Life with a baby

Baby sleep: what to expect in the first six months

9 min read

New parents are frequently told to prepare for sleepless nights. But the reality of looking after a baby who sleeps at random times of the day and wakes up throughout the night takes a bit of getting used to. 

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At some point, all parents will question whether their baby’s sleep routine (or lack thereof) is normal – quite possibly in the early hours of the morning when you’re bleary-eyed from another long night. While every newborn is different, we answer some common questions about baby’s sleep to hopefully put your mind at rest.

How much do babies sleep?

Newborn babies sleep more than 16 hours per day, which may sound like a lot, but it’s likely to feel a lot less to you – particularly at 3 am when you’re up feeding your baby for the fourth time that night.

Most babies’ sleep patterns are completely different from that of an adult:

  • Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than ours, so they wake up often.
  • Babies’ sleep is broken up into several short chunks throughout the day and night.
  • Babies need feeding and nappy changes during the night, meaning you’re less likely to get a long stretch of uninterrupted sleep at the time you want it the most.

This is why the first months, in particular, can feel so gruelling, as you try to adjust to a routine so unlike your own.

The good news is that over the first year, your baby’s sleep cycles will start to become longer. They’ll sleep a bit less overall and get used to sleeping more in the night with just a couple of naps in the daytime.

So if you’re in that difficult first stage, try to hang in there – there is sleep at the end of the tunnel!

Can my baby sleep too much?

You don’t normally have to worry that your baby is sleeping too much, babies are really good at self-regulating their sleep.

However, right after the birth you may sometimes need to wake your baby up for feeds, to make sure that they don’t go too long without having milk. You may need to wake your newborn baby up regularly if they’re:

  • Drowsy from medication: some opiate pain relief options that you might take during labour can cause your baby to be more sleepy after the birth.
  • Jaundiced: this can cause your baby to sleep more and so have fewer feeds, but they actually need to feed more – not less – in order to get rid of the excess of bilirubin that causes jaundice.
  • Losing too much weight/not gaining enough weight: milk digests very quickly in newborn babies’ small stomachs, so every extra feed you can get into them is positive if they’re slow to gain weight.

If you’re breastfeeding, your prolactin levels (the hormone that tells your body to make milk) is at its highest in the early hours of the morning, so night time feeds are essential to help establish your milk supply.

It’s important to talk to your midwife for advice if your newborn baby feeds less often than every three hours in the first week.

Once your baby is older than a couple of weeks and is gaining weight well, it’s not a problem if they don’t wake to eat any more, so you no longer have to wake them up for feeds. However, you should always seek emergency medical advice if your baby is suddenly difficult to rouse.

What if my baby gets too little sleep?

Although there are general guides to how much sleep babies need at various stages, they are just guidelines – not rules – and all babies are different.

If your baby is happy, content and developing well but happens to sleep less than the average, it’s unlikely to be a problem. Some babies just don’t need as much sleep as others.

It’s also important to keep in mind that even babies who usually sleep well can have periods when they sleep less than usual. Some factors that can affect your baby’s sleep at various times in the first year and beyond include:

  • Sleep regressions
  • Teething
  • Developmental leaps
  • Colds
  • Growth spurts

Sometimes, a baby not being able to sleep can be a symptom of a medical problem. For example, colic or allergies can cause your baby to be in pain and may stop them from getting the sleep that they need.

If you think your baby is in discomfort, perhaps crying for hours on end, and it’s preventing them from sleeping, seek advice from your health visitor or GP.

When do babies sleep through the night?

Sleeping through the night is the holy grail for many new parents, but when your baby will reach this milestone varies wildly.

You may find that your baby starts to sleep longer stretches at night from around eight weeks, but it’s just as likely that they’re six months old, a year or even older before they start to reliably sleep through the night.

To confuse matters further, many official sources count ‘sleeping through the night’ as a baby sleeping a five-hour stretch in the night – far from the 8pm to 6am duration you might be hoping for.

Once your baby starts sleeping through the night, they can still be affected by teething, illnesses and developmental leaps for years to come, which can cause them to wake up in the night again.

Although it’s tough, try to remember that night waking is completely biologically normal for babies and young children.

