If I had a dollar for every time I’ve googled something starting with the phrase “Is it normal for a baby/toddler/child to…”, I would definitely be a millionaire by now!
When you become a parent, there’s no manual that comes with your baby to tell you what’s normal and what’s not. So you end up doing a lot of guessing, googling and worrying.
Many parents believe, or have been told, that it’s “normal” for a baby to sleep poorly. And yes, at times, that is absolutely true. Babies will go through different stages in their development where their sleep patterns can change and it can be rough!
But these stages pass and your baby’s sleep should come good again. If that doesn’t seem to be happening, it might mean there are other underlying issues making it difficult for your baby to settle and sleep well.
In this article, we want to lay it all out for you so you can stop guessing and worrying! After helping hundreds of thousands of families to improve their baby’s sleep, we can tell you what’s “normal” and what’s not when it comes to your baby’s sleep patterns. We’ll also share some steps you can take to get more sleep for your family.
In this article:
- Newborn sleep patterns
- Sleep regressions
- Nap transitions
- Why won't my baby sleep?
- Medical reasons for poor settling and sleep
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Newborn sleep patterns
The word “pattern” here is a bit misleading because when you first bring your baby home, there probably won’t be any pattern to their sleep or feeding… at all!
It is totally normal for things to be a bit erratic to start with because your baby is still getting used to being in the outside world.
In particular, babies aren’t born with an established circadian rhythm (or body clock). This doesn’t start to develop until closer to 6-8 weeks. So before then, you may find your baby just wants to sleep all the time, or has their days and nights mixed up or is just really inconsistent in their sleep.
Your newborn might nap beautifully one day and then refuse to settle the next, or they’ll sleep well one night, only waking for a couple of feeds, and then be up partying for hours in the middle of the night, the next night!
This inconsistent sleep and settling can be very normal in the early days but if your newborn is having more “bad” sleep days than “good”, it’s worth digging a bit deeper to figure out what is making them unsettled. If you’re not sure where to start, check out THIS article.
Newborns can also vary a lot in terms of their settling - some babies might happily settle to sleep in their bassinet (or even self-settle to sleep!), whereas others will only want to sleep on you or being held. Again, this can be totally normal, since your baby has been used to the warmth and movement of the womb, as well as the sound of your heartbeat. If you are wanting to get your baby settling and sleeping in their bassinet though, we have some great tips in THIS article.
Those first couple of months at home with your newborn can be unpredictable, frustrating AND exhausting! By the time your baby is around 6-8 weeks old though, you should find that they start to fall into a more predictable pattern of naps and feeds throughout the day. You’ll start to feel like you’re getting a handle on things, you’ll start to feel more human, then…
… around 8 weeks old your baby suddenly becomes hard to settle for naps and will only sleep for 35-45 minutes at a time. Again, you think “what is going on?!”
What’s going on is your baby has hit the 8 week sleep regression.
What is a sleep regression I hear you ask? Great question, let’s take a look now…
So what exactly is a sleep regression? Put simply, it is a period when your baby or toddler regresses, or goes backwards, in their sleep. So they suddenly become harder to settle or wake early from naps, or they might start waking more overnight or early in the morning.
Sleep regressions are linked to changes and milestones in your baby’s development, so there are certain ages where you can expect that your baby’s sleep will take a hit. These include:
- 8 weeks
- 4 months
- 8-10 months
- 12-15 months
- 2 years
I know, it seems like a lot right? Luckily most of these regressions will pass pretty quickly, usually within a matter of weeks. The exception to this is the 4 month regression, which is a permanent change to your baby’s sleep patterns. You can read more about all of these sleep regressions and find some tips for how to get through them in THIS article.
Sleep regressions are not the only big changes your baby will go through in their first few years. Their nap structure will also change as they get older, which is another common cause of disrupted sleep.
There are three nap transitions that your baby will go through, usually at the following ages:
- 6-8 months: from 3 naps, down to 2 naps
- 12-15 months: from 2 naps, down to 1 nap
- 2.5-3.5 years: from 1 nap to no nap
In the lead up to these nap transitions, and certainly while your baby is adjusting, it is quite normal for their sleep to be disrupted. So again, they might have difficulties settling, wake more overnight or wake early in the morning.
The degree to which your baby’s sleep will be impacted really depends on what their nap structure is like going into these transitions. You can read more about this and find some tips for navigating each of these nap transitions in THIS article.
But what if your baby is not going through one of these sleep regressions or nap transitions…
Why won't my baby sleep?
If you’ve ruled out sleep regressions and nap transitions, you might feel resigned and start to think that your baby is just a “bad” sleeper. But there’s no such thing as a “bad” sleeper… not really. Good sleep is something that EVERY baby is capable of… if the conditions are right!
So what are those conditions?
1. The perfect sleep environment
We go on and on about this, I know, but if you want your baby to sleep well, you need to provide them with an environment that is conducive to sleep! That means a dark room for naps and overnight sleep, to help promote the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. It also means playing white noise, especially for babies under 12 months, to help with linking sleep cycles and blocking out household noises.
For younger babies who aren’t rolling yet, make sure they are swaddled to suppress their startle reflex. Once they are rolling, transition into a sleeping bag, rather than blankets, to help keep them nice and cosy all night long.
2. A full and happy tummy
A hungry baby is not going to settle or sleep well so you want to make sure they are having good, full feeds in between naps. We recommend feeding your baby shortly after they wake from a nap, when they are at their most awake and alert. This helps to ensure that they will feed well and also gives them plenty of time to get their wind out.
Make sure you burp your baby really well after their feed, and possibly even again before their nap/bedtime, so they don’t wake up uncomfortable.
