In order to get good sleep, your baby not only needs enough sleep but they also need to sleep at the correct times. This is so key, but it isn’t a one size fits all. My baby’s bedtime routine was a disaster until I focused on her baby sleep schedule. Here, I will show you how easy it is to develop a baby sleep schedule that follows your child’s natural sleep schedule.
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What Is the Biggest Mistake in Creating a Baby Sleep Schedule?
The biggest mistake you could be making with bedtime routine is following those sleep charts you see everywhere which tell you, based on age, how much and approximately when your baby should sleep. Most parents find these when they search online for sleep solutions. I found a lot of charts, and since we weren’t quite sure when our little one was tired, we thought that this must be the solution.
We tried for months to try to keep our little one following something that resembled the schedule’s time frame. We kept thinking, we must be putting our baby to bed overtired or she isn’t getting enough sleep as the chart says she needs more. Following these charts not only wasn’t working but it was actually making the problem worse. Everyone was getting less sleep and there was so much frustration. Interesting note: the numbers reported in sleep charts is based on the averages of what parents “say” their baby sleeps, and these numbers differ by country.
We would try to always put L asleep for naps and bedtime based on the awake times specified, and she would just not go to sleep till at least an hour or two later. The lesson? These are averages and your child might either need A LOT more sleep (like Alli’s daughter, N) or like our little one, need a lot LESS sleep.
So How Do You Know What Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule Needs Are?
To hammer down the perfect schedule at any age, you will need to spend a few days focused solely on sleep observations. Try to pick either a weekend or a few days in a row where you have no appointments or time constraints. If you are a subscriber, you can use the nap schedule worksheet that we created to help you with this process or subscribe now to receive the worksheet.
DAY ONE: Start when your baby wakes. Write down the exact time they wake. Next, watch for tired cues (pulling ears, rubbing eyes, yawning). When you see a tired sign or when you think the baby is tired, start the process (diaper change, pajamas, nursing, etc) of putting the baby to bed for a nap. Write down the exact time the baby fell asleep. It is very important that it is the time at which the baby fell asleep and NOT the time you put the baby to bed. Once the baby wakes, write down the time the baby wakes and the length of the nap. It is also helpful to record the time the baby was awake between sleep sessions so that you can further understand your baby’s sleep needs. Repeat this for the full day, including bedtime.
DAY TWO: The next step is to sit down and start to determine your baby’s natural schedule. Let’s say baby woke up for the day at 7 am and fell asleep for their nap at 9:30am. This means after waking, the baby can stay awake about 2 hours and 30 mins. However, part of that awake time must be spent getting baby ready for bed and then putting the baby in the crib while the baby is still happy and before the baby is falling asleep.
So tomorrow, you want to put the baby to bed (in the crib) for a nap 15 minutes before they would fall asleep to ensure they aren’t overtired. This means that nursing, diaper change, pajamas, etc should all be done before the 15-minute mark. So if the baby wakes up at 7 am, you should put the baby to sleep at 9:15 am. However, if they wake up at 6 am, then you should put them to bed for their nap at 8:15 am. The length of awake time should stay the same, and the nap should be adjusted accordingly. In other words, the time of the nap is less important, it is the length of time awake that will guide your nap times (at least in the beginning until baby has a very regular schedule and always wakes up at the same time each day). Repeat this for the rest of the day to know exactly when you should be putting the baby to sleep.
DAY THREE: When the baby wakes up look at your chart and look at when you should put the baby to sleep. On the second and third days, you still want to fill out a chart like the first day. By doing it a second and third time, you are fine-tuning the chart so it matches your child’s exact sleep needs. For example, if on day one you put a baby to sleep 40 minutes after the “perfect time” to put them to sleep, then it would take about three days to sort that out. If the baby is still taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, your schedule might need some more fine tuning, or there might be an underlying issue.
**Also remember a hungry baby never sleeps so if baby still isn’t sleeping, try to add in an extra nursing session during their awake time. If breastfeeding isn’t going well, check out the best tip I received from a lactation consultant.
What Are Your Next Steps in Creating a Baby Sleep Schedule?
After completing your three days of recording, look at your chart and see if a pattern emerged and if your time spent putting the baby to sleep has decreased. This will be the best indicator that you are putting the baby to sleep at the right time for them which establishes a bedtime routine.
After three days if you do not see a pattern develop, you may need to continue recording for a few more days. Try another set of three days until you have found a groove that is working for the baby. A sleep pattern should emerge. Always remember to take sickness, teething, growth spurts, and development leaps into account if one day has dramatically more or less sleep. If any of these things are in play, then it is best to re-attempt tracking when things are more consistent.
