All You Need to Know About Baby Sleep

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Baby sleep is not as simple as the clichés make it sound.

So, if sleeping like a baby isn’t straightforward: what is it, why is it different and how can I get more of it?

This episode will answer all of these questions and more, so you’ll come away with a better

understanding of baby sleep and how to help you and your baby get more. And we’ll find out what is the most annoyingly important phrase of baby sleep!

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • How long is a baby sleep cycle

  • Who's the new noisy sleeper in your home

  • Where should baby sleep

  • How much sleep should baby be getting

  • And the upcoming annoying baby sleep phase...

Listen to the podcast:

Transcript of our podcast episode

Cat: [00:00:00] This is a baby sleep podcast for parents by parents, mostly functioning, coffee sponsored humans. Who really want a good night's kip. I'm Cat Cubie: mum, presenter and journalist and together with Sarah Carpenter, parent and sleep consultant who's helped thousands of families get a good night's Z's. We are The Sleep Mums.

Sarah: [00:00:21] I've just realised I've got a candle right under my bum, so I'm just going to move that!

Cat: [00:00:31] You're ass is on fire!

Cat: [00:00:31] We've written a book together. The Sleep Mums: Read It and Sleep. And now with our podcast, we hope to help parents everywhere get a better night's sleep. So whether you're listening in the middle of the night, in your car as you try to lull baby to sleep or even before baby arrives... Welcome! You are not alone. Together, we've got baby sleep covered.

Cat: [00:00:53] This episode is five things you need to know about baby sleep. I remember being told about the sleepless nights of parenthood. But nothing can prepare you for the tiredness. Often in the early days. No, two nights at the same. And then finally, when you get three hours of sleep, it feels like you slept for like a fairytale hundred years. It's amazing. And you think, oh, yeah, I've cracked this baby sleep thing. It's only going to get better.

Sarah: [00:01:20] But you can also feel like you've got massive hangover because it's the most sleep you've had for a while...

Cat: [00:01:24] True. Except you're up the next night and the next and you're doing the baby dance. Not baby dance! The one you used to do in clubs, but now you do a milk stained pajamas because it might just possibly help your baby to sleep, help you cry as you shimmy. What am I doing wrong? Sarah and I want to make something clear. You're not doing anything wrong. You're just learning to be a parent and your little one is learning to be a human. However, there are things that we can do as parents and caregivers that help - more than the shimmy - so you'll get more sleep. Baby, sleep is not the straightforward thing the clichés make it sound like whoever came up with the phrase 'sleeping like a baby' needs a proper telling off and I would be quite happy to give it to them! Here are five things about baby sleep that are going to help you way more than cliches or folklore.

1. How long is a baby sleep cycle?

Cat: [00:02:19] The first thing to know is about baby sleep cycles. When we as adults go to bed, we don't just sleep solidly through the night. We go from sleep cycle to sleep cycle. Each of which only lasts about an hour and 40 minutes. During that time, we go through various stages of sleep, ranging from deep to quiet to active. At the end of a sleep cycle, we turn over and go back to sleep. Basically pushing the mental snooze button or we wake up and press the actual snooze button. Baby sleep cycles are a wee bit different, though. So, Sarah, tell me about baby sleep cycles.

Sarah: [00:02:53] The biggest difference is that a newborn baby's sleep cycle is much shorter, and when a baby is first born, in those first magic few weeks, couple months, they're in lighter sleep for a lot longer. So they often don't reach their deep sleeps. A typical sleep cycle for a baby looks something like the sort of drowsy, falling sleep stage. They're then in a light sleep. They might move into their deep sleep, but they often have a brief awake period. And, as Cat you've just said, an adult will roll over and just go back to sleep. Babies don't know how to do that. So they have their wake up period and that may be when they need a feed or they might just need to be resettled. They then go back to sleep and the cycle begins again.

Cat: [00:03:44] And that that sleep cycle is significantly shorter than an adult one. It's about 40 minutes...

Sarah: [00:03:51] Yes. And it varies a lot and is really dependent on baby's age. So initially, yes, a sleep cycle for baby as about 40 minutes but it can be as short as 25 minutes. And then it will stretch to just over an hour.

Cat: [00:04:09] That's also why you have issues, perhaps if baby falls asleep in your arms and then you try and put them down, their eyes pop open like dolls. It's because they're still actually in that active phase of sleep. They've not gone into the deep bit.

