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baby's sleep basics

Ever wonder why the saying, "Get plenty of sleep before baby even arrives!" is a recurring piece of advice for parents-to-be? If baby's already made his debut, you know the answer! Newborns are typically catching z's up to 16 hours a day, but most don't sleep more than two to four hours at a time, sure to throw off your own schedule of counting sheep.

Catching the right amount of shut-eye is essential for baby's physical growth and brain development, just as sleep is important for your health and well-being. And both you and baby will get a better night's sleep, as your little one gets older and the amount of necessary feeding times tapers off. Until then, follow a new parents golden rule, and sleep while baby is sleeping.

This baby sleep guide will help you understand how much sleep your child should get every night, how those needs change over time, and what you can do to help your baby sleep more soundly. All of which will help you enjoy a restful night's sleep — in good time.

baby sleep patterns 101

Newborns spend most of their time in a lighter sleep mode, called REM (rapid eye movement), which means they have much shorter sleep cycles than adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), sleep schedules of adults and older children are guided by circadian rhythms, which are regulated by light and dark.

These rhythms begin to develop at about 6 weeks of age in most babies. This is why most babies sleep on irregular schedules during the first few months. Their bodies haven't fully adjusted to the night/day sleep schedule, so they sleep often, but for short periods of time.

As they get a little older, babies begin to sleep fewer total hours, but in longer stretches-about nine to 12 hours. The NSF reports that 70 to 80 percent of babies sleep through the night by the time they're nine months old, but still need one or more naps during the day.

Once your child reaches a year old, he should be sleeping for about 12 hours, including a daytime nap. Nightmares or naps too late in the day could make it difficult for your child to fall asleep or stay asleep, but in general, he should be sleeping on a fairly normal schedule by this age.

baby sleep schedule pointers

Although baby's physical development controls his sleep pattern for the first few months, there are ways to encourage good bedtime/naptime behaviors. Try these tips to help your little one fall asleep and rest more soundly.

  • Put baby in his crib when he's tired but still awake, so he can begin to associate it with falling asleep.
  • It may take a little while till he settles down to sleep, so let him fuss a bit before going to him. If he learns to fall asleep on his own, he'll be better able to put himself back to sleep if he awakens during the night.
  • Keep baby active during the day, so he's more likely to get tired and be ready to fall asleep at night.
  • Develop a bedtime ritual. Bedtime stories and lullabies developed for a reason: they were found to soothe, comfort and help young children wind down. By establishing a consistent bedtime routine, your baby will come to associate this with sleep.

baby sleep schedule pointers (continued)

  • Create an environment conducive to sleep. Make sure baby's bedroom is dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature. He may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, if it's too hot or too cold.
  • A pacifier can help. Many parents find that their babies are able to settle down more quickly with a pacifier. Pacifiers may lower an infant's risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), according to the National Institutes of Health. But be aware that should it fall out during the night, baby may cry until it's returned to him.

sleep safety tips

Baby's bed should be a comfortable and safe place to lay his head, but without proper precautions, there can be potential dangers. Follow these steps to make sure baby is out of harm's way while asleep.

  • Use cribs with sturdy sides, and bassinets with breathable sides.
  • Keep baby's sleep area free of blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals. It's common for older children to have these items with them as they drift off to sleep, however, they can make it hard for infants to breathe, and pose other dangers as well.
  • Lay baby down on his back. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this position greatly reduces the risk of SIDS. Although the cause for SIDS remains unexplained, doctors have identified factors, including stomach sleeping, which put infants at greater risk.
  • Place baby in his own crib or bassinet. The AAP recommends that babies sleep in their own space, and do not co-sleep or share a bed with a parent. Also, sleeping on a soft mattress or waterbed is potentially dangerous for infants and may put them at greater risk of SIDS. Cribs and bassinets have sturdier mattresses that are designed especially for babies.
  • If you're using a bassinet, make sure it has breathable sides. Bassinets with hard, non-porous sides can suffocate infants if they happen to roll over and get wedged against the side during their sleep. You should put a bassinet in your bedroom to be near your child should she need you during the night.
  • Use cribs with sturdy sides. When you purchase a crib for your baby, steer clear of those with drop sides. Many such cribs have been recalled, as they pose a danger to children who may get stuck in between the sides of these cribs.