A Guide to Your Baby’s Sleep Patterns

A guide to your baby's sleep patterns blog image of baby yawning in a Woolino sleep bag

Is your newborn up all night? You’re not doing anything wrong if your newborn isn’t a great sleeper. Fact is, most newborns aren’t! If your newborn sleeps all day and cries all night, it’s probably because your baby has days and nights mixed up, which is completely normal. 

When babies are born, they don’t know how to put themselves to sleep when they are tired or how to wake up when they have had enough sleep. This will take some time for them to learn. Their baby sleeping habits will also evolve as they grow and develop, so that means there’s light at the end of that sleepless tunnel.

With a new baby in the home, it’s inevitable that sleep will be scarce; but understanding how your baby’s sleep patterns differ from yours, knowing what to expect at each stage, and assisting them in the adjustment, can really help you tackle those first few sleep deprived months.

Baby sleep states compared to adults 

As adults, the majority of our sleep is ‘quiet sleep’, where we lie still and breathe deeply. We will pass through a couple of light sleep stages, before entering a deep sleep. After that, we switch into REM, or “rapid eye movement” sleep, a sleep stage famous for its association with dreaming. We don’t move much during REM. When REM is over, we either awaken, or return to light sleep and begin the cycle again.

Everybody has a cycle, where their sleep varies from light to deep. Adults' sleep cycles are usually about 90-100 minutes, whereas babies' sleep cycles range from about 40-55 minutes, so they tend to wake up more often.

Babies under 1 are naturally lighter sleepers compared to adults. It’s not unusual for newborns to spend more than half their total sleep time in 'active sleep' instead of 'quiet sleep'. Active sleep is the newborn equivalent to REM. Unlike adult REM, it’s characterized by fluttering eyelids; rapid, irregular breathing; occasional body movements; and vocalizations (grunts or brief cries). This can fool many parents into thinking their babies are waking up, when they are actually experiencing normal REM sleep. A baby who seems to be waking up, may go back to sleep pretty rapidly, if left alone. But active sleep is such a light stage of sleep that babies can be easily woken up. That’s why it’s so important that parents try not to intervene too soon.

And while it may seem inconvenient that just the creak of a floor board can wake them from their light slumber, it’s actually quite beneficial to their safety. Having a low threshold of arousal may protect babies from SIDS.

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Now let’s talk circadian rhythms — Adult sleep is governed by physiological changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Many of these changes are influenced by our exposure to light. For instance, when you expose yourself to sunlight during the day, it helps ensure that you will be more alert during the day than you are at night. And conversely, the absence of light at night helps your body wind down, and release melatonin. As long as you stick with bright light during the day, and darkness at night, you will likely find yourself in sync with the natural, 24-hour day.

Newborn sleep is not governed by strong circadian rhythms. Things didn’t begin that way in the womb. During pregnancy, fetuses are tuned into their mothers’ physiological cues about day and night. Fetal heart and respiratory rates speed up when a mother is active. They slow down when a mother is sleeping, and maternal hormones are released.

After birth, this intimate hormonal connection is broken. Newborns must develop their own circadian rhythms of hormone production. Unfortunately for us, this takes time, and the process is complicated since newborns need to feed every few hours. As a result, newborn sleep tends to be brief and sporadic around the clock.

Baby sleep patterns by age 

Newborn sleep starts off pretty choppy. Lot’s of sleeping, waking, feeding and pooping. You’re not guaranteed much shut eye in those first couple months of getting a newborn to sleep at night. But as your baby grows and changes, so do your baby’s sleep patterns. Generally, as babies get older, they gradually sleep less in the daytime, are awake for longer between naps, have longer night-time sleeps, wake less at night, and need less sleep overall.

The information on baby sleep patterns by age, are a general guide for what to expect at each stage of a baby’s development. Keep in mind that all babies are unique individuals. Some babies start to sleep through the night relatively quickly, while others take a much longer time to get there. Some will happily sleep for long periods, while others will only sleep in short bursts. It’s important to remember that your baby will have a unique sleep pattern, so you shouldn’t worry about comparing them to others. 

Some babies suffer from medical conditions that influence the way they sleep, so if you have concerns you should discuss them with your medical provider. But it appears that many healthy, normal newborns deviate several hours from the average duration of sleep. 

Chart showing Baby Sleep Patterns by Age

Newborn to 3 months

Newborns are asleep on and off throughout the day and night. Total daily sleep can vary for each newborn baby, but generally they get around 8 to 18 hours of sleep a day. They tend to sleep lightly, and in short stretches, because they need to wake to be fed and changed regularly. Until around 6 weeks old, a newborn has no concept of night and day, so they will simply wake to feed, regardless of the time! 

3 to 6 months

By 3 months, babies need fewer night feeds and may be able to sleep for longer stretches at night. They might have 3 daytime naps of up to 2 hours each, and their total amount of sleep across day and night is between 12 and 15 hours. The amount of active sleep starts to reduce and they begin to enter quiet sleep at the beginning of their sleep cycles. But they still tend to wake up at least once during the night.

6 to 12 months

By 6 months old, your baby’s sleep patterns are more like yours. Between 6 and 12 months, babies are able to drop the night feed because they do not need to be fed as often. This will allow them to start sleeping through the night, for up to 12 hours. Daytime naps will drop to at least two, about 1-2 hours at a time. They sleep an average of about 13 hours in total a day. They tend to sleep the longest period at night, averaging about 11 hours.

While most babies will wake only once during the night, some will still wake up more often. It’s important to keep in mind that babies may start to get separation anxiety and worry about being away from their caregiver at this age. This may increase night wakings. Ensuring you stick to a regular daytime and bedtime routine can really help.

12 months +

You can expect babies to sleep for 12 to 15 hours a day in total after their first birthday. That includes 8-12 hours at night and usually 2 day-time naps of 1-2 hours each. By 12 months, babies tend to sleep better, longer, and wake up less often. They may wake in the night only once or twice, but their ability to self soothe and fall back asleep on their own is much improved.

How to change baby sleep patterns 

If you think you’re going to keep your baby from waking, eating, or pooping so much — think again. While you can’t eradicate your baby’s essential needs, there are steps you can take to help your newborn get in sync with the natural, 24-hour day. Once they understand night and day, and when it’s time for sleep, your sleep schedule will go much smoother.

Try swaddling

Newborn restless sleep is common in the first couple months, since they need to wake and feed around the clock. Your newborn is not yet able to follow much of a schedule, so don’t worry too much about establishing a sleep routine in the beginning. In the meantime, you can try swaddling your baby to help soothe and communicate that it's time for sleep. A swaddle blanket can help keep baby’s limbs secure when thrashing or twitching during active sleep. It can also keep them comfortable and less likely to wake from discomfort. A Woolino merino wool swaddle blanket can help naturally regulate your baby’s body temp, keeping them perfectly comfortable and safe from overheating.


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Stick to a routine.

By around 3 months, you can start to establish a routine that gets them used to the idea of bedtime and settling down.

Find a good time for your baby to go down — ideally between 6.30pm and 8.30pm — and try to stick to it each night, or as close as possible. Then establish a set routine before bed each night, such as bottle, bath, sleep sack, lullaby, then dim the lights for sleep.

Don’t wait until your baby is overtired to put them to bed. An overtired baby has more trouble falling and staying asleep. Try looking for the signs that they are getting sleepy before they are cranky. Common signs of tiredness include, rubbing eyes, yawning, or fussing.


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Reduce stimulation at night

Starting at 2 weeks old, try to teach your baby that nighttime is for sleep, and daytime is for fun. Wondering how to keep baby awake during the day?During daylight hours, play with your baby a lot, and keep things stimulating and active. If you can, try to keep them awake after they feed. When it's dark, cut down on all stimulation, and keep lights low and noise soft. Keep feedings in a semi-darkened room. Gradually, they'll learn that daytime is fun time and nighttime isn't, so they might as well sleep when it's dark.

When your baby wakes for night time feedings, keep activity to a minimum, and make as little noise as possible. Use a dimmer switch or nightlight to see, but keep the room as dark as possible. Ideally, you want to avoid waking your baby “all the way up.” You want your baby to learn that nighttime is for sleep and quiet. Dressing your baby in a Woolino sleep bag can be a huge help for those middle of the night diaper changes. Just unzip the two-way zipper at the bottom and change your baby’s diaper without having to undress and wake him up.

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Separate Eating From Sleeping

After the first month, you’ll want to avoid feeding or rocking your baby to sleep, in order to teach them how to soothe themselves to sleep on their own. Eating a little, dozing a little, and eating some more, is okay. But if they fall asleep and keep sleeping when you’re feeding them, stop and put them to bed. Laying your baby down when they’re drowsy but still awake, will allow them to experience what it’s like to fall asleep independently, alone, and in their crib. 

It’s also good practice for later down the road when they’re old enough to drop their night feeds. You don’t want them dependent on those night feeds to fall back asleep. Otherwise, those long stretches of night sleep that you so desire, will be non-existent. 

Expose to natural light

Light cues can gradually help synchronize your newborn’s sleep patterns. Exposing your newborn to lots of early afternoon light, and then regularly turning out the lights the same time every evening, can lessen newborn day night confusion and ultimately help them sleep longer during the night. 

Time spent outdoors can make a difference as well. Babies who go outside experience much higher daytime light levels than those kept indoors all day, and may develop stronger circadian rhythms as a result. 

During the day, keep curtains open, and at night, keep lights low and curtains shut. 

Breastfeed, and keep track of when you express

Breast milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps in the production of melatonin. Tryptophan levels rise and fall according to maternal circadian rhythms, and when infants consume tryptophan before bedtime, they fall asleep faster. Therefore, it’s possible that breastfeeding helps newborn sleep patterns synchronize with the 24-hour day.

This means, you’ll want to make sure your baby is receiving those evening helpings of breastmilk, and not missing out on all that tryptophan goodness for sleep.

In conclusion

Babies are much lighter sleepers, and they’re still learning the difference between day & night. Exhausting as it may be, try to have patience, and understand that their sleep cycles are much different from ours. They are still adjusting, and their sleep patterns will improve with time. If we try to better understand the peculiar nature of newborn sleep patterns, we can avoid interrupting our babies’ slumber, and hopefully get them on track to sleeping better and longer at night.


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Important Facts Every Parent Should Know About Baby Sleep

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