How to set a sleep schedule for your baby

Sleep Schedules for Babies and Toddlers

As a sleep consultant, I offer a lot of advice to families as we navigate through their child’s sleep challenges. There is a lot more to sleep than most people realize and no shortage of information out there for parents to try and understand-especially when it comes to schedules.

Among all of the questions we receive one of the most highly asked is always, “How do I get my child on a schedule?”

Especially with the busy-ness of our lives, always running to and from, it sometimes feels easier to let a nap happen in the car or skip one all-together because the groceries are not just going to show up at your door.

I get it. There is so much to do and never enough time, and being a new parent can feel isolating and limiting enough.

But basically it comes down to one of the most powerful biological forces on the planet...the circadian rhythm.

Regulating our daily bodily functions, the circadian rhythm plays a crucial role in sleep. It is responsible for the appropriate timing of the release of two very powerful hormones: melatonin and cortisol.

Melatonin is a sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland, a grain-of-rice sized organ deep inside the brain. The pineal gland is triggered by our body’s internal clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN), which in turn takes its cue from the dimness of our evening environment as seen through our eyes (I mean, don’t we all know this?)

In other words, we get sleepy in the evening as cued by these two functions that regulate our sleep cycles.

Cortisol, on the other hand, is a stimulating hormone, part of our flight-or-fight response, and often referred to as a “stress hormone.” It is released in the morning around our natural wake-up time, to help us shake off the sleepies (sort of like an internal espresso). It is also released when we are under stress.

With children, common sources of stress are external situations like parental arguments, recent major changes to a routine or caregiver, and upsetting events. Probably the most common source of stress causing cortisol - the “no sleep hormone” - is, ironically enough, a lack of sleep.

You see, when your child is tired but is not encouraged into bed within an appropriate window of time, his or her body will interpret this lack of sleep as a stressful event.

If I’m not allowed to sleep, there must be something wrong. I’d better stay awake in order to be able to deal with it, says the billion-year-old evolutionary system driving the circadian rhythm.

This is the cause of the late evening hyperactive energy you may be familiar with. The mood swings, the clumsiness, the giggles, and the tears. It’s also the cause of other no-sleep experiences. Early mornings, short or hard-won naps, and sleep resistance.

But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The prevention in this case is…

An age-appropriate sleep schedule

Here are some examples of age appropriate schedules. Consider how your child’s sleep schedule compares to these...

Newborn- at this age they really should not sleep according to a schedule. Their sleep needs are unique and not until about 3 months old is when their circadian rhythm begins to emerge and their brain begins producing melatonin.

Rather than worrying about a sleep schedule for your newborn, try to encourage the development of healthy sleep habits. A few ways you can do this…

  • Respect your newborn’s sleep needs and encourage sleep whenever she seems sleepy. (Look into the Six Stages of Consciousness in newborns for more information on this.)

  • Differentiate between night and day by deliberately shifting the ambiance of your home from bright and energetic to dim and calm. Get a night light for nighttime diaper changes.

  • Practice putting your baby to sleep using different soothing techniques-such as: rocking, nursing, singing, and stroking. This is to discourage the development of a single, rigid sleep association that may cause problems down the line.

You can expect your newborn to sleep around 16-18 hours per day, in chunks of 1-3 hours of sleep, with 40-70 minutes of awake time between sleeps.

Young Infants-(3-6 months) need around 12-15 hours of sleep per day (sometimes more), including naps. Babies this age usually take 3-4 naps per day. Their wake times are a little longer than newborns, between 60-90 minutes before needing their next nap.

Here is an example of an ideal schedule for this age range:

Awake at 7am

First nap 830am-10am

Second nap 1130am-1pm

Third nap 330pm-430pm

Bedtime 630-7pm

Older Infants-(7-12 months) still need around 12-15 hours of sleep per day, including naps. Babies this age usually take 2 naps per day. Their wake times continue to get longer the older they get. Many families find that the 2-3-4 Rule is a good way of keeping track of their naps. The first nap occurs 2 hours after wake time. The second nap, 3 hours after that. And bedtime, 4 hours after the second nap.

An ideal schedule would look something like this:

Awake at 7am

First nap 9am-1030am

Second nap 130-3pm

Bedtime 7pm

Toddlers- At some point between your toddler’s first and second year, he or she will go down to one nap, from two, and have wake times as long as 5 hours. Toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep per day, including naps and usually a nap around 12 or 1230pm is what works best for most children.

It goes without saying that not everyone’s baby will sleep according to these schedules. Some will wake up earlier, and need their naps earlier. Some will have shorter naps, and might need help extending their naps or to be offered their next sleep a little earlier.

When developing a sleep schedule that works for your baby, the most important thing you can do is to pay attention to his tired cues and encourage sleep before the cortisol kicks in.

After a week or so, a consistent pattern should emerge. This is your baby’s natural sleep schedule, the expression of a healthy circadian rhythm.

Your schedule need not be rigid. 15-minutes of wiggle room on either side of a scheduled sleep time is appropriate.

When parents are resistant to scheduling their child’s sleep, it’s often because of a fear that their lives will become unbearably limited when in reality, their lives will open up.

Knowing when your child naps means you can plan to do important tasks around your home during nap times. (Or take a nap yourself, you deserve it!) AND you can schedule outings and activities during times that you know your child will be alert and happy.

Remember: as in life, the only constant in parenting is change. Your baby’s sleep schedule won’t last forever. But the healthy relationship with sleep you are encouraging in your baby just might.

Parent and sleep expert Susannah Ritchie knows that when a child has sleep issues, it affects the whole family. Her mission is to empower families like yours with the knowledge and confidence to make positive, long-lasting changes to your child’s sleep. Using an holistic approach, Susannah’s methods get to the root of the issue while honouring the uniqueness of your family.

Rachel GortonComment