There can be many reasons why a baby cannot get to sleep, including scheduling issues and age. Always putting a baby down in the same place may help them fall asleep.
Babies sleep differently from adults and may wake several times at night or struggle to fall asleep on an adult’s schedule.
Babies’ sleep patterns change as they get older and fall into a routine. Every baby is different. Moreover, premature babies (preemies) may behave consistently with babies of a younger age based on how early they were born. Experts call this an adjusted or corrected age.
Babies’ sleeping patterns fall into the following ages.
Newborn babies may sleep no more than 1–2 hours at a time until they are about 3 months old.
Very young breastfed newborns need to feed every 1–3 hours, and sometimes even more, so they may wake very frequently to feed. After the first few months, a baby may not wake as often to eat.
Newborns are adjusting to life outside the womb. It can take up to 11 weeks for a baby to develop a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Even then, babies often continue to wake at night.
Most newborns need 16 hours of sleep per day, with 8 hours occurring during the day.
According to some experts, some babies in their third month may settle into a sleep routine but may not start sleeping through the night until much later.
Parents and caregivers often find that swaddling a baby helps them sleep. However, according to an article in Pediatric Patient Education, it is unsafe to swaddle a baby when they begin trying to roll, and it can make it harder for them to sleep.
Some parents and caregivers move the baby from a bassinet to a crib at this time, which might further disrupt their routine.
According to Columbia University Department of Neurology, babies at this age sleep between 14–15 hours per day. About 4–5 hours of these hours usually occur during the daytime.
At around 6 months, babies may begin sleeping for a longer time at night. Caregivers and babies may start settling into a sleep routine, and babies typically take naps around the same time each day. Disruptions in this routine and similar environmental shifts may affect sleep.
Babies this age need a total of 14 hours of sleep per day and may sleep 10 hours or even longer at night.
No matter how old a baby is, several issues can cause sleep problems. They include:
Overtired babies may struggle to get to sleep. They may need extra help, such as rocking or nursing, to fall asleep. To prevent exhaustion, maintain a consistent napping schedule even when traveling and during other times of disruption, such as holidays.
If a baby is in pain, they might not be able to sleep. Sick babies, for example, may wake several times during the night. Even minor discomforts may affect sleep. Scratchy clothing tags, a room that is too hot or too cold, or a wet diaper can make sleep difficult.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help with occasional pain from minor illnesses. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not recommend giving over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants, cough medicines, or pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen, to children under 2. Aspirin is also not safe for children or babies.
Please talk to a pediatrician if pain relief is not working, if a parent or caregiver feels they need to administer it for more than 3 days in a row, or more often than every few weeks.
Every baby has a different personality, and some develop greater attachments to their parent or caregiver than others. However, most babies will experience some degree of separation anxiety, which can make sleep more difficult.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies sleep in the caregiver’s room for at least 6 months and ideally, a year. This may also make nighttime nursing easier.
Babies often wake during the night to feed, especially during the first 6 months of life. Even after a baby sleeps through the night, they may occasionally get hungry and wake up.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), if a baby shows hunger cues, such as smacking the lips, sticking out the tongue, and sucking on the hands, they may just want to suck, or they may be hungry.
Very young babies may not sleep on a regular schedule. Older babies, however, tend to establish a sleep routine. Deviating from this routine may disrupt their sleeping pattern, so they no longer fall asleep at their usual time.
To prevent this, establish a nighttime and naptime sleep ritual that may include singing songs or reading stories. Stick with this routine, and put the baby down at around the same time each day.
Babies may change when they nap as they grow, so their schedules may shift. Once the new schedule becomes clear, stick with it.
Transitioning to crib
Transitioning from a bassinet to the crