Guide to Baby Sleep: From Newborns to Toddlers

Every new parent knows there is no shortage of advice from well-meaning friends and family when a new baby arrives.  Much of the advice could work.  However, some of that advice contradicts other good, well-meaning advice.  Needless to say, it can be confusing.  And when multiple crying and waking situations become a part of your nightly experience, that confusion becomes all the more real. 

As a father of four, I’ve had a fair amount of experience of sorting through sleep issues with babies. My oldest’s sleep struggles (he had horrible acid reflux) are part of my origin story when it comes to dealing with insomnia.  

I’m a little embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until our fourth child that we sought professional help and planning. Somehow, the advice we received (and mind you, this was not advice we had never heard before) came at just the right time because it honestly only took about three nights for our ten-month-old to start sleeping through the night.  

I hope that the following article will provide you with some ideas or encouragement to improve sleep in your household. Every option isn’t going to work for every baby, but perhaps through a little sincere and committed trial and error, you will also find a way to help that little one sleep better and, subsequently, a way for you to start sleeping better. 

sleeping baby

Importance of Sleep for Infants and Toddlers

Sleep is as vital to infants and toddlers as nutrition and physical care. During these early months, sleep supports incredible physical growth and is crucial for cognitive development, including memory consolidation and brain maturation. Proper sleep patterns help regulate emotions, improve attention spans, and strengthen the immune system. For parents, understanding how to support their child's sleep needs can lead to healthier, happier family dynamics and contribute to their child's overall well-being.

Scope and Focus of the Article

This comprehensive guide is designed to navigate children's evolving sleep patterns and needs from newborn to toddlerhood. We will look into the developmental stages of sleep, emphasizing practical and safe sleep training techniques tailored for each age group. 

Additionally, the article will cover crucial topics such as safe sleeping practices, the impact of nutrition on sleep, and creating an optimal sleep environment. We aim to equip parents with the knowledge and tools to help their babies achieve the best sleep possible, backed by research and expert advice.

sleeping todler

Understanding Baby Sleep: Developmental Stages and Needs

Newborns (0-3 months)

Sleep Patterns

Newborns typically sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day, distributed in short bursts throughout the 24-hour period. During these early months, infants haven’t yet developed a sense of night and day, so their sleep can be erratic. In fact, most new parents will tell you that their baby seems to have a unique nap to sleep all day and stay up most of the night. 

Sleep at this stage is primarily for rapid growth and development. Sleep cycles are much shorter and include both REM (active sleep) and non-REM (quiet sleep) phases.

Establishing Sleep Cues

Establishing sleep cues early on can help newborns establish healthier sleep habits. Sleep cues might include swaddling (like these from Love to Dream), dimming the lights, soft singing or humming, and gentle rocking. These cues help soothe the baby and signal that it’s time to sleep, gradually helping them associate these activities with bedtime. Patience and consistency are vital at this stage and, in fact, throughout the entire sleep training process. 

Infants (3-6 months)

Structuring Sleep

As infants grow, they begin to sleep for longer stretches at night. This period is ideal for starting to introduce a more structured sleep schedule. Parents can begin to encourage longer nighttime sleep periods and more wakeful and active periods during the day, gently guiding the baby's internal clock toward a more regular rhythm.

Circadian Rhythms Development

By 3 to 6 months, most babies start developing a circadian rhythm, the internal biological clock that regulates the cycle of sleep and wakefulness. Exposure to natural light during the morning and activities during the day can help strengthen these rhythms, making sleep times more predictable.

Older Infants (6-12 months)

Separation Anxiety

Starting around 6 months, babies become more aware of their surroundings and may begin to experience separation anxiety, which can disrupt sleep. They might wake up crying during the night, needing the assurance that their parent is near. It’s important for parents to provide comfort while encouraging the baby to return to sleep independently.

Night Waking

Night waking can increase due to several factors, including teething, developmental milestones, or increased mobility. Maintaining a calm and consistent response to night wakings can help teach infants that nighttime is for sleep and reassure them without creating new sleep associations.

Toddlers (12–24 months)

Sleep Regressions

As toddlers grow, they might experience periods of sleep regression, where previously established sleeping patterns are disrupted. This can be due to leaps in cognitive development, increased social and language skills, or changes in their daily routine. Again, parents' patience and consistency are crucial during these phases.