Sarah: [00:04:25] When they're in a light sleep it's really important to get them into the space that you want them to stay asleep because if they fall asleep and then are moved, when they do then feel that changing environment they will wake up immediately because of the part of the sleep cycle that they are in.

2. How much noise should my sleeping baby make?

Cat: [00:04:49] The second thing about baby sleep that no one ever really seems to talk about, as it's sort of quite a wee thing, but I think it's really important, is how noisy babies can be when they sleep.

Sarah: [00:05:01] Every time I go to a client and they say, you know, there's something wrong with my baby, they're so noisy... There's nothing wrong with your baby, babies are noisy sleepers and actually take that as a good thing. It's reassuring if you can hear all those little snuffles and rumbles and grumbles. But the important thing is to learn which ones need attention. So babies are noisier because they are in a lighter sleep for longer, which causes them to be noisier. They're more expressive in their sleep. And because they're not going into that deep settled cycle that we do as adults, that's when you're getting to hear every little shuffle that they're doing when they're asleep.

Cat: [00:05:43] But also, you know, when they are making those noises that you can really easily disturb them because they are in that active phase.

Sarah: [00:05:52] Absolutely. So, if you're still sharing a room with baby. If you're still in that newborn stage and you're in a room together, you rolling over in your bed when baby is in that really light, active sleep is enough to bring them right up and out of sleep into their awake period.

Cat: [00:06:09] It's one of the joys of being a parent and sharing a room in that you kind of get to know your baby and the sounds that they make... and there are lots of lovely elements of that. But there are also some drawbacks, let's say, in terms of waking each other up. Clearly, baby does a lot of waking the parent up too, but you can also do a bit of waking baby up.

Sarah: [00:06:34] It's interesting as well, the noises that a baby can get used to. So, for example, if one of the parents is a deep snorer that can actually become a baby's sleep aid. Although for the opposite parent, it might be a little bit irritating, for the baby that could have a white noise effect.

Cat: [00:06:54] That's so handy. You don't even need a little gadget!

Sarah: [00:07:02] The only problem is though when you want baby to nap. You don't necessarily have the snoring noise to hand!

Cat: [00:07:09] You'd have to make a recording of the snoring. I guess that's quite interesting as well because that all goes to the sounds that baby may or may not have heard when they were inside It might be a sound that's really familiar to them as well.

Sarah: [00:07:21] Definitely it can be. Any of those are familiar noises that have gone on throughout pregnancy. You know something always surprises parents is the noise of an older sibling, so an older sibling having a tantrum can be extremely irritating for the parents but can actually lull baby off to sleep! Because that's a familiar sound to them...

Cat: [00:07:45] Which sounds like madness! Another reason that babies can be noisy when they sleep is they have pretty immature nasal passages, which can freak parents out a bit. I used to say, kids sounded like truckers snorting away! But it can be a bit scary because it can sound a little bit like they are struggling to breathe at times.

Sarah: [00:08:04] It can, certainly when they're moving between sleep cycles as well. And you can hear that sort of gargling samed and then silence, which sends parents flying out of bed at a rate of 100 miles an hour just to check on baby. And you know, that sort of stop/start because of the immature nasal passages, it can sort of sound sometimes like it stop, start breathing. So yeah, they're all pretty scary signs to hear, but normal,

Cat: [00:08:37] You know, as a parent, it's natural to check on them. And absolutely you should in those circumstances. But it's worth knowing, because it means, well, it won't stop you getting a fright but it might help.

Sarah: [00:08:50] Yes, it's reassuring, I think, for parents to know that these things are going to happen, but absolutely it's never going to stop people checking. I have slept in the same bedroom as thousands and thousands of newborns, and I still check regularly and jump up to every little thing. So, you know, that's the instinct of the carer to do that.

3. Where should baby sleep?

Cat: [00:09:17] We were talking about adults and babies disturbing each other. So the third thing is about where babies should or could sleep. Bedtimes can be a really anxious time for parents, not just because they are totally exhausted and hopeful for sleep, but it can be scary to close your eyes and let yourself sleep, which is what we've been talking about when you hear those noises. But there are a few things that you can do to help put your mind at rest when you put baby to bed. So, Sarah, let's talk about where babies could or should sleep.

Sarah: [00:09:52] So I think at this point it's really important to say that where baby sleeps is a hundred percent your choice. And you need to be comfortable with the fact that you've made those surroundings as safe as possible for sleeping. My recommendation would be to have two or three different options of places to sleep. So something that you can have in the bedroom all the time, something that you can move around the house and your carry cot, which is when you're out and about walking. Now the carrycot can also be used as the thing that you move around the house as well, because it's quite portable.

