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Understanding baby sleep

Why won't my baby sleep? Why do they wake up so soon? So many sleep questions you want answers to.

baby sleep

'Does he sleep well?' must be one of the questions most often heard by the mother of a new baby. A baby who sleeps long and often is said to be a 'good' baby. Therefore, he must have a 'good' mother. 

What if your baby doesn't sleep as well as you expected? Frustration, anger and guilt are common feelings for many mums. You may also feel resentful of anyone else who is able to have a good night's sleep. Some mums may also begin to resent their babies. Yet wakefulness is a completely normal means of survival. Babies wake naturally to make sure they get enough food to grow.  

Baby sleep patterns

Sleep patterns appear, disappear or change as a baby grows from newborn to older baby to toddler. The actual pattern of sleeping and waking varies widely from baby to baby, just as it does in older children and adults. During the first 2 to 3 years, sleep patterns can appear to ‘go backwards’ at times. Some people call this a ‘regression’. It’s normal and isn't caused by anything that you are doing or not doing.  

There are two types of sleep – light sleep and deep sleep. Very young babies need to conserve energy to grow, so they usually sleep a lot. They spend about 60% of their sleep in light sleep.1 This helps baby’s brain to grow and also lets them wake often to make sure they are fed.   

Breastfed babies wake more easily from active sleep than formula-fed babies. You may be told this is a bad thing but in fact, it’s good. It may be one of the reasons why breastfed babies have a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).2  

As your baby grows, they will spend less time in light sleep and more time in deep sleep. 

How much sleep does my baby need?

There is a lot of variation in how much sleep babies get and their sleep/wake patterns. 

A large Australian study3 showed that: 

  • Babies under 3 months slept between 11 and 18 hours per day in total.
  • Babies from 3 to 8 months slept 11 to 16 hours per day.
  • Some babies are awake most of the day and sleep long at night.
  • Some have shorter sleeping and waking times spread over the 24 hours.
  • Others have a mix of naps and longer sleep.
  • Daytime sleeps get less and night-time sleep increases as baby matures.

Why do babies wake?

There are many reasons why your baby may wake during the night. Sometimes you might be able to work it out, many times you won’t. It can also be for several reasons: 

  • In the early days, babies have no idea about day and night.  

  • Young babies have tiny tummies which need to be refilled frequently. Short night feeds can send your baby (and you) back to sleep very quickly.  

  • You may be told that your baby isn’t sleeping or has started to wake again, because they are hungry or because you don't  have enough milk. There are many reasons for babies to start waking. Solutions such as formula top-ups and early starting of solids are sometimes suggested but may make no difference, and even make the situation worse.

  • Babies are easily disturbed. Too hot, too cold, some prefer to be wrapped firmly, others prefer to have arms and legs free. Some babies wake with the slightest noise, others wake when it’s too quiet.  

  • Some babies and toddlers who have been sleeping well for weeks or even months, start to wake again. They might be going through a phase, perhaps they’ve learned to roll over and that wakes them. Rather than try to return them to their previous sleeping pattern, it’s probably less stressful to wait for the stage to settle down. 

  • Some babies are noisy sleepers. You may hear them wakening but if you wait a bit, they may actually put themselves back to sleep.   

Sometimes it's possible to find a cause of your baby's waking, but usually there is no obvious reason. However, you can be reassured that each baby is an individual and your baby's sleep patterns will change as your baby matures. Early sleep patterns don’t last forever.  

A breastfeed is often the quickest and most natural way to settle a baby, as mums through the ages have found. Breastfeeding your baby to sleep gives them food, comfort and helps them to relax. It won't give them ‘bad habits’ and won’t stop them being able to settle in other ways or for other people.  

If your baby doesn’t fall asleep while feeding or feeding to sleep doesn't suit your family, there are other things you can try.  

When will my baby sleep through?

Every parent wants to know when their baby will sleep through. But in fact 'sleeping through' for a baby may not be the 8 hours we think of as a good night's sleep for adults.  

Research has found that by 3 months, half of babies are sleeping for a 5-hour stretch. At 6 months, about half are sleeping for an 8-hour stretch on some nights. By the end of the first year, nearly a third of babies are still waking up during the night.4

There is also no evidence to suggest that there is any difference between breastfed and formula-fed babies with regard to the age at which they sleep through the night. 

Your baby needs you at night 

A baby's need for closeness and physical contact is very real and important to their wellbeing. Every baby knows when their parents are close or not. If you aren't in the room, your baby has no way of knowing when or if you will return. They feel their most secure by being held by you, being able to see you or by being near the normal household sounds and activities. 

One mother describes her experience...

"After reaching his first birthday, Liam woke less frequently. His wakefulness seemed unrelated to his past day - whether he'd had a daytime sleep or none at all; a very busy day or a quiet one; if he was put to bed earlier or kept up longer. So we accepted his need for comfort, attention and love and found that the quicker we went to him, the sooner he would settle. Within minutes of my feeding him, he was sound asleep again - happy and content. Now he's obviously ready to sleep for longer periods knowing that if he needs us, we will be there. Perhaps some children like Liam cannot cope with hours of solitude and therefore need more frequent attention and affection."

  1. Davis, K. F., Parker, K. P., & Montgomery, G. L. (2004). Sleep in infants and young children: Part one: Normal sleep. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 18(2), 65–71.
  2. Hauck, F. R., Thompson, J. M., Tanabe, K. O., Moon, R. Y., & Vennemann, M. M. (2011). Breastfeeding and reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 128(1), 103–110.
  3. Teng, A., Bartle, A., Sadeh, A., & Mindell, J. (2012). Infant and toddler sleep in Australia and New Zealand. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 48(3), 268–273.
  4. Henderson, J. M., France, K. G., Owens, J. L., & Blampied, N. M. (2010). Sleeping through the night: The consolidation of self-regulated sleep across the first year of life. Pediatrics, 126(5), e1081–e1087.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association April 2022

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