Keep Days Bright and Nights Dark

The normal human circadian rhythm interprets sunshine as waking time and darkness as sleeping time, but the artificially-lit modern indoor lifestyle sometimes confuses this instinct. Ideally, take your baby outside at least once a day, and keep the curtains of your house open to let in maximum sunshine. One study found that babies who slept well at night got significantly more light in the early afternoon than babies who slept poorly.

When evening falls, use the bare minimum of artificial lights in your home, and keep everything else dark. It also helps to slow down activity and noise in the evenings to avoid stimulating the baby. You might find that you sleep better too!

Mother sleeps on bed with arm on newborn

Try Wearing the Baby

Babywearing — carrying the baby in a sling that you wear — is another ancient custom that's recently fallen off. However, babies find the swaying rhythm and closeness of the parent calming, and there's evidence that it decreases crying. You don't have to do it all day as in olden times, but just a few hours of carrying often puts the baby in a better mood for sleeping.

Dress the Baby Properly for Sleep

Infants need to be slightly warmer than adults during sleep. At the same time, experts advise against using baby blankets because of the risk of suffocation or strangulation. Therefore, dress the baby properly for a good sleeping temperature.

As a rule, dress your baby in what you would wear to sleep at that temperature, plus one layer. Layering also helps you gauge the baby's reaction: If they turn pink and start to sweat, you know to take one off.

A popular alternative to a baby blanket is a sleep sack, which keeps babies warm and gives a comforting "huggy" feeling. Fabrics for sleep sacks and other baby wear have a thermal overall grade (TOG) rating, each appropriate for a different ambient temperature.

The TOG ratings are as follows:

  • 0.5 TOG: 74-78 degrees

  • 1.0 TOG: 68-73 degrees

  • 2.5 TOG: 61-67 degrees

Keep in mind that babies, like adults, have different individual comfort levels at different temperatures. "Most importantly, watch and assess your baby to see how they react to different temperatures, TOG ratings and pajama combinations," says sleep consultant Alex Warrack. "The right combination will help your baby with developing healthy sleep habits."

 Frustrated mother at wit's end trying to get child to sleep

Don't Let Daytime Naps Go On Too Long

While "never wake a sleeping baby" is a popular maxim for obvious reasons, reconsider it if your baby's sleep is over-concentrated in the daytime. Habitual naps longer than two hours potentially start bad sleeping habits.

Don't Rush To Comfort

Your parental instinct is to comfort a crying baby, but if you do it instantly whenever they wake up at night, you could reinforce bad habits. Often the baby experiences a transient disturbance like a bad dream or a stomach pang, and if you give them a few minutes, they'll fall asleep again.

If you respond to persistent crying, resolve the problem with minimal fuss. Don't overstimulate the baby by turning on lights and giving off your own distress signals.

What Are the Signs of Baby Sleep Disorders?

Given how chaotic babies' sleep often is, it's difficult to tell what's normal and what signals a problem. There are, however, some sleep disorders that show up in infancy and early childhood that have particular warning signs. If you see them, talk to your doctor about possible solutions.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is primarily a problem of old age, but it sometimes appears in babies, especially premature babies. Its distinctive trait is interrupted breathing during sleep — breath stops completely for a few seconds, then resumes with a gasp or a snort. Snoring is a common indicator of sleep apnea, although not all snorers have it.

Behavioral Insomnia

Behavorial insomnia in children (BIC) is the scientific term for children who can't sleep without certain conditions — often something the parent does, like rocking, singing, or merely being present. This problem is usually the result of unwitting parental reinforcement, which is why you shouldn't rush to soothe a nighttime fuss.

If you've already found yourself in this position, it's possible to retrain your child and yourself. Find a good doctor or sleep consultant to help you set up a regimen.

Mother's hands hold onto baby's arms while they rest

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is another condition that usually occurs in older people but occasionally in children. RLS causes an uncomfortable feeling in the legs, creating the urge to move them. It's especially acute when lying down, making it a sleep problem.

Infants in active sleep move their limbs routinely, so detecting this in early infancy is tough. However, as they get older, children start to express their discomfort and often resist going to bed because of the difficulty RLS causes them.

Baby Sleeping Habits Don't Have To Ruin Your Life

Virtually all parents find the first year of a baby's life tough — though rewarding! — not least because of babies' peculiar sleeping habits. However, don't compound the difficulty by worrying if your baby's sleep is erratic or backsliding. Once you understand how it works from the baby's perspective, you can take steps to make nights more peaceful for both of you.

Learn more about how you and your child can sleep better at Snooze.

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