Cat: [00:10:28] Yeah, that's what I did need.

Sarah: [00:10:31] You need to be confident that the environment that you're putting your baby to sleep in as safe and consistent. So when you're looking at the Moses basket, cot, carry cot, next to me, you know whatever bed you have chosen for your baby. You want to make sure it's safe by following the guidelines. So nothing additional needs to go into the space that you've chosen. You're looking to keep it as simple as possible, use the correct bedding. So in Scotland, you know, you're going to use slightly more layers than you might is in Australia, for example, even in the middle of winter!

Cat: [00:11:17] It's cold here, it rains a lot... never!

Sarah: [00:11:17] Yeah, unfortunately, we certainly rely on the 2.5, 3.5 tog sleeping bags rather than the 1 tog ones!

Sarah: [00:11:24] So, you know, the key thing with any bed setup is to use layers. So you're your including the vest, the sleepsuit, they're all included in the layers that you count when you're making a baby's made up. The second important thing is to the way that you have tucked your sheets in. So if you choose to use sheets and blankets, you need to make sure that those sheets and blankets are tucked under the foot of the mattress of wherever you are using. So the expression that when we say you always make your bed feet to foot, that means that your baby's feet are always going to be at the foot of the bed and the sheets will only come up halfway up the baby. So, the sheets are sitting just above the belly button.

Cat: [00:12:08] I have to say, even though I'm sure that I was put to bed in sheets, I've never use sheets with my kid or blankets. They kind of gave me the heebie jeebies. They were always swaddled or in sleeping bags, which, you know, I know can have their own issues if they're not the right size or not done properly. But I don't know why sheets or blankets always worried me.

Sarah: [00:12:29] Yeah, I mean, I was totally old school with my training, and because I trained in Norland and we were making up beds as part of our assessments. I did love the look of a beautifully made up crib, with flat sheets and blankets. You know, there's nothing nicer than seeing that. But in all honesty, swaddles are the bee's knees and sleeping bags are just so much easier to use. So I do agree with you sheets and blankets are a bit old school, but they do look pretty!

Cat: [00:13:01] And we're talking about layers and we obviously joking about temperature. But I was quite obsessed with those little egg things that you can get that say the temperature of the room. What should the temperature of baby's room be, ideally?

Sarah: [00:13:13] So you're looking to keep your baby's bedroom between our sleeping area. You want it to be between 18 and 21 degrees. And if it gets higher than 21 degrees, then that's when you're going to start to reduce the amount of layers that you're using, to cool the baby down. It is difficult to keep it consistent, you know, in any country, temperatures change, the set up of the house when you put baby to bed in the evening it will be one temperature and it will decrease or increase depending on what's going on. So that little eggs and various different gym thermometers. They are brilliant. We swear by them. You know, having thatreassurance for a parent of what the temperature doing is actually fantastic. It is also important to remember that they can't be 100 percent accurate because you might have it in one position in the room and the cot might be somewhere else. So there is a little bit of leeway with it but it is a really, really good guide to follow. And if you can just keep the bedroom as consistent and temperature as possible, that's the key thing. You know, if you've got a baby going to sleep and the room is 21 and it then drops 18 throughout the night, that baby will become a little bit more unsettled when the roon drops 18 degrees, because that's a big change in temperature.

Cat: [00:14:27] Although, weirdly, my kids always seemed to sleep a bit better when it was a bit cooler...

Sarah: [00:14:34] Absolutely some babies will and some babies are the total opposite.

Cat: [00:14:37] It's because they're Scottish! [laughter]

Sarah: [00:14:37] So, with my three, Emily will crack up if her room drops below 21. You know even now, she's a real cold cookie and needs to be super hot, whereas the boys would happily have window open and sleep in a room that's 12 degrees. So, you know, they work themselves out as they become children. But certainly the important thing to think about with babies as they you're responsible for keeping it consistent. And if you put that baby to bed at 18 degrees, just try and keep it as consistent as you can at 18 degrees. It's the changes and the external environment that affect the baby's sleep.

Cat: [00:15:20] And are there any other things you need to think about baby's environment when it comes to baby sleep that will put your mind at rest?

Sarah: [00:15:26] So think about where you put the cot/crib/Moses basket. Don't have it near a door, don't have it near a window, if at all possible, because that is going to cause draughts. Don't have it sitting, for example, if you have low shell or fireplace in your bedroom. Then don't have the bed near that because A.) it can cause a draught and B.) if it's a shelf or anything that's got things sitting on it, freak accidents do happen and things can fall off. So you want to have a very clear space.

