Getting Your Baby to Sleep

When it seems that all your baby wants to do is, well, whatever she wants to do, it may seem impossible to get your baby to follow a sleep schedule. But distinguishing night from day, establishing a regular bedtime routine and teaching a child to fall asleep on her own are three steps that can help make that coveted baby sleep schedule a reality.

Types of Sleep

There are two types of sleep: Rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). NREM sleep is characterized by closed eyes with no eye movement, regular breathing and no motion, except for sudden generalized startles. During this cycle, sleep is deep and not easily disrupted.

REM sleep is characterized by closed eyes with rapid eye movement, irregular breathing and occasional muscle twitches and sucking motions. During this cycle, dreams occur and sleep is light and easily disrupted.

Unlike older children and adults, babies spend more time in REM sleep; it is hypothesized that REM sleep stimulates the growth of the neural system.

Patterns of Sleep: What's Normal for a Baby?

During the first two to three days of life, the newborn will sleep almost constantly in order to recover from the exhausting birth process. For the first six weeks of life, babies typically sleep between 12 to 18 hours a day in stretches of one to four hours at a time.

At one and a half to two months of age, much to parents' delight, most babies will begin sleeping more during the night and less during the day. They also begin having longer periods of NREM sleep and shorter periods of REM sleep.

Parents and babies alike usually start getting more solid sleep at night when little ones hit age three months. As the nervous system matures and the time between feeds is longer, most babies will begin sleeping five to six hours during the night—a nice household reprieve from earlier months of interrupted evenings.

At six months, total sleep hours are usually 11 1/2 to 15 hours and stretches of sleep become even longer. By nine months of age, most babies will also be napping twice a day for one to two hours in the morning and afternoon.

Establishing a Sleep Schedule

Getting your baby into a routine can take some coaching.

Step One
Start teaching a baby to distinguish night from day when they are about two weeks old. When awake during the day, surround them with normal household noises, keep the lights on and interact (talk, sing songs or play peek-a-boo). At night, keep the lights low and provide a quiet environment.

When your baby wakes up during the night, keep the lights dim and the place quiet. Speak very little, and when you do, keep your voice soft.

Step Two
Start establishing a regular bedtime routine when your baby is about six weeks old. Have your child associate certain activities with sleep, such as a warm bath or a bedtime story, and put him or her to bed each night around the same time.

Step Three
Between the ages of three months and six months, babies can be taught to fall asleep and to get back to sleep on their own when awakened during the night. The following is the "cry it out" method developed by pediatrician Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at the Children's Hospital Boston. This method is controversial. For parents who want to try it:

Lay your baby down when he or she is sleepy but still awake. After a goodnight kiss, leave the room. If your child cries, let the crying continue for about three minutes before going back into the room. Pat your baby gently and speak softly to offer reassurance, but do not pick him or her up. Stay no more than a minute or two, and leave while the baby is still awake.

Continue this routine, but make the waiting period a little bit longer than the first. For instance, the second time should be about five minutes and the third and all other times should be about ten minutes. If your child wakes up later that night, follow the same routine, starting with the minimum waiting time for that night. Make the intervals longer each night.

According to Dr. Ferber, babies should be going to sleep on their own and sleeping for about five to six hours during the night within a week of starting this approach. If not, wait a few weeks before trying again.

The above waiting times are suggestions, so you can choose what you feel most comfortable with. Sleep experts who support this method say it is not traumatic for babies to cry for short periods of time with frequent check-ins from parents or guardians. However, if you do not wish to allow your baby to cry, you can pick your child up and lay him or her back down when the crying stops, but this method may take longer to establish a baby sleep schedule.

Written by:
Diana Cooper

Mayo Clinic: Baby sleep: Help your baby sleep through the night. Available at: Accessed May 28, 2011.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 15 Jun 2011

Last Modified: 06 Nov 2014