Transition to One Nap

Many toddlers shift from two daily naps to one around 18 months. This transition requires adjustments in both the nap schedule and bedtime to ensure that toddlers do not become overtired, which makes it harder for them to sleep well.

baby sleeping safely and soundly

Safe Sleep Practices

Current Safe Sleep Recommendations

Safe sleep practices are critical to reducing the risk of sleep-related deaths, including SIDS. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants sleep on their backs, on a firm sleep surface such as a mattress in a safety-approved crib, covered by a fitted sheet with no other bedding or soft objects. This position prevents suffocation and supports better breathing. Additionally, babies should sleep in the same room as the parents but on a separate surface designed for infants, ideally for the first year but at least for the first six months.

Sleep Environment Safety

Creating a safe sleep environment is paramount. The sleeping area should be free of pillows, blankets, stuffed toys, and bumpers, which could potentially obstruct the infant’s breathing space. Room temperature should be comfortable to avoid overheating, a risk factor for SIDS. The crib should meet current safety standards, with slats close enough to prevent the baby's head from slipping through. Regularly checking for any loose screws or broken parts is also essential to maintain the crib's safety.

SIDS Prevention Tips

In addition to the back-sleeping position and a clear sleep environment, several other strategies can help minimize the risk of SIDS:

  • Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding is encouraged as it's associated with a reduced risk of SIDS. Even partial breastfeeding has been shown to have a protective effect.
  • Use of a pacifier: Introducing a pacifier at nap time and bedtime can reduce the risk of SIDS. The pacifier should be used when the baby is placed down to sleep and not reinserted once the baby has fallen asleep.
  • Avoid exposure to smoke: Exposure to cigarettes, cigars, and other types of smoke should be avoided during pregnancy and after birth, as it increases the risk of SIDS.
  • Regular prenatal care: Receiving regular medical care during pregnancy can reduce the baby's risk of SIDS.
  • Avoid overheating and head covering: Dress the baby appropriately for the environment to avoid overheating. Check the baby to ensure the head is not covered during sleep.

These guidelines and tips are based on extensive research designed to provide infants with the safest possible sleep environment. By following these practices, parents, and caregivers can significantly reduce the risk of sleep-related incidents.

baby sleeping

Sleep Training Techniques

No-Tears Method

The No-Tears Method focuses on gradually teaching babies to sleep without letting them cry it out. Techniques include soothing rituals, consistent bedtime routines, and comforting the baby until they fall asleep. Parents gradually reduce their presence in the baby's room, allowing the child to learn to fall asleep independently while reassuring them that they are nearby.

The Ferber Method (Graduated Extinction)

Steps and Timing

Developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, the Ferber Method involves letting the baby cry for predetermined periods before parental intervention. This technique is designed to teach babies to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. It starts with short intervals of crying (about 3 minutes) and gradually increases the time (up to 10 minutes or more), depending on the baby's response and age.

Common Adaptations

Parents may adapt the intervals based on their comfort level and their baby's temperament. Some choose to shorten or lengthen the waiting times. Adjustments might also include more comfort at each interval, or starting the method only during the first part of the night.

Cry It Out (Full Extinction)

The Cry-It-out method, or Full Extinction, involves putting the baby to bed at a set time and not returning until the morning. This method is often considered the most emotionally challenging for parents but can effectively teach babies to fall asleep quickly on their own.

Chair Method

In the Chair Method, a parent sits next to the baby’s crib until the child falls asleep, without picking them up or excessively soothing them. The chair is moved further away from the crib each night until the parent leaves the room. This method can be less stressful for the child as the parent is present, but gradually teaches independence.

Fading Sleep Method

The Fading Method involves decreasing the parent's role in helping the baby fall asleep. Initially, the parent might rock or feed the baby to near sleep, then gradually reduce the motion or stop before the baby fully falls asleep, encouraging them to fall asleep more independently each night.

Pick Up, Put Down Method

This method is suitable for younger babies. It involves picking up the baby when it cries, soothing it until calm, and then putting it down awake. If the baby continues to cry, the process is repeated until the child can settle.

Adjustments for Parents

Sleep training can be very emotionally taxing for parents. It's important to approach sleep training with a clear plan and agreement on the methods used. Parents must ensure they are consistent and supportive of each other during the process. The stress can be very difficult to handle, depending on your relationship and aptitude. I would say that solid communication beforehand and support during the process is very important. 

