Babies and sleep

Babies and sleep
Rock-a-bye, baby, in the tree top . . . A look at the major stages of infant sleep.

New parents spend a lot of time worrying about their little one’s sleep. How do I get my baby to sleep? When will they start sleeping through the night? Are they getting enough sleep? As we’re about to see, the answers to these questions vary—every child is unique!

Infant sleep from 0 to 3 months

Newborns sleep according to their needs, which is rarely at convenient times for their parents. At this stage, a baby’s internal clock—the biological mechanism that controls their sleep-wake cycle—is still developing, so they don’t yet have a sense of day versus night.

Newborns usually sleep for 2 to 4 hours at a time (closer to 2 hours if they’re breastfed). Some infants sleep more often, waking up mainly to nurse, while others naturally spend most of their time awake. These tendencies depend on their temperament.

If your baby is healthy, there’s no need to wake them for feedings. However, if they have a specific health problem or medical condition, it’s important to follow your health care provider’s recommendations.

What’s the best sleeping position for a baby?

The only recommended sleeping position for infants is on their backs. Back sleeping helps prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

By the time a child is able to roll onto their belly on their own (usually around the age of 6 months), the risk of SIDS is much lower, so it isn’t necessary to force them to sleep on their back. However, you should continue putting your little one to sleep on their back until age 1.

How many hours of sleep does a baby need during the first 3 months?

In general, newborns sleep anywhere from 14 to 18 hours per day. From the age of 1 to 3 months, they sleep about 14 to 17 hours a day and can stay awake for 2 to 3 hours at a time. At this age, they tend to stay awake longer in the evening, between 5 and 10 p.m.

Should you keep track of how many hours your baby sleeps?

Sleep recommendations for infants indicate how much sleep they need. You don’t need to keep an exact tally of how many hours your baby sleeps; instead, simply make sure they have the opportunity to sleep the recommended amount. If your baby is alert and in a good mood when they’re awake, they’re probably getting enough sleep.

Helping your baby learn the difference between day and night

Some parents notice that their baby sleeps just as much during the day as they do at night, and sometimes even more in the daytime. This is perfectly normal, since it takes 8 to 10 weeks for a newborn to begin distinguishing the two. Once they do, they’ll start to nurse more during the day and less at night.

You can help your baby gradually learn the difference between day and night in small ways:

  • Keep quiet during nighttime feedings. Avoid turning on too many lights, try not to talk, and be extra gentle if you need to change their diaper.
  • Go for walks with them during the day. When they’re napping, leave the curtains open, and don’t be afraid to make a little noise. You can also have your baby sleep in a different spot than at night, such as in a little cradle or a portable bed.

Taking time for yourself

For the first few days or weeks after the birth of your child, you’ll be filled with the excitement of finally welcoming your baby into the world. You’ll likely still feel energized despite sleeping only 4 hours or so a night. But be careful; by the end of the first month, your lack of rest may start to take a toll. You may feel extremely fatigued and experience occasional periods of sadness. It’s important to remember that caring for an infant requires all members of the family to adapt, and that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint. For more information, read our fact sheet on becoming a parent (French only).

When will your baby sleep through the night?

To go 5 or 6 hours in a row without nursing, your baby needs to be able to store up energy. They also need to develop their internal clock so they can regulate their body temperature, cardiovascular system, and hormone cycles. All of this takes time.

Where sleep is concerned, every newborn develops at their own pace, just as they’ll learn to crawl and walk when they’re ready. A parent’s role is simply to help their baby along.

The main thing is to have realistic expectations and not to compare your little one to anyone else’s. No two babies will learn to sleep at the same rate. For example, at the age of 2 months (8 weeks), only 25 percent of babies sleep at least 5 or 6 hours straight between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. At 4 months, the average increases to 75 percent, and by 10 months, it reaches 90 percent.

Sleep schedules vary from one infant to the next, and even from one night to the next for the same child.

It’s also normal for a baby who had begun sleeping for several hours straight every night to go back to waking up at frequent intervals. Learning to sleep is not a linear process, but one that can include a few detours. For example, during growth spurts (around the ages of 1 to 3 weeks, 6 to 8 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months), it’s normal for babies to want to nurse more often at night for 2 or 3 nights in a row.

Your baby’s sleep cycle

A baby’s sleep cycle has several stages: drowsiness (partway between wakefulness and sleep), quiet sleep, and active sleep (characterized by an expressive face and rapid eye movement beneath the eyelids). In general, over a 2-to-3-hour sleep period, babies switch between the quiet and active stages two or three times.
During active sleep, it’s normal to see your baby make faces, smile, and even cry. There’s no need to wake them up! If they are in fact awake and hungry, their whole body will move and their eyes will be wide open.

