Baby Sleep: The Basics of Sleep Stages

Dad holding newborn baby sleeping, baby sleep stages

No matter who you are…

Sleep is important. 

We all need to sleep in order to revive our bodies and minds. So, if it’s vital for you as an adult, imagine the importance of good sleep for your growing baby. 

I know what you’re thinking though… 

Won’t my baby learn how to sleep on their own? 


But keep in mind, they are brand new… 

They don’t know about life outside the womb.

So, let’s discuss things you can do to help encourage healthy sleep. First, we’ll dive into the basics on baby sleep so you can create a sleep plan that works for you and your family. 

How Is Baby Sleep Different From Adult Sleep? 

You already know babies are much different than adults. They have many skills to learn in a short period, sleep being one of them. 

As a general rule, a healthy adult will sleep seven to eight hours a night, mostly uninterrupted. We understand the difference between day and night. Our bodies have become accustomed to this routine. 

Newborn babies usually need about 18 hours of sleep, broken up into smaller increments and they do not yet have a strong circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythms are the tick of our internal clock. They are 24-hour cycles that run steadily in the background as our body carries out its natural functions. 

Babies have not established this quite yet. And it makes sense. 

They’re new.

Yes, they will eventually develop this rhythm on their own, just as we all do. But, you can support this development by creating a consistent sleep routine and implementing a few helpful things

One very simple tip is to expose your baby to light and gently play with them during the day. Exposure to natural outdoor light during the day, especially in the morning, works to regulate your child’s sleepytime hormone called melatonin. Experts agree that morning and early afternoon light helps a child’s brain better identify when they should sleep and when they should wake. 

Even nap time can be done out in the open where it’s bright and noisy. This will help them recognize that it is day time. Then at night, provide a dark and quiet environment showing your baby the difference.

As you implement a routine and allow nature to take its course, your baby’s circadian rhythm will grow stronger over time. 

The Importance of Baby Sleep

Babies depend on sleep to develop properly.

In fact, there is a positive correlation between sleep and overall cognitive development. Better language acquisition, memory, and executive function are all included in this. In other words, a good sleep routine supports healthy development for your baby. 

Sleep development is a dynamic process…

Meaning that during the first months and years of life, your baby’s sleep cycles will change. 

This is where many parents have frustrations with their baby’s sleep schedule and want to give up on a routine.

On this journey, you might end up thinking…

Man, this routine isn’t working!

I get it. Some days are harder than others. 

Here’s our advice: 

Don’t give up on a routine too soon. 

It takes time for you and your baby to settle into a rhythm that feels right. When it doesn’t work out one day, do your best to remain flexible and try again tomorrow. 

An all-or-nothing mindset will slow the process. Keep at it, taking it day by day 

Celebrate the victories and expect failure sometimes.

Remember, you’re not alone. Many who have come before you were also in the trenches learning baby sleep. It helps to allow their knowledge to broaden your perspective. It will give you far more success than you think. 

Newborn to 3 Month Baby Sleep

If you’ve never been around a newborn while they are sleeping, one thing to know is they can be loud and noisy. 

As they shift from quiet to active sleep, they often move, groan, and cry out, which is unlike adults. Adults tend to stay more still and much quieter.

Babies move and make noise. 

Some parents hear these noises and assume their baby is awake or needs to be picked up and tended to, when in fact your baby is still asleep. Take a moment to observe your baby first. Not every noise or sound needs to be responded to, because newborns are just noisy sleepers! 

Newborns sleep in short bursts known as sleep cycles. These bursts usually last 20 to 50 minutes. During their short sleep cycles, they spend about half their time in active sleep. 

Around the 3-4 month mark, your baby will start to adopt more adult-like sleep stages. Keep in mind, babies are still much more active sleepers than adults and will be as they continue to develop. 

3 to 6 Month Baby Sleep

As your baby enters this stage, their sleep cycles will change. Now, each sleep cycle will be longer lasting about 45 to 60 minutes. Between each sleep cycle, your baby will either wake up or transition to another sleep cycle. 

This biological sleep cycle transition sometimes causes a bump in the road. 

Some babies will go through something called the 4-month sleep regression. 

A sleep regression is when your baby’s sleep patterns change. They may wake up often during the night and have a hard time falling back to sleep. The good news is that this may mean they’re going through a growth spurt or that their brain is developing.

Typically this happens around the 4-month mark, but it can happen a little earlier or later.

During this time, keeping a solid sleep routine is more important than ever.

Signs of the 4-month sleep regression: 

  • More frequent wakings when you thought sleep was going well 
  • More overall fussiness
  • Shorter naps during the day 
  • Changes in appetite

If this begins to happen…

Don’t worry. This regression will not last forever. Lean into your routine, and know that your baby is the one who decides when they sleep. Unfortunately, we can’t control it all. 


During this stage, it is still more than fine to have your baby sleeping in your room with you.

Babies of this age should be fed promptly when they wake. Their brain is growing quickly, and they need extra energy. 

But, not all babies are the same.

This is where many 3 to 6-month-olds differ: 

Some babies of this age will sleep for 4 to 5 hours (or less) straight at night-time, while others can sleep as much as 8 hours. 

Either way, your baby will…

  • need frequent naps during the day
  • be moving towards longer stretches of sleep at night
  • understand the difference between day and night much better

Focus on the little improvements. It’s not all going to happen overnight (literally).

6 to 12 Month Baby Sleep

As your baby grows older, they will need less sleep within a 24-hour period. Typically, by this age, babies will sleep 10 to 14 hours a day, including naps and overnight sleep. Their wake window periods will increase and they will become more active. 