What if I Can’t Tell When My Baby Is Sleepy?
If you have absolutely no idea when to put the baby to bed or your baby doesn’t show tired signs, then start with one of these two options based on baby’s age. If the baby is less than six months, every time the baby asks to nurse, then nurse in the bedroom with lights dim in an environment conducive to sleep to see if the baby will fall asleep. Baby doesn’t typically nurse to sleep or nurses upon waking? Then a 2-hour awake time is a good place to start, and you can adjust from there. Write down the times baby falls asleep and wakes exactly how I describe for day one and then continue with day two above to establish a bedtime routine.
If the baby is older than six months, start with the 2-3-4 schedule on day one. The 2-3-4 schedule is a baby sleep schedule based on two naps where after baby wakes up for the day, the first nap occurs after 2 hours of awake time. The second nap is 3 hours after waking up from the first nap, and bedtime is 4 hours after waking up from the second nap. Remember that the point of all this to cater to your baby’s needs so if stretching them for that extra hour to hit the 4 isn’t working, don’t. Maybe they are still rearing to go at the 2-hour mark, let them stay up. This is just a general place to start.
Tips for Getting a Newborn to Sleep:
When all else fails schedule-wise, getting your baby to sleep is vital for their health and your sanity. Because of this, having some good soothers is a great way to encourage your child to rest. Here are some tips to try out:
Do you know why we are told to swaddle our newborn babies? Many know that swaddling gives the newborn the same sensation as when he/she was in the womb. But this is not the only reason. Babies have a natural startle reflex that makes them feel like they’re falling. This is why your baby may jerk and wake up, sometimes even crying. Swaddles help them not to wake up startled and instead give them a feeling of safety and security and establishes a bedtime routine. There are so many great swaddles out there that will give your newborn a sensation of security, as well as safely secure them.
2. Lay Baby down When Drowsy
Independent sleeping is essential. And knowing your baby leads to knowing when they need rest. This is why laying the baby down when they are drowsy is the way to go. Learning independent sleep and sleep cycles/habits means they will be able to drift to sleep, as well as back to sleep, on their own. Is your baby cranky? Are his/her eyes closing and opening? Is he/she exhibiting some type of behavior typical of being drowsy, such as finger sucking or a stronger need for affection? Take your baby to the nursery and lay him/her down. Make this a habit that will eventually stick!
So what is this concept anyway? Dream feeding is when you gently wake your baby without fully waking them in order to feed them one last time before bedtime. There is research to back up the fact that sneakily getting in one more feeding before bed (between 10 pm and 12 am) will reduce the number of times babies wake up and give them(and you) longer sleep stretches. The key to this is to do your best to keep the baby asleep and establish a bedtime routine. A trick is to place the breast or bottle on the baby’s lower lip and then wait for them to begin feeding. In all, this should be a 10-20 minute process. If breastfeeding, do 5-10 minutes on each side. Many mothers say it has worked wonders for them!
4. Use White Noise
White noise can be the key to sound sleep for a newborn, especially if your house has other children or other noises going on during nap time! Purchasing a white noise machine or a fan meant for nap time is a great way to block out all other noise and help your newborn drift off to dreamland. It is especially good to have a white noise machine when traveling to block out the sound of being in close proximity to others. Another good reason for white-nose is the fact that it may mimic the mother’s heartbeat which soothes newborns. But even with all these pros, there are cons to consider. Babies may become too reliant on the white noise and depend on it to sleep at all. This is an issue if you happen to be away from a white noise machine and there is a bedtime routine. Both the pros and cons are something to consider, but white noise can be a great help for getting your newborn to sleep and can help them sleep through the night.
5. Change Diapers Strategically
There are certain times to change diapers that are better or worse than others. It’s essential to be strategic about it because diaper changing is one of the only reasons you will ever have to wake a baby up from deep sleep, or worse, the baby could wake up on his/her own because of a dirty diaper. And we all know, there is nothing worse than diaper rashes. For example, strategically changing means you change the diaper before the mid-night feeding, as soon as the baby wakes up to eat, and then re-swaddle. This is a better option than doing it after the feeding, which will likely wake the baby up fully. Like all strategy, it’s mostly about knowing your own newborn and learning right timing.