Creating a sleep-friendly environment

There are a number of things you can do to improve your baby’s sleep even while they’re still an infant. Here are some suggestions:

  • Check that your baby’s diaper is clean, that their room is a comfortable temperature (ideally 20°C–21°C, or 68°F–70°F), that there’s no loud background noise, that they’re not over- or underdressed, and that they aren’t exposed to any type of secondhand smoke (cigarettes, etc.).
Anything that reminds your baby of life in the womb will help calm them: gentle rocking, warmth, music, the sound of your voice, their mother’s scent, being carried in a front-worn baby carrier, etc.
  • Swaddle your baby in a light blanket to remind them of being in the womb. Swaddling can be particularly helpful to babies who sleep poorly or wake up often. When you swaddle your baby, you can place them in an arms-up position so they can touch their face or bring their hands to their mouth. Over time, this self-soothing behaviour promotes independent sleep. For more information, read our fact sheet on swaddling.
  • Let your baby sleep in a cradle or bassinet for the first few weeks if possible. Many infants don’t like being in large spaces, like their crib. If you don’t have a cradle or bassinet, lay your baby crosswise at one end of their crib. They’ll feel more secure having the edges of the crib at their head, feet, and side.
  • Keep quiet during nighttime feedings. This will help your baby fall back asleep more quickly.
  • Make sure your baby sleeps in a safe position. For example:
    - Always lay them on their back to prevent sudden infant death syndrome
    - Give them a firm, flat mattress that fits snugly into the crib frame
    - Don’t put any pillows, stuffed animals, comforters, bumper pads, thick blankets, or other soft objects in the crib, as these can be choking hazards
    To learn more about safety during sleep, consult our fact sheet on this topic (French only).

Is it safe to sleep in the same bed as your baby?

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, the safest place for an infant to sleep for the first 6 months is in their own crib, set up in their parents’ bedroom. However, other experts believe that bed sharing can be safe as long as you follow certain rules.
For more information, consult our fact sheet on co-sleeping (French only).

Infant sleep from 3 to 6 months

At this age, babies generally weigh at least 5 kg (11 lb.) and have enough energy reserves to wait longer between feedings. It’s entirely normal, however, for some 3-to-6-month-olds to still require feedings at night.

Babies don’t always have to nap in their crib. If a long outing overlaps with your little one’s naptime, they’ll often fall asleep in the car or stroller. If your baby is still asleep when you get home, place them in their crib, as it’s safer for them to sleep on a flat surface.

Babies also feel more secure by this stage and are able to self-soothe, such as by sucking their thumb between feedings. In addition, their internal clock is beginning to adjust to the 24-hour cycle.

During the day as well as in the evening, their periods of sleep and wakefulness are becoming more and more predictable. Between 4 and 8 or 9 months, most babies take three naps: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at the end of the day.

Around 5 to 6 months, it gets easier to read the signs that your baby is tired (e.g., crying, yawning, rubbing their eyes, loss of interest in toys and people). They’re now ready both biologically and psychologically for a bedtime routine, which makes this the ideal time to introduce one.

How many hours of sleep does a baby need at 3 to 6 months?

Normally, between 4 and 11 months, babies sleep approximately 12 to 15 hours a day. They’re also beginning to sleep for longer periods at night—often 5-to-6-hour stretches from about the age of 3 months.

How to help your baby sleep soundly

There’s no right or wrong way to put your baby down to sleep. All that really matters is that you choose a method you’re comfortable with that suits your baby’s temperament. Here are a few tips:

  • Now that your baby’s sleep schedule is more predictable, you can implement a bedtime routine. Every night, go through the same steps so that your little one starts to recognize when it’s time to get ready for bed (e.g., bath, bedtime story, massage, lullaby, cuddling). Pay attention to what they seem to prefer.
Massaging your baby before bedtime may improve the quality of their sleep. According to a study, babies who receive a massage before being put to bed wake up less often during the night.
  • After their routine, put your baby down before they’re fully asleep so they can gradually learn to fall asleep on their own. You can also rock, nurse, or bottle-feed your baby until they doze off. Just remember that if they wake up during the night, you’ll likely have to do the same thing to get them back to sleep.
  • When your baby starts showing signs of fatigue, don’t wait too long to put them to bed. If they’re too tired, they may become agitated and have trouble falling asleep.
  • If you’re breastfeeding and your baby is only sleeping for short periods at a time, try cutting caffeine (chocolate, coffee, etc.) from your diet for about 2 weeks to see if it helps their sleep. Caffeine is quickly transferred to breast milk and can cause difficulty sleeping in babies who are sensitive to it.
  • If your baby doesn’t want to sleep on their back and is crying a lot, talk to their doctor to see if they have gastroesophageal reflux (in French).

Why babies wake up during the night

If your baby wakes up at night and cries for attention, it’s not necessarily because they’re hungry. They may be cold or too warm, or they may need a diaper change.

Switching between stages in their sleep cycle can also cause them to wake up. In this case, your baby just needs to feel your comforting presence. Try giving them a small stuffed animal (the size of your hand) that smells like you.

Even if your baby has started sleeping regularly and developed good sleep habits, they may start waking up again at night. This can occur for several reasons, including growth spurts (particularly around the age of 3 months), a major change in their routine (moving, travelling, etc.), or the need to feel your comforting presence.

