Holding tight to a mantra of “expect the unexpected” in motherhood has saved my sanity on any number of occasions. It’s kept me from being disappointed when reality didn’t match my expectations. And if there’s one part of parenthood where this logic applies above all others, it’s sleep.
Ready for a rough night with a teething baby? They’ll definitely sleep soundly that night. Think you’ve finally cracked the code on getting your toddler to stay in their bed? You’ll for sure be getting a surprise visitor later.
Baby sleep, in particular, is like following a complicated recipe where the ingredients change from one day to the next, and you can never quite keep up with what dash of spice did the trick. What worked yesterday may not work today and sometimes you can do everything “right” and still struggle.
Baby sleep, in particular, is like following a complicated recipe where the ingredients change from one day to the next, and you can never quite keep up with what dash of spice did the trick.
When it comes to newborns, Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett of Mom Loves Best shared that you can typically expect them to sleep in bursts of 1-3 hours at a time around-the-clock, generally waking up to feed. Meaning, you’re not likely to get a long stretch at night just yet, and that’s totally normal. In the newborn phase, save your mental energy and your sanity and just focus on taking care of yourself and your baby.
As your baby gets a few months older, sleep may remain a bit of a guessing game, but there are some things that can help set them up for success.
What are “awake zones”?
In my personal experience, and according to sleep experts, focusing on awake zones—the maximum amount of time your baby can handle being awake before getting overtired—just may be the key to helping them sleep better at naps and at night.
Instead of focusing on a strict schedule of the same nap time every day, sleep researcher and certified sleep consultant Macall Gordon of LittleLiveWires.com explained that determining the next naptime based on these awake zones can actually be more productive.
“Knowing how long your child can be awake at a time for their age is really the key to good sleep,” Gordon said. “Going over that amount of time can mean the child is into their second wind zone and then the nap or bedtime is twice as hard to get.”
So how long can most babies can stay awake? “Under 6 months, it’s only about 60 to 90 minutes,” Gordon said. As an example, if your baby who is under 6 months old wakes up at 6 a.m., you want to put them down for a nap roughly an hour to an hour-and-a-half later. Then, look at the clock when they wake up from that nap, and time their next nap accordingly—within the next hour to hour-and-a-half.
“At 6 months, [awake zones] are about 2 hours. By a year, it’s about 3 or so hours,” said Gordon.
What about our sleep schedule?
For the schedule-oriented among us, awake zones pose a bit of good news and bad news.
The bad news? That suggested baby schedule you read about in a parenting book or found on an expert’s website? It’s not quite that simple, and it certainly won’t always go according to plan. Your baby has their own plans. Sometimes they’ll wake up before that schedule says they should. Sometimes they’ll fall asleep mid-playtime before you’ve deemed it naptime.
The good news? You can still stick to a “schedule” of sorts, it will just change daily depending on what time your baby wakes up each morning and what time they wake up from each nap.
When it comes to nighttime sleep, many of us find ourselves overjoyed when our little ones can make it through a night without needing a feeding, but still exhausted from frequent middle-of-the-night wakings for other reasons or 5 a.m. wake up calls.
Again, these things are often common and normal, but baby sleep expert and consultant Dr. Sarah Mitchell reminded me that sometimes these things happen simply because a baby or toddler is overtired.
Ever been completely exhausted but then unable to fall asleep when you finally make it to that glorious moment when your head hits your pillow? That’s what being overtired is like for a baby.
“It’s easy to fall into a sleep debt from frequent night waking perhaps due to teething, being sick, or relying on a parent to reinsert the pacifier,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Then you get stuck there because an overtired child is harder to get to fall asleep and then stay asleep, leading to more night waking, and you keep repeating the pattern.”
Dr. Mitchell’s suggestion to get out of this cycle is to look at awake zones and determine a bedtime from there. Until your baby turns one or goes down to one nap, use age-appropriate awake times to set a bedtime based on when the baby woke up from their last nap.
“For many moms, just by putting their babies down a little bit earlier, you can reduce night waking and 5 a.m. wake-ups,” Dr. Mitchell said. “People think of bedtime as based on this ideal time that works for when [a parent] comes home, or that ideal 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. schedule, which is hard to achieve for most parents, by the way.”
So if you can’t seem to follow that perfect baby sleep schedule outlined in the book you read? You’re in good company.
People think of bedtime as based on this ideal time that works for when [a parent] comes home, or that ideal 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. schedule, which is hard to achieve for most parents, by the way.
As we all know, what works for one parent may not work for you, especially when it comes to sleep. All babies and kids are different, and some may be able to handle shorter or longer amounts of awake time at once.
If you’ve tried everything, and nothing seems to work, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It means you’re human. Of course, if you have serious concerns, your pediatrician is a great resource to start.
For those of us running on our own sleep debt, try to remember that everything is a phase, and one day (hopefully soon), you will get a night uninterrupted again.