Cat: [00:15:59] Even if you're not talking about accidents, you know, the crib is likely to stay there for quite a long time and once baby can pull themselves up, things that are within reach become a risk.

Sarah: [00:16:13] Definitely. And the other thing to think about as they are, as much as parents want baby as close to them as possible, and they want that ease of being able to reach in and scoop them up. Initially, parents aren't used to having a baby sleeping that close to them, you know. This is a whole new thing. And I've seen clients get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and forget that the Moses basket is next to the bed. They jump out of bed to go to the toilet and bump into the Moses basket. And they feel absolutely horrendous that they've done that. So, just have a little think when you're set in your room are just a little think about safety from that point of view as well.

Cat: [00:16:49] It's worth probably mentioning co-sleeping. It's important to discuss because there are safe ways of doing it and not so safe ways of doing it. And and it can be a little bit controversial...

Sarah: [00:17:00] If somebody wants to co-sleep, then, we would just ask them to do search the safest as possible ways of doing it within their environment, whichever way you decide to have your baby sleep, it's your choice. And that's what you need to be comfortable with. A lot of people will start initially with a baby in bed between them maybe in one of those sort of cocoon-like devices. So, you know, there's several on the market just now and they might pop them into that and have them in the bed between them on top of the covers. So they're still relying on a swaddle or sleeping bag for the warmth for the baby because the baby is very much on top of the covers. So that's one way of co-sleeping.

Cat: [00:17:38] That is what we did and I found it very useful and I think, you know, as with all things, you need to make sure that you know how to do things safely and that you are always mindful of those guidelines.

Sarah: [00:17:52] Definitely. I think it's also important to see with co-sleeping that, you know, people can like the idea of it and then the reality is that they actually end up getting less sleep themselves because they realize that they're not comfortable with it when they're doing it. And that's absolutely fine to have experimented and they realize that it's not for you. It wasn't ever something that I would have been able to do, you know, even now if one of mine is sick and creeps through in the middle of the night. I know that that's me done for because once they're in my bed, I'm not going to sleep a single wink. And that, I think, is what some people do find that when they've sort of had it in their head, that co-sleeping is the option that they want to go down, then do feel very upset that they haven't been able to get any sleep themselves and they feel like they've lost a little bit of something, that bond that they were hoping for. So I think it's really important just to reassure people that whatever happens it's okay, you know, it's okay to try something and move on. And it's also okay if you find that safe way of doing it to continue until you're ready to stop it.

Cat: [00:18:55] Yeah, absolutely. I think as well, sometimes you can do something that works for a bit and then it stops working. And it's OK to obviously change it up then, too. And it can be hard to let go of if it has been working and then stops working... but the most important thing is that you want everyone to be getting good sleep and you want everyone to be getting safe sleep.

4. How long should baby sleep for?

Cat: [00:19:19] Now, just moving on to the fourth thing, I remember reading loads of charts when my daughter was wee that told me a newborn should be getting 18 hours plus of sleep and there was absolutely no way she was getting that much kip. I felt like she was getting about 18 minutes, I think. Now, whilst every baby is different and it can be a bit unhelpful to put a number on things, it is important to chart through roughly how much baby should be sleeping. So that's our fourth thing.

Sarah: [00:19:48] It's good to have a guideline. Definitely. But as with a lot of the charts, it's important not to get too hung up on them as well. So just try and take things a little bit of a pinch of salt and remember that there's one extreme to the other with babies, with everything. So a rough guide, a very rough guide would be nought to eight weeks, you'd be looking for approximately 18 hours a day. And do remember that that is over 24 hours. You're talking to get 18 hours at night. You're suddenly going to be getting that! So just remember that you're splitting that across 24 hours. It could typically mean, you know, a six hour stretch at night. And then the rest split into nap times. And then around about eight weeks, you'd be looking for that to change to sort of on average, about 14 to 16 hours. Again, split across your 24 hour period. It then sort of drops, not drastically, but there as a there's a change at that sort of four month mark where you're really you're getting a much more longer stretch of sleep overnight. So you're getting a real night at the stage, so that's between sort of four and six months, you would be looking for your kind of 10 to 12 hour nighttime sleep along with three to four hours of nap times during the day. And then that continues to decrease until you're just getting your 10 to 12 hours overnight.

Cat: [00:21:29] I think also it's important to mention that it varies day to day, just like it does for adults.

