Get the most out of baby's first year with restful sleep

Sleep tips for babies between 4-12 months of age


So, you’ve made it to the 4-month mark - or perhaps beyond - depending on when you come across this post.  Congratulations!  Contained below are some tips to help get your baby sleeping well between 4-12 months of age.  If your baby is less than 4 months old, check out my blog on newborn sleep.


Help baby establish good sleep habits

Your baby has come leaps and bounds developmentally.  Over his first 4 months he’s become increasingly social and cued into his environment.  With these changes in mind, your little one is ready to benefit from a solid foundation for great sleep.  This includes:   

1.     Sleep environment that is safe and conducive to sleep

2.     Soothing, consistent sleepy-time routine for naps and daytime sleep

3.     Consistent sleep schedule for wake-up, naps and night-time sleep

4.     Addressing sleep associations


Use developing circadian rhythms as a guide for baby’s sleep

By 4 months of age your infant is on her way to fully developed circadian rhythms.  This means that her sleep patterns – as well as other daily rhythms - are becoming better organized.  During the first 4 months of life we let baby take the lead, using her time awake and sleepy cues to guide sleep periods.  However, at 4 months of age, it is time to start watching the clock more closely.  The reason for this change is again related to baby's developing circadian rhythms.  Based on this natural biological clock, there are optimal times for your baby to sleep. 


Determining wake-up time and bedtime for baby

As babies start to fall into a daily rhythm, expect to see a consistent wake-up time emerge, typically somewhere between 530-7am.  I know 530am sounds early – especially if you’re getting to bed late yourself and even more so if you’re up frequently overnight with baby!   Whereas bedtime consistency plays an ever-increasing role as your child gets older, for now think of bedtime as an opportunity to get baby caught up on missed sleep.  When determining when to put baby down for the night, factors to consider include: the timing and quality of daytime naps, how rested baby appears, and whether baby is sick or has had a particularly eventful day.  A good range for bedtime, starting around the 4-month mark, is 6-8pm.  If baby is overtired or sick, consider making bedtime even earlier. 

An early bedtime for baby can be tough on parents – especially on working parents - who understandably want to see their little one in the evening.  However, baby’s sleep is essential to support healthy growth and development.  If you can’t get home in time to be with baby, consider having some special time with him in the morning.  The time you spend together will be more enjoyable if he is well-rested. 


Timing matters when it comes to good quality daytime sleep for baby

Try to start the first nap of the day between 830-9am, using baby’s wake-up time as a guide.  Early risers may struggle to make it to 830am especially if they are still quite young (in the 4-6-month range).  If this is the case, try starting the nap earlier, say at 8am, and gradually move the nap towards an 830am start time.  

A good time to start the afternoon nap is between 12-1pm.  Like the morning nap, your baby may find it difficult to reach 12pm.  This is especially true if the morning nap is early, short, or of poor quality.  If your baby has difficulty making it to 12pm, start the afternoon nap earlier and gradually move it forwards.  Use a consistent sleepy-time routine prior to naps and bedtime, which may include a bath, massage, story and/or song.  The morning and afternoon naps ideally occur in a consistent sleep environment such as a bassinet or crib rather than in a swing, car seat or stroller.  Keep the room dark and quiet.  Safe sleep principles continue to apply and can be reviewed here.  Some children are longer and some, shorter, nappers.  However, aim for at least an hour-long nap for each nap period to ensure baby gets a good chunk of restorative sleep.  What if baby misses a nap?  Try to stretch her to the next nap period if you can.  Otherwise, baby may end up chasing her “sleep tail” – always somewhat off biological rhythms with resultant short, poor quality naps as well as resultant overnight sleep struggles.