Bedtime routines

To be effective, your baby’s bedtime routine should be exactly the same every night. For example, bath time might be followed by putting their pyjamas on, a massage, a bedtime story, a feeding, cuddling, and then sleep. This routine should also be short (about 15 minutes) and able to be done either at home or elsewhere.
The predictability of a bedtime routine is reassuring for your baby because it helps them know what to expect. It also prepares them for sleep as they slowly learn to associate the routine with bedtime.
Establishing a naptime routine is another good way to help your baby get ready for sleep. For example, before every nap, you might read them a story and give them a feeding with cuddles.

Infant sleep from 6 to 12 months

It’s normal for babies at this age to wake up during the night. Your little one will gradually learn to go back to sleep on their own, something that tends to be easier if you usually put them down before they’re fully asleep.

Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage that occurs around 8 months of age. During this time, your child will have a harder time being away from you. They’ll sometimes need to be comforted before bedtime or during the night; things as simple as the sound of your voice or a quick cuddle can do the trick. Over time, they’ll learn to fall back asleep on their own.

Some babies over 6 months old still want a nighttime feeding. To wean your child off this habit, provided you feel it’s the right time, you can start gradually giving them less milk or formula or reducing the length of their feedings.

How many hours of sleep does a baby need at 6 to 12 months?

Problems with falling asleep or waking up at night cannot be diagnosed before age 1.

Between 4 and 11 months, babies sleep approximately 12 to 15 hours a day, then 11 to 14 hours a day from the age of 12 months. Most sleep 10 to 12 hours per night. In addition, they usually nap twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, until they reach 18 months. Each nap lasts about an hour and a half.

What time should I put my baby to bed?

The appropriate time for babies to sleep or nap depends on biological factors specific to every child. However, there are certain universal signs that a baby is tired:
  • Yawning
  • Rubbing their eyes
  • Increased crying
  • A lack of interest in their toys and the people around them
  • Wanting to be held more than usual
  • An inability to keep their head from nodding
  • Irritability
It’s best to start your child’s bedtime routine and get them to bed before you see these signs. If you wait until afterward, your child may be too tired to fall asleep easily.

How to help your baby sleep soundly

There’s no magic formula for teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own. It often just takes time. That said, before age 1, parents can aim to provide the right conditions for their child to develop greater sleep autonomy (e.g., the non-breastfeeding parent can take over baby’s routine after they nurse or when they wake up at night, and both parents can gradually become less hands-on in helping their child get to sleep).

  • To fall asleep, your baby needs to feel secure. It’s good for them to be in a familiar environment that feels safe (e.g., keep the bedroom door ajar and a night light on) and to be surrounded by objects they recognize (e.g., their blankie and stuffed animals). A familiar routine (e.g., a bedtime story, cuddles, music) can also help them stay calm.
Babies get less sleep if they have a lot of interaction with their parents when they wake up at night.
  • If your baby wakes up during the night, it’s likely because they’re between sleep stages and trying to fall back asleep. Wait to see if they manage to do this on their own. If they can’t, go comfort them—for instance, by talking to them or stroking their skin. You should also check to see whether their diaper needs changing.
  • To help your child gradually get used to falling asleep on their own, find strategies that align with your baby’s temperament and personality as well as your family’s values. The goal is to establish a routine where your baby is less and less dependent on you to fall asleep so that they can learn to do it without any help. For example, if your child is experiencing separation anxiety, you or your partner could sleep on a mattress next to their bed.

Even if your baby has a well-established routine, there are many factors related to their health and development that are likely to disrupt their sleep: growth spurts, separation anxiety, teething, illness, changes in routine, Mom’s return to work, etc. These little bumps in the road are bound to happen. Don’t get discouraged—once the disruption has passed, patiently resume your baby’s routine.

Should you let your baby cry until they fall asleep?

Allowing your baby to cry until they fall sleep is a controversial sleep-training technique commonly known as the “cry it out” method. Some experts consider it safe to use “controlled crying,” an alternative that involves letting your baby cry for progressively longer intervals before checking on them (e.g., 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes). However, many professionals caution that this technique should not be used with infants under 6 months of age. These days, the preferred approach is to adapt sleep-training strategies to your child.
Nonetheless, if you find that you feel depressed and angry because your baby won’t sleep, it may be better to try these methods to avoid damaging your relationship with your child.

Things to keep in mind

  • Every baby learns to sleep at their own pace. It’s normal for a baby who’s sleeping well to begin waking up again during the night.
  • Around 5 to 6 months, babies start to develop a consistent sleep schedule. They’re now ready to adopt a sleep routine and gradually learn to fall asleep on their own.
  • To fall asleep, a baby needs to feel secure. They may need to be soothed before bedtime or during the night, especially if they’re going through separation anxiety.
  • Problems with falling asleep or waking up at night cannot be diagnosed before age 1.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Évelyne Touchette, Ph.D., professor/researcher and sleep expert
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2022


Photos: GettyImages/jordi magrans and gpointstudio


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

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