Sarah: [00:21:35] Absolutely. Even with a really super strict routine that you're following to the absolute letter, there could be a two and a half hour nap in there at lunch time. That you'll maybe get for 7 days straight and then, baby, will drop that to an hour and a half. That doesn't mean that they're then going to have an hour and a half every day. It just means that they've had a day where they've had slightly less sleep, during the day. They might catch up, they might not. You might just have an off day and then reset the following day. We do talk about off days a lot because they do happen and it's realistic to know that they do happen. So even for real routine, scehdule lovers, you've not got a robot. So you do have to accept that there's going to be off days.

Cat: [00:22:19] I was going to say, I think I've been having an off day for like five years!

5. The golden rule of baby sleep...

Cat: [00:22:27] And finally, the last thing about baby sleep is a phrase that used to make my eyes roll so much, I practically turned back the clock! However, with Sarah's help and understanding, I now know how important it is...Give it to me. What's the phrase?

Sarah: [00:22:42] Never put a sleeping baby to bed. I've never had a good reaction from a client when I've said.

Cat: [00:22:52] I think it's something that you hear and you try and do and it often feels like it doesn't work. And then you're like, I am being lied to and so it makes you feel angry about it. And there is quite a lot of kind of furore about it, I guess, if you've looked online. But it is so important and actually also relates to sleep cycles, we could skip back to that because we're talking obviously about those active stages. But anyway, I'll let you tell me why it's so important, rather than hogging it.

Sarah: [00:23:25] Well, if you think about it, if you went to bed in your bed and woke up in the kitchen, you're going to feel pretty freaked out and a bit uncomfortable...

Cat: [00:23:36] There may be some parties where that happens.

Sarah: [00:23:39] Yeah, hopefully not so many now...

[00:23:40] No, definitely none now. A wild night out is... I was going to say Netflix and chill but that is not a wild night out. There is absolutely no chilling... it's just Netflix!

Sarah: [00:23:54] So when you put baby to bed, you're putting baby to sleep in the environment that they're going to stay asleep. If they've gone to sleep on you all snuggly and cozy and then you try and transfer them into the place that you expect them to then sleep for a period of time, they're going to wake up because it's a change in their environment completely. They're losing the smell that they're comforted by. They're losing the fabrics that they've fallen asleep next to. absolutely everything has suddenly change that baby's environment. So it goes back to what we were saying about the sleep environment being consistent. So give your baby loves a cuddle, get them all cozy done before they drop off sleep, put them into the environment that you want them to sleep on and then stay with them.

Sarah: [00:24:39] So we're not asking you to pop them into their bed.

Cat: [00:24:43] And run off...

Sarah: [00:24:43] No, absolutely not. You know, pop them down. And because they have been cuddled into you, hold your hand on them or put a hand on their back or bottom, depending on how they're sleeping. Just get them that little bit of reassurance to say it's OK. Yes they're not on you anymore, but they're still in a safe place. And as much as there's nothing nicer than a baby's snuggling in for a sleep, it is really important to try and start this at a very young age. You know, as soon as you're comfortable and ready, if you can get that baby into their enviroment awake, then you are going to find that you get a lot more sleep and baby gets a lot more deep sleep.

Cat: [00:25:20] Yeah, I remember in the early stages feeling like I had to be a bit like a ninja. That baby would fall asleep in my arms and then I'd have to move them without moving them almost and get them in the cat and then get out of the room without any creeks or the doors making any noises. And it's totally impossible. So actually, the relief of leaving the room with baby kind of in their cot a bit more settled, doing so calmly, makes a lot more sense.

Sarah: [00:25:50] Yeah. But as a hard thing, you know, it's not as easy as we've just described as giving your baby a nice cuddle and popping them down and them drifting off magicly to sleep. It's worth persevering with. But there are going to be days when actually you just start this process and think stuff this, I'm just going to pick them up and cuddle them. And that's absolutely fine to do that. But what you'll find is that the whole process ends up taking a lot longer. And the next night you're then ready to get that baby into their cot awake.

Cat: [00:26:25] In our next episode, we'll start putting your baby sleep questions to Sarah. So if you have a question you'd like answered, please get in touch with us online at @TheSleepMumse or on our website.

Cat: [00:26:38] So that's five things about baby sleep. We're on a mission to help parents sleep better. So please spread The Sleep Mum word. Tell your friends, write us a lovely review or get in touch with us online at @thesleepmums or on our website

Cat: [00:26:55] Look after yourself and sleep soon.

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