If it makes you feel better (and for many parents, it does), a great baby monitor like the ones from Owlet could be helpful.

Handling Night Wakings

Night wakings are common during sleep training. The key is consistency in how they are handled—decide whether to check on the baby at consistent intervals or to wait until the morning. Ensure that nighttime interactions are quiet, calm, and not engaging to reinforce that nighttime is for sleeping.

Controversies and Considerations in Sleep Training

Sleep training can be controversial, with debates centered around the emotional impact on the child and the effectiveness of various methods. It’s crucial for parents to be well-informed and choose a method that aligns with their comfort level and parenting style. Consulting with pediatricians or sleep specialists can also provide guidance tailored to specific needs and circumstances.

Almost any method could work, but you’ll want to find the right one for yourself and your baby.  That might take more than a bit of careful consideration and planning. 

Role of Nutrition in Sleep

Impact of Breastfeeding vs. Formula

The type of feeding—breastfeeding or formula—can have different impacts on a baby's sleep patterns. Breastfed infants may wake more frequently during the night than formula-fed infants, largely due to the quicker digestion of breast milk. However, breastfeeding has been associated with a higher synchronization between the mother's and baby's sleep cycles, potentially leading to more restful sleep for both. Additionally, breastfeeding releases hormones that help mother and baby feel more relaxed and ready to sleep.

Introduction of Solids and Sleep

Introducing solids is a significant milestone in a baby's development and can affect sleep. Typically recommended around six months of age, solid foods should be introduced cautiously and gradually to observe how different foods affect the baby's digestion and sleep. Some studies suggest that solids introduced at the right time help infants sleep longer stretches at night.  But please keep in mind, every baby is different.  My second son had no desire for solids until he was 14 months old (side note: he loves a good steak today). 

Avoiding Feeding to Sleep Associations

Creating a strong association between feeding and sleep can lead to long-term sleep challenges. To avoid these associations, feeding the baby upon waking rather than right before sleep is often advisable. This helps the baby learn to fall asleep without needing to eat, a skill that contributes to longer sleep periods as they grow older. For older infants, establishing a soothing bedtime routine that does not revolve solely around feeding can reinforce good sleep habits and help differentiate between feeding and sleeping time.

Creating an Optimal Sleep Environment

Room Setup

Creating a conducive sleep environment is crucial for promoting good sleep habits in infants and toddlers. The room should be kept cool, quiet, and dark. A thermostat between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 22 degree Celsius), slightly warmer than the usual recommendation for most adults, is typically recommended to maintain a comfortable sleep temperature. 

Blackout curtains can block light, especially in summer, when the sun sets early and rises later in the evening. To ensure a safe sleep space, the crib should be free of toys, pillows, and loose bedding. Ideally, the room should be quiet but consistent, and low-level white noise can mask household or street noises.

Our family is a big fan of the white noise machine from Snooz.

Use of Sleep Aids

Several aids can assist in improving a baby’s sleep. White noise machines or fans help drown out intermittent noise disturbances and provide a soothing backdrop for sleep. Nightlights with a red or orange hue can be turned on for nighttime feedings or diaper changes, as these colors are less likely to stimulate wakefulness than blue or white lights. For younger babies, swaddling can be an effective technique to mimic the security of the womb, though it should be discontinued once the baby begins to show signs of rolling over. A sleep sack can be a safe alternative to blankets for older babies and toddlers.

Establishing a Bedtime Routine

A consistent bedtime routine is one of the most effective strategies for signaling to a child that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep. A routine might include a warm bath, a quiet story or song, and some cuddling before putting the baby to bed. These activities should be kept calm and soothing and occur in the same order and simultaneously each night. Over time, this consistency helps the child associate these activities with sleep and naturally cues the onset of sleepiness.

Parental Well-being and Support

Managing Parental Sleep

Parental sleep is crucial for personal health and effective parenting. New parents often face sleep deprivation, which can affect their mood, decision-making, and ability to provide responsive care. Parents can try to synchronize sleep schedules with their baby as much as possible to improve sleep quality, taking turns for nighttime duties if there are two caregivers. 

Napping when the baby naps is another recommended strategy, though it may be challenging. Parents should also practice good sleep hygiene, such as limiting screen time before bed, using blackout curtains, and maintaining a quiet, comfortable sleeping environment.