In addition to two daytime naps, many babies between 4-6 months of age also benefit from a third nap.  This third nap optimally occurs between 3-5pm, or about 2 hours after the second nap ends.  Sometimes referred to as a "cat nap", the third nap tends to be short - in the realm of 30-35 minutes.  Unlike the first two naps of the day that have restorative power, the third nap serves to top up baby’s sleep tank and bridge her to bedtime.  Also, whereas a consistent sleep environment is ideal for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap, the third nap can be “on the go”.  In other words, this third sleep period can be a great opportunity to finally get out of the house to run an errand or take a walk!  For babies who take a third nap, it tends to go away around 8 months, or more broadly between 6-10 months of age. 


Baby’s naps during the day help determine bedtime

Bedtime optimally takes place 1.5-2 hours after the third nap, again aiming for a time between 6-8pm.  As baby’s sleep schedule comes together, he may need an early bedtime to help make up for poor sleep.  If baby does not take a third nap, bedtime is best scheduled between 3-3.5 hours after the second nap ends.  Again, bedtime might end up being a pretty early, at least until your baby’s sleep schedule is more fully developed.

By 4 months, many babies are able to sleep for an 8 hour stretch overnight with 1-2 overnight awakenings for feeds.  Babies can typically make it without overnight feeds by 6 months of age (assuming they are growing well and there are no other medical concerns that preclude this).  Breastfed babies sometimes take longer than formula-fed infants but typically can make it through the night without a feed by 9 months of age.   The recommended amount of sleep for babies in the 4-11 month range is 12-15 hours, with some babies managing on as little as 10-11 hours and others needing up to 16-18 hours.  Generally, it is best to assume your baby has an average sleep requirement unless proven otherwise.  Total daily sleep recommendations include both naps and overnight sleep. For example, your baby may rise at 6am, take a 1.5 hour nap, from 830-10am, an hour long nap from 1230-130pm, a cat nap at 330-4pm, then go back to sleep at 7pm giving her a total of 14 hours of daily sleep. 


Sleep associations are a likely culprit for ongoing overnight awakenings

Sleep associations are anything your child connects with sleep, and in particular, falling asleep.  Although sleep is a natural process, falling asleep takes practice!  It is a learned behaviour and during the learning process, children can become dependent on factors outside of their control.  Sleep associations are considered either “positive” or “negative” based on whether another person is needed or not to help your child to fall asleep, respectively.  Examples of “negative” sleep associations include rocking, breastfeeding, or driving your child around the neighbourhood to get him to sleep.  In these cases, your child will also likely need your help to get back to sleep – using similar methods – if she awakens prematurely from a nap or overnight sleep.  There are a variety of ways to address sleep associations, commonly referred to as “sleep training” methods.  These techniques vary, primarily, in how quickly parental presence is withdrawn for baby's sleep periods.          


How do I know my baby Has hit the "sleep jackpot"?

Here are some important indicators that your baby is on the right track for great sleep:

1.     Baby is falling – and staying asleep – independently for naps and overnight sleep

2.     Sleep times are consistent

3.     Naps are lasting at least one hour and are uninterrupted

4.     Baby is happy and engaged during the day


Some quick tips for 12 months and beyond

Moving beyond 1 year of age, babies typically give up their morning nap between 15-18 months.  Some infants do so earlier and some later.  Also, around 15-18 months of age, children are more likely to comfortably handle a 4-5 hour stretch of awake time following the afternoon nap.  However, bedtime should remain between 6-8pm.  Most children give up their mid-afternoon nap between 3-6 years of age.  Avoid giving up on the morning then afternoon naps too early.  Children can go on temporary nap strikes only to later resume napping once again.  When your child is ready to give up his afternoon nap, replace this with quiet time.  Try to keep toddlers in their cribs until 3 years of age.  Before 3 years of age, many children are not developmentally ready to stay put in a bed overnight.  Continue to follow your child’s cues as to whether they are getting adequate rest and adjust bedtime accordingly.

If you would like more sleep tips, check out my other blog posts as well as find me on Facebook and Instagram @jenniferborstsleep.  Wishing you restful sleep!