Ways to soothe a baby to sleep

It can be incredibly frustrating as a new parent when your baby just doesn’t seem to want to go to sleep – especially if other parents in your NCT group seem to have a lot more luck with their little one’s bedtime.

While it can be easy to think that you’re doing something wrong, the truth is that the ease with which your baby falls asleep has pretty much nothing to do with your skills as a parent, and everything to do with the lottery of genetics.

All that being said, there are a few things which most newborn babies have in common, which can be helpful as a starting point to figure out what works best for your little one.

Physical contact

Many babies won’t fall or stay asleep if they’re not in constant contact with their mother or father. This can be utterly exhausting, but it’s actually a really clever evolutionary strategy to ensure that they have protection, food and comfort nearby at all times.

If your baby falls into this category, you can try:

  • Using a sling or carrier during daytime naps. Many babies love sleeping in slings and it allows you to have your hands free for eating, entertaining older children and of course catching up on your messages and social life. Make sure you know the safest position to carry your baby with our guide to baby slings safety.
  • Bedsharing. Some parents find that co-sleeping is the answer to a good night’s rest. If your baby is of the wake-up-as-soon-as-you-take-your-hand-off-them persuasion, welcoming them into your bed at night might be an option you’d like to look in to. Read our advice on safe sleeping with your baby.
  • Making the cot seem more like you. Try emulating the warmth and comfort your baby would get from your body by sleeping with their blanket or sheets to transfer your smell to their cot, and warming their bed up with a hot water bottle before putting them down.

Movement

Your baby comes from a womb that was rarely still and they’re used to and expect to sleep in that kind of environment. Out in the real world, that’s still the way many babies prefer to fall asleep. To help your baby, you can try:

  • Rocking your baby in your arms or on your shoulder. If you have a birth ball or pilates ball kicking around, now’s the time to bring it out. Sit on the ball and gently bounce up and down – it may be just what your baby needs. You can even place your ball in front of the TV which is a definite win.
  • Going for a walk. Not very tempting in the middle of the night, but for daytime naps, a walk with your baby in a pushchair or sling can be the perfect way to get them to doze off. Find out how to choose between a buggy, travel system or all-terrain pushchair to suit your needs.
  • Baby hammock: These are specially designed to be safe and supportive for a sleeping baby and can replace a cot up until your baby is about one year old. They provide a gentle rocking motion and cradle your baby in a secure, natural way, similar to the womb.

Noise

The womb is far from a quiet oasis. Scientists have found that the baseline level of sounds in the womb is 88 decibel – as loud as a food blender. Many newborn babies sleep best with constant background noise, and there are several ways you can make the sleep environment more suited to their preferences.

These are some of the things you can try:

  • Shushing or singing lullabys: This one’s a classic, and it’s been shown that rhythmic shushing actually emulates the sound of blood flowing to the placenta, which is why it’s so popular with young babies.
  • White-noise generators or apps: There are specific machines that emit a variety of sounds that are supposed to soothe your baby to sleep. Most devices have a selection of ambient nature sounds, womb sounds and songs. If you’d prefer something a bit simpler, there are also apps for white noise specifically for babies, which you can download and play from your phone.
  • Use the washing machine or dishwasher: A more low-tech solution for daytime naps is to let your baby sleep in the kitchen while you’re washing clothes or dishes – the sound level is just right for your little one to nod off. Looking to buy a new machine for your growing family? Make sure you check out our advice on buying the best dishwasher and the most reliable washing machine brands.

Coping with sleep deprivation

As you know, waking up in the night is completely normal biologically for your baby, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for you as a parent to get used to. Full-time parenting with a sleep deficit is undoubtedly extremely tough.

While the dark circles under your eyes will become the norm for a while, if you’re finding it particularly hard to cope or have trouble falling asleep even when you have the opportunity to, you may benefit from speaking to a professional. Insomnia, in particular, can be a sign of postnatal depression and there’s help you can get with this.

Finally, know that you’re not alone if you’re awake in the night. There are literally thousands of other parents going through exactly the same thing as you are. Being in an online parenting group can be a real comfort – and can provide you with reassurance and advice even in the middle of the night.

For more tips on how to look after yourself and your partner, see our tips on coping in early parenthood and making the most of paternity leave.

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