Impact of Parental Stress on Baby's Sleep

Stress can significantly impact the family dynamic, affecting the parents and the baby. High levels of parental stress can lead to less consistent and responsive parenting practices, which can disrupt the baby’s sleep patterns. Babies are sensitive to emotional cues from their caregivers, and tension can make it harder for them to sleep. 

To mitigate this, parents can engage in stress-reducing activities such as exercise, meditation, or yoga. Maintaining open communication with partners or support networks is also helpful in managing stress effectively. And more than anything, the more grace you can offer to yourself, your space, and that baby, the more sanity you will likely maintain. 

I’ve come across some great stress-relieving tools lately that might end up helping some of you stressed-out parents as you work through this phase in your baby’s life.  The Muse Headband is a wonderful tool

So is the Calm Cary from GlowCo.

Utilizing Support Networks

Support networks are invaluable for parents. They provide emotional backing, practical advice, and sometimes hands-on help. These networks can include family, friends, parent groups, and professionals such as pediatricians or parenting consultants. Engaging with online or local parent groups can provide a platform to share experiences and solutions, reducing feelings of isolation and overwhelm. 

When difficulties exceed typical parenting challenges, professional help, such as counseling or sleep consultants, can be sought. These resources support parental well-being and can lead to better sleep habits for the entire family.

Wrapping It Up

Throughout this guide, we've taken a brief look at various aspects of baby sleep, from newborns to toddlers, emphasizing safe sleep practices, sleep training techniques, and the impact of nutrition and environment on sleep. Key strategies include adhering to safe sleep guidelines, selecting a sleep training method that aligns with your family's values, creating a conducive sleep environment, and making sure nutritional needs are met to best support sleep. Consistency and patience are crucial across all methods and practices to foster good sleep habits in babies and toddlers.

Navigating your baby’s sleep can be a challenging but deeply rewarding part of parenting. I’d go as far as calling sleep training necessary for both parent and child. Each baby is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. 

Be flexible and willing to adapt as you learn more about your child’s needs and responses. Remember, it’s okay, probably even wise, to seek help when needed. Above all, trust your instincts as a parent. You're doing a fantastic job, and sleep will become easier for your child and you with time and effort.

FAQs about Baby Sleep

When can I start sleep training my baby?

  • Most experts recommend starting sleep training at about 4 to 6 months when the baby can developmentally sleep through the night without needing to be fed.

How long does it typically take for sleep training to work?

  • It can vary, but many parents see results within a few days to weeks. Consistency is key to success. Honestly, it can happen quicker than you’d think. 

Is it harmful to let my baby cry during sleep training?

  • Current research suggests that short periods of crying under controlled conditions (as in some forms of sleep training) are not harmful to babies emotionally or developmentally. It’s important to follow a method you are comfortable with, as every parent and child has their particular tolerance levels, and consult your pediatrician if you have concerns.

How can I prevent my baby from becoming overtired?

  • Watch for sleep cues such as rubbing eyes, yawning, and fussiness. Try to begin your bedtime routine before these signs escalate, which can help prevent your baby from becoming overtired and resisting sleep.

What should I do if my baby wakes up at night after sleep training?

  • If night waking occurs after sleep training, briefly reassure your baby without picking them up or feeding them (unless necessary). Keep interactions minimal and soothing.

Can solid foods help my baby sleep through the night?

  • Introducing solids is more about nutritional needs and less about improving sleep. While some parents notice better sleep patterns after starting solids, following pediatric guidelines on when and how to introduce solid foods is important.

What are the signs that my sleep training method isn't working?

  • If sleep does not improve after 2–3 weeks, your baby seems unusually stressed, or family stress levels have increased significantly, it may be time to reconsider your approach or consult a sleep specialist.

References

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Helping Baby Sleep Through the Night.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/baby-sleep/art-20045014

Smidt, Stacey. “10 Tips for Helping Baby Sleep Through the Night.” Hackensack Meridian Health. https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/en/healthu/2023/05/17/10-tips-for-getting-your-baby-to-sleep-through-the-night

Parker, Steven. “How to Set Good Sleep Patterns for Your Baby.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/newborns

Korownyk, Christina. “Infant Sleep Training: Rest Easy.” Canada Family Physician. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5962992/

Symon, Brian. “The Joy of Parenting: Infant Sleep Intervention to Improve Maternal Emotional Well-Being and Infant Sleep.” Singapore Medical Journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5331130/