3. Age-appropriate awake times and nap lengths
This is really the most crucial condition for sleep. If your baby is sleeping too much or too little during the day, this is going to cause them to be hard to settle at bedtime, wake more overnight or wake early in the morning. The timing of their naps makes a big difference too - you can read more in THIS article.
If you want to know exactly when your baby should be napping, our Little Ones App has daily sleep and feed schedules that will help to make sure your baby is getting the right balance of awake time and sleep for their age.
4. Self-settling (for babies over 3/4 months of age)
Once your baby hits the 4 month sleep regression, their sleep cycles mature so you will likely find they start to wake after one cycle at naps (35-45 minutes) and every 2 hours overnight. Unlike the other sleep regressions, this is a permanent change to a baby's sleep patterns.
How your baby goes to sleep at the start of naps and bedtime determines what they need in order to go BACK to sleep in between those sleep cycles. If they rely on a parent-led sleep association like feeding, rocking or patting, they are going to expect that same help from you every time they wake.
The key to getting longer naps happening again, and longer stretches of sleep overnight, is to teach your baby how to self-settle to sleep. If they can get themselves to sleep at the start of naps and bedtime, they will be able to resettle themselves in between sleep cycles without your help. You can read more about the 4 month regression and self-settling in THIS article.
5. Age-appropriate expectations
It’s also important to make sure you’re not expecting too much from your baby! For example, we wouldn’t expect a baby under 3/4 months of age to be able to self-settle to sleep. Some might be able to, but at this young age it’s an instinctual behaviour, rather than something your baby is consciously doing.
So if you are expecting to be able to put your newborn baby down in their bassinet awake and they will just go off to sleep on their own…think again! It’s very normal to settle your baby all the way to sleep at that age.
Similarly, we don’t really expect babies under 6-8 months to be able to sleep through the night. Until a baby is established on solids, 1-2 wakes for feeds overnight is considered quite normal. Some babies may sleep through the night from a younger age - this can happen if they are getting enough calories from their milk feeds during the day or if you are doing a “dream feed” before you go to bed.
Most babies though will continue to wake for feeds overnight until they are well-established on solids, which might not be until closer to 8 months. But even then, there’s no guarantee your baby will be sleeping through the night, since there are actually a whole range of factors involved in this! You can read more about sleeping through the night HERE.
Medical reasons for poor settling and sleep
If you have the perfect conditions for sleep and you’ve been able to rule out sleep regressions and nap transitions, it doesn’t mean your baby is a “bad” sleeper and you certainly shouldn’t give up on trying to improve their sleep!
There is ALWAYS a reason for poor settling and sleep. But sometimes, it can take a bit of work to figure out what that reason is.
In our vast experience, this is usually sickness (temporary sickness like a cold or a tummy bug) or another medical reason like:
- Reflux (including silent reflux)
- Tongue and lip ties
- Food allergies or intolerances (cow’s milk protein being the most common)
I know from personal experience that these are probably some of the last things you'd expect to be disrupting your baby’s sleep! But if your baby is being given the best chance to sleep and sleep still isn't happening, it’s worth investigating - even if it’s just to rule it out. Some of these conditions can be very hard to diagnose but very poor sleep is often a big indicator.
Some behaviours and sleep patterns to look out for include:
- Only wanting to nap being held or upright in a carrier/pram/carseat.
- Short, frequent feeds throughout the day and/or night (every 1-2 hours).
- Waking within the first 10-30 minutes at naps, especially when sleeping on their back.
- Waking frequently in the first half of the night from bedtime to midnight.
- Waking frequently in the early morning, from around 3am onwards.
- Crying or screaming straight away when they wake during naps or overnight.
- Restless sleep - wriggling, kicking, grunting, lifting their legs, arching their back, crying in their sleep.
- Difficulties settling - older babies will find it almost impossible to self-settle.
You will probably experience some of these challenges from time to time, so if your baby has suddenly started doing something from this list, don’t panic! It doesn’t necessarily mean there is an underlying medical issue there. It’s much more likely that they have simply outgrown their current nap pattern and it needs a little tweaking.
If your baby is exhibiting several of these behaviours though, or it’s been going on for a while, it’s worth further investigation - especially if you’re confident that everything else is lined up for your little one.
If your baby is showing any of the signs mentioned in the articles linked above, please talk to your doctor, lactation consultant or other healthcare provider. It can also help to take videos of your baby’s feeds or their unsettled episodes, so that your provider can see exactly what is going on! And trust your instinct - if you suspect there is something more going on, there probably is. Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion if needed.
Once I understood what was “normal” and what to expect with my baby’s sleep, I gained a huge amount of confidence… both in my baby’s ability to sleep well and in my own ability to guide him through challenging times like sleep regressions and nap transitions.
Knowing what was “normal” also meant I was able to quickly identify my baby’s underlying medical issues and get them resolved. Without that knowledge, we would have struggled with his feeding and sleep for months…. how do I know this? Because that’s exactly what happened with my eldest.
With my first baby, I didn’t know much (or anything!) about baby sleep, I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what “normal” baby sleep looked like. So I googled “Is it normal for a baby to…” over and over, for every issue we had. And in return, I received a lot of conflicting information that just confused me even more!
After months of sleep deprivation and tears, we finally got to the bottom of what was making him so unsettled. And it turned out that all of those behaviours that the Internet told me were “normal”, were actually signs of an underlying medical issue. That whole time my baby had been hungry and uncomfortable and here I was thinking he was just a “bad” sleeper.
Knowledge really is power - the power to make positive changes for your family.
We’ve put all of our sleep knowledge and expertise into our Little Ones App, so that you feel empowered to improve your baby’s sleep. Our trusted sleep solutions can help you to navigate your baby’s sleep challenges and if you need further support, we have certified sleep consultants available day and night in our Little Ones Village.