Sleep Training Consultant
Ideal Sleep Schedules
Let’s talk about an “ideal schedule.” As babies are not robots and every baby’s sleep needs are different, it is worth a discussion. Now, these sleep schedules are just guidelines to help get an idea of when your baby may need sleep, but not every baby needs a schedule or the same level of structure – more on that later!
From newborn to about 8 months, it can be more important to focus on the child’s awake time and offering a nap at the appropriate times, instead of trying to schedule each nap for the same time each day. This is because most babies don’t have a fully developed circadian rhythm until about 8 to 10 months old. This rhythm tells the baby’s body and brain when to expect play and when to be tired. Once a baby is beyond 8 months, it can be easier to set their internal clock to expect sleep at the same time every day, instead of trying to predict when they may be tired enough for a nap. A baby younger than 8 months may not have this rhythm fully developed.
This leads to a younger baby becoming overtired and struggling to make it to the scheduled nap time.
Here is a helpful list to see how long your baby can be awake:
- Newborn, birth to 8 weeks: 30 to 45 minutes of time awake
- Newborn, 8 to 12 weeks: 45 to 60 minutes of time awake
- 3 months to 5 months: 1.5 to 2 hours of time awake
- 5 months to 8 months: 2.5 to 3 hours of time awake
- 8 months to 16 months: 3 to 4 hours of time awake
- 16 months to 3 years: 5 to 6 hours of time awake
If you haven’t heard, an overtired baby is not a good thing!
There is nothing harder than trying to help an overtired baby or child get to sleep – it is darn near impossible honestly! The reason for this is cortisol – a hormone produced by the brain. You may have heard of it as the “stress hormone”, although it is released in your brain even if you aren’t feeling stressed. Cortisol is also responsible for helping you wake you up in the morning. Normally first thing in the morning is when your natural cortisol level is at the highest.
Of course, this does not mean you’re the most stressed out in the morning, it is simply the way your brain helps you to wake up and get going in the morning. It is this same cortisol however, that is released in your baby’s brain when your baby becomes overtired. You could see how you wouldn’t want the same hormone that is responsible for waking you up, to be released while you’re trying to get your child to sleep, right? As a double whammy, when cortisol is released, it also releases adrenaline. This is the same hormone released when you ride a rollercoaster! So good luck trying to get your little one to sleep while they have those two hormones bouncing around in their brain. Yikes!
What can you do about it?
The best thing you can do is simply try to avoid the baby from becoming overtired in the first place. But how can I do that, you ask? Simple, find the best awake time or schedule for your child!
Start with your child’s age above and use the shorter awake time for that age group, then go from there.
Now, sometimes babies won’t even seem like they need a nap, or they don’t “look tired”. I say try to go for the nap anyway! Often by the time we notice their tired signs, it’s already too late and the baby is overtired. The younger the child, the less time they need awake. As babies get older their awake time should grow with them. Always start with less awake time and after a week or two, you can evaluate if they need more time awake.
How do you know if you need to change your child’s schedule or awake times?
The top two ways to tell if a change is needed, ask yourself: are they playing/crying for more than 10-20 minutes before going to sleep, or are they sleeping for less than 30-45 minutes per nap. If you’re seeing either or both from your baby, then it may be time to shift the schedule or offer a slightly longer awake time.
Again, always give your baby 1-2 weeks when trying a new schedule or awake window before making additional changes. This will give your baby a chance to adjust to the new schedule and see if it is a good fit.
What if you’re not a “schedule person”? Or maybe you’re an always-on-the-go type of person?
Well, you’re certainly not the only parent that lives life like that. I was certainly a “go with the flow” type of person before my son. After struggling for months and months with my own son’s sleep, naps, and bedtime, I started working on finding his ideal routine and schedule. I couldn’t believe how much easier and happier our lives became. I am now less of an on-the-go person, but I have found the best way to still be out and active while allowing time for my son to get the rest he needs.
Some babies and kids are very flexible. They “go with the flow” and can sleep in the car, stroller, or just pass out in the middle of the living room. They can be at a friend’s house, the mall, or wherever. No routine or schedule involved or needed. However, I will tell you that is not the majority of babies or children I encounter. Also, some children are flexible as babies but lose that flexibility as they get older and become stubborn toddlers or very particular children. Just because your little one is flexible now, doesn’t mean they will always be that way – so enjoy it while it lasts!
Now again, every child’s needs are different, so if you do not have a particularly flexible baby, don’t be upset. Understand that you’ll sometimes have to choose between their nap or a playdate. There will be times when the playdates and skipped nap are worth it and other times when the outing/event won’t be worth the pain of skipping the nap and having a cranky overtired kid on your hands.
You can also consider timing outings, playdates, and other things around your child’s nap schedule. For example, you need to run errands and you know your baby will sleep in the car – then try running the errands during the child’s nap time. If your child sleeps in the car, stroller, or carrier and you have an appointment in the middle of nap time, consider leaving early so the child can take a nap on the way or you get there early and can walk them around in a stroller or carrier before the appointment. Now, if your child won’t sleep outside of the crib/home then make sure you’re planning your outings, classes, and appointments around their nap schedule. If you do have a child that won’t sleep on the go in any format, know that it will get easier to go out and enjoy things as they get older and can stay awake for longer!
Still have questions about your kiddo’s schedule or still struggling to find your child’s ideal schedule? Then we should talk!