baby sleep cycle

A Gentle and Practical Guide to Help Your New Baby Sleep Well

“Bad habits” can’t be learned by a baby under 3 months old and it is important to be very close and respond to their needs.


In the past, strict feeding and sleep schedules were very heavily emphasised for very young babies. Whilst this was well meant and successful for some babies, it wasn’t [and isn’t] the best approach for all. A gentle and practical guide to help your new baby sleep well is crucial for many parents.

It’s easy to feel a sense of failure if your new baby doesn’t feed and sleep “by the clock.” But you and your baby are unique and it is ok to do what feels natural and to follow your instinct. No outside advice could ever be better than your inbuilt ability to care for your own baby.

However, if you’re looking for guidance, here is some information you might find helpful. It’s about how things tend to progress sleep-wise with babies. It also has some practical steps that you can follow to help them sleep their best.

0-6 weeks

The most important ways to help your baby sleep well and feel contented and settled are:

  • To feed them on demand.
  • To allow their sleep patterns to develop naturally. Don’t wake them – unless they are tiny and haven’t been fed for a long time.
  • To set their internal body clock by allowing them to experience daylight and darkness.
  • Through holding, handling and gazing at your baby, allow the lovely process of bonding to take place. 
A gentle and practical guide to help your new baby sleep well

In these early, precious but exhausting weeks, sleep is very closely involved with feeding. Your new baby will tend to live life in a milky, dozy state. 

At this age babies’ sleep is quite light and fidgety. They have nearly double the amount of rapid eye movement [REM] sleep than adults do. This kind of sleep, called “active sleep” in babies, is very important for their neurological development. Both babies and adults need REM sleep for memory consolidation and learning.

Feeding

If you are breastfeeding, it is quite usual to feed every 2-3 hours…….and sometimes even more, especially in the evening. In the evening and during the night, breast milk contains high levels of the natural sleep chemical, tryptophan. So “cluster feeding” at this time, not only allows your baby to stock up on food for the night, it also helps to improve the quality of their sleep.

It might not feel like it, but babies of this age sleep for an average of 14.5 hours in 24 hours. [The range however is 9-20 hours.] If you think that your baby isn’t getting this much sleep, why not keep a simple sleep diary? This will give you a clearer picture of their sleep tendencies and will enable you to see if any pattern is beginning to emerge.

Practical steps

To encourage your baby to settle into a good sleep pattern they need:

Enough milk. If you are breastfeeding this means feeding on demand. For formula-fed babies, follow the guidelines on the tin or allow 2 ½ oz [75 ml] in 24 hours per pound  [0.45 kg] of their body weight. 

A cosy and safe place to sleep. The ideal room temperature should be around 18 degrees centigrade. 

Clothing and cot covers should be made of natural fibres such as cotton or fine wool. For important safety advice about babies’ sleep environment, visit The Lullaby Trust.

During the night, when they wake for a feed, keep the lights down low and speak softly. Settle them back into the cot after feeding and winding.

Don’t change your baby’s nappy during the night unless it is very wet or soiled. Keep a Thermos with warm water and cotton swabs close by for nappy changes.

Introduce a familiar gentle song or spoken ritual that your baby will come to associate with bedtime.

Allow them to experience light during the daytime, and darkness at night. This will encourage the development and production of Melatonin – an essential sleep hormone.

A gentle and practical guide to help your new baby sleep well is crucial for many parents.

6-12 Weeks

By this stage, many babies are beginning to sleep for longer periods and to feed less often. It is usual for a baby of about 8 weeks old to sleep for 6 hours at night without waking for a feed. Many babies have managed to do this earlier and some will be a little later.

Your baby is now bigger and stronger, even though they are not yet taking solid food.

Their total sleep requirement may have dropped slightly, but night sleep will be becoming deeper and lasting for longer periods. They may not yet have an early, set bedtime, however. It is not unusual for babies of this age to settle for the night at the same time as you do.

Practical steps

To encourage good sleeping habits at this age, keep up with the steps above. In addition, encourage your baby to sleep without falling asleep on the bedtime feed. 

Do this by giving the final feed with the bedroom light kept on and preventing them from dozing. 

A “split feed” where you give one-half of the feed before bath time and the other half after it, can often help to prevent a baby from falling asleep on the last feed of the day.