During this stage, many babies begin crawling and walking. These amazing feats are often paired with sleep disturbances.

The world is just too interesting! 

So, don’t be alarmed if your baby experiences some sleep changes during this time. They are discovering a new world, seeing farther, exploring more… 

But another important thing is happening… 

In between sleep cycles, they are learning to settle themselves and bridge the gap between sleep cycles on their own

At this point, your baby may be sleeping through the night. However, remember to be patient with your baby and yourself. 

12 Month Old Baby Sleep

As your baby approaches their first birthday, you may notice them sleeping better. They will usually sleep longer and wake up less frequently. 

After the 12-month mark, your baby starts moving into their toddler years. And with that, they will require less sleep for development.

Usually, toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 will take 1 to 3 hours worth of naps during the day. During this time, your child may “drop a nap” having only one nap during the day. 

Usually at this point, your toddler… 

Yeah, not a baby anymore… 

(Cue the ugly cry) 

…Is sleeping deeper than they ever have before, and is able to stay asleep for much longer periods in the night. 

However, this does come with a new set of challenges. As your toddler becomes more aware of their surroundings, the more they have to fear. This is when night-time fears or separation anxiety may happen. 

Not to worry…

It’s very common for this to happen. 

Give your toddler all the love and comfort they need to get through this.  

Stay the course, keep your routine, and everything else will follow suit. 

Developing a Nighttime Routine for Your Baby

Your routine will change and needs to be adjusted as your baby grows and moves through these sleep stages. 

Therefore, remember to remain flexible and tuned into your baby’s needs. 

Your schedule might be different from someone else’s. And that’s okay. Your family has different needs than other families.  

Babies thrive on predictability and routine. Their worlds are full of action and stimulation, providing a consistent routine offers safety and security. A bedtime routine provides a transition between awake time and sleep time, cueing your baby’s brain that sleep is coming. 

Tips for establishing your bedtime routine: 

  • Put your baby to sleep at the same time every night. With a consistent sleep schedule, your baby’s body will naturally adjust and begin to feel tired at the same time each night.  
  • Stick to a consistent sleeping space. Our children thrive in consistent environments and your baby’s sleeping space is no exception.  
  • An earlier bedtime is best for your baby. Waiting until later in the evening can leave them overtired which can cause a bedtime struggle. Also, babies (and adults) spend the most time in deep restorative sleep in the first half of the night. It becomes less restorative as we get closer to the morning. So an earlier bedtime is best. This ensures babies are getting as much of that restorative sleep as possible!
  • Establish a regular nap schedule (adjusting as your baby grows and drops naps.) Day time naps impact overnight sleep. When your baby is overtired, stress hormones may kick in keeping your baby alert and making it harder for them to sleep at night. Appropriate nap times help to keep night time sleep on track. A baby who was fully restored at their last nap will sleep soundly and happily through their next sleep. 

Activities to consider including in a nighttime routine for your little one: 

  • A warm, relaxing bath: This allows your baby to feel clean, refreshed, and ready for bed. Also, warm water relaxes your baby. You can also add lightly scented lotion after the bath for more relaxation. 
  • Feeding and cuddling: Feeding your baby before bedtime fills their tank for a night of rest. Also, make sure to give a surplus of snuggles along with it. This is your prime time to connect with your baby before they drift off to sleep. 
  • Books and lullabies: Reading a book together is both soothing and a great way to connect. Even if your baby is young, it’s an excellent habit to start at bedtime. After the book, singing a lullaby shifts your baby into a sleepy mood. 
  • Rocking: Rocking your baby is a natural way to help your baby ease into sleep mode. It helps sleep initiation and sleep quality
  • Noise machine/white noise: Babies are often soothed by white noise as they sleep. It reminds them of the noisy womb they lived in. Having the noise machine on can help them drift off to sleep easier. 
  • A darkened room: A dark room does wonders for allowing a baby to sleep. Especially young babies because they aren’t afraid of the dark. You can achieve this by installing blackout curtains in the room where your baby sleeps. 
  • Parting ways: You may want to say a predictable phrase each night, such as, “Goodnight, I love you.” This signals it’s time for them to go to sleep. 

Remember, this routine should be consistent, yet flexible. You can adjust this routine to your family’s needs and schedule. It may take a few tries to find out what combination of nighttime activities works. But it will be well worth the effort.    

Make sure to give your baby all the patience.

You will act as a gentle guide through the sleep process.

Supporting Sleep Changes As They Come

Every new sleep stage for your little one is a journey. Just when you think you have it figured out, you may be thrown another curve ball. 

It’s okay. 

It’s normal! 

That’s why it’s important to be informed and supported. 

At Buddha Belly Doulas, we offer a variety of resources to help you. Let’s get you started on the right foot when it comes to supporting your baby’s sleep, (and yours too). 

We offer… 

We’re always here for you, no matter what your pregnancy or baby care journey might look like. Sometimes, you’re not sure where you need support. 

And that’s okay. 

Talk to us, and we’ll help you figure it out. 

Set up a time to talk here. 

We’re always here for you! 

Also check out: Newborn Sleep Essentials: Get More Sleep! or 3 Different Ideas for Where Baby Sleeps

About Christie Collbran

Christie believes in helping women recognize their own inner wisdom, strength and power. Having served as President of the Tampa Bay Birth Network for six years and with ten years serving families as a birth doula, she has a reputation for leadership, dedication and compassion. A childbirth educator, certified lactation counselor as well as a certified doula, she makes a point of ensuring mothers and their partners understand all their birthing options and what to expect on their journey.> keep reading