So much of having your newborn on a healthy napping and sleeping schedule is about routine. Truthfully, so much of a child’s life is about habit. Setting a method around naptime is so healthy. We talk a little about creating great lighting for the baby that promotes a peaceful atmosphere later on in this article, but there are so many other ways to create a routine for your baby. Reading the same storybook, saying the same words, are all things that get your baby used to the cues of shutting down for a nap. A key to remember is that there needs to be consistency in routine. This means the nanny, babysitter, daycare worker, grandma, dad, or anyone else who has the baby at different times of the day does the same as you do during naptime and night time. Get everyone on board and see how quickly naptime improves.
7. Clear Clutter
This is a pretty uncommon one, but clearing the clutter around the crib or bassinet is an essential factor. Clutter confuses newborns and can throw them into chaos. Clutter is a distraction, according to studies by infant sleep consultants. They need to feel as if their space is the same as it was yesterday, and having stuff in or around it is not a comfort. So get their space cozy and clean before nap time.
8. Keep it Cool
Consistent and cold temperatures are the best way to create a calming and cozy environment for babies. If you are swaddling the baby, think of how hot it can get. Also, think of the way you sleep best. For most of us, cold rooms while being bundled under covers are the way to go. Cooling and bundling are all about knowing your baby. Some babies run hotter than others, and it’s essential to keep a close eye on which your baby is. Newborns will never get to sleep if they are too hot or too cold, so this is a significant thing to consider.
When Does the Baby Sleep Schedule Quit Working?
Your baby simply needs a new schedule. Repeat the process above and don’t try to put the baby to bed for naps or bedtime until they show signs of being tired. Naps shortening, rejecting naps, or sudden difficulty at bedtime could all be signs that your baby is ready for a new schedule. When babies shift to a few naps (drop naps), it is another one of those things that has a huge range of normal. Just like awake times being averages, so are times when the baby will drop naps. Don’t fall into a trap of pushing your baby to drop a nap before they are ready or making them keep a nap they don’t need. An important note is when your child transitions to fewer naps, the bedtime will probably be earlier for a week or longer as baby adjusts. This is normal.
Children are excellent at following the sun, so depending on where you live, it is very common for the baby to shift their schedule based on the season so fine-tuning might be necessary. I would highly recommend investing in good blackout curtains and a dimmable nightlight to give the room the perfect lighting for night, which I talk about in creating the ultimate sleeping environment.
Why Is a Baby’s Sleep Schedule so Important?
Some babies can stay awake longer during different parts of the day. For example, some might take their “big” nap in the morning while others might take their “big” nap in the late afternoon. The type of sleep is actually different depending on the time of day. The morning nap vs. afternoon nap is REM sleep vs. slow-wave sleep. The term “big” is also relative to your child. My baby was not a big napper. She would rack up most of her hours at night. She still woke up during the night but collectively, she would meet most of her sleep needs during the night. Even as a toddler, L sleeps a lot less than her other toddler friends. By 7 months, L had switched to 1 nap and her awake time between naps was 4 hours in the morning and 5 hours in the afternoon before bedtime.
Alli’s daughter, N is on the other end of the spectrum. She only transitioned to 2 naps from 3 around 6 months and is still taking 2 naps most days at nearly 15 months. Alli fell into the trap of thinking her baby needed to drop down to 1 nap at 12 months because of everything she was reading in terms of nap suggestions. Attempting this resulted in an overtired and fussy baby. N was not her happy self, was eating less, and was clocking excessive hours at night to try and make up for the deficiency. This was not serving her because as you read above, the type of sleep is different and N still needed certain kinds of sleep spaced throughout her day.
While other babies still have two naps till 15 months and beyond, I am confident that L gets not only enough sleep but also very good sleep because by following her own schedule she is never overtired. She is so much happier, and sleep isn’t infuriating to me. A super plus of establishing a baby sleep schedule is knowing when your child will sleep frees you up to be able to make plans and know when you need to be home for naps and that they will sleep through the night.
What Has Worked for You?
Let me know in the comments what you’ve had success with or if you have any questions about your baby’s sleep, if they can sleep through the night or on a schedule now, or if there is anything that I can assist with.
Don’t think the baby sleep schedule is the issue? Check out our Baby Smart page for more ideas to help your baby sleep.
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Trina Fitzgerald is a wife, mom, and blogger. She is the co-author of the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook. She attributes her success at breastfeeding her own children with working with lactation consultants in the hospital in the early stages and on a weekly basis afterwards. By writing at MomSmartNotHard, she educates mamas-to-be on all things pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Read more about Trina.