Once they start to get sleepy and/or you think they have had enough; take them off the breast or bottle and hold them upright against your shoulder. Move gently from side to side whilst humming, shushing or singing. Stroke the base of their back to bring up any wind and then when they are relaxed [not too drowsy] and awake, try placing them in the cot. If you need to, continue to soothe them by stroking, singing etc. 

There is no need to prevent your baby from falling asleep over every single feed. Try at first, just for the one closest to your baby’s bedtime.

A gentle and practical guide to help your new baby sleep well

12 – 16 Weeks

At this lovely age, your baby is becoming much more active in the daytime and may even begin to sleep through the night for between 6 – 12 hours at night, with 3-4 daytime naps. This should total about 13-14 hours. Rather than going to bed at the same time as you do, they will now be producing their own sleep hormones and will start to need an earlier bedtime. This is usually sometime between 6 pm & 8 pm.

Practical Steps

To encourage positive sleep associations at this age you need to establish a bedtime routine.

A good bedtime routine is a repeated series of steps leading up to bedtime, each of which provides a ‘sleep clue’ which tells your baby that sleep time is coming. If repeated consistently, it will help them to feel safe, comfortable and sleepy.

The best bedtime routine

  • Offer a final [short] daytime nap at around 5 PM. This will help to prevent them from becoming over-tired at bedtime.
  • Tidy up the daytime things and prepare all that you need for the night.
  • Turn off the TV, radio etc. and take everything that they need for the night to the bedroom.
  • They will need an awake window of 1.5 – 2 hours, depending on their age and/or their natural pattern, before settling down for the night. 
  • Bath them every night if you can. Even if your baby is clean, it is good to bathe them as a very powerful sleep clue. It also allows them to expend reserves of energy. 
  • Introduce an ‘action’ song in the bath, you will both enjoy it and it will serve as another [highly portable] sleep clue.
  • If you can’t or don’t want to bathe them, still have some kind of washing ritual.
  • After this, go directly to the bedroom. Don’t be tempted to take them back into the main living area, or you’ll find that rather than making them sleepy, the bath has left them ready to play!
  • When you’re in the bedroom, keep the atmosphere calm, with soft lighting etc. If you normally give a massage, now is a good time to do it.
  • Give your baby a bottle or breastfeed [still with the light kept on] and then afterwards, look at a simple book together, sing a familiar lullaby or repeat a consistent goodnight phrase. 
  • Then place them in the cot – whilst they are still awake and relaxed. 
  • If they are in the cot awake but not crying, just watch and wait. 
  • Babies have an inbuilt natural ability to sleep if we let them. It may take several minutes of fussing, arms flying and legs kicking before they eventually get themselves off to sleep. It’s really good to give them as long as they need and try not to intervene.
  • If your baby struggles to settle, stay with them, patting and stroking, singing and rocking until they are calm enough to sleep. Pick them up every few minutes if they need it.
  • It is better to gently ease them into falling asleep independently rather than letting them cry intensely.
  • The sequence of your routine is more important than the time at which it is done. If 6-8 pm is too early for your baby, just follow the routine a little later.
  • Most babies, as they get bigger and older start to feed less during the night, and some, by the time that they get to this age, will have dropped night feeds completely.
  • If your baby starts to feed in the night more rather than less as they get older, they may be developing a feed/sleep dependence.
  • Unless you’re both happy with the way the nights are, you might want to look at one of my other posts either about the 4-month sleep regression or helping them to safely drop their night feeds.

Further help

If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep either now or in the future, I am here to help you.

My books

My bestselling books give you the tools to help your baby and yourself get a good night’s sleep. They are full of expert, practical advice and case studies. Each book teaches you to create your baby or child’s personal sleep plan and is written in a clear and accessible style.

They are available in all formats from Amazon and other booksellers.

My courses

When your baby is a bit older if you need help with their sleep, have a look at my sleep courses.

My courses are a mix of video, graphics and easy-to-read text. They are a great way to access my expert help – from your phone, tablet or laptop. The courses have no expiry date and are updated frequently. The Gentle Sleep Course is very comprehensive, easy to dip in and out of and is very empowering.

The Early Waking Course is concise and accessible – it takes around an hour to complete and it may be the best hour you’ve ever spent!

Both of the courses contain helpful schedules for day and night time sleep.

My 1:1 consultations

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with a copy of my Gentle Sleep Solutions book and four follow up support emails.

You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. As a qualified health professional, I can help if your baby or you have medical needs. I have helped over 15,000 families from all over the world to get a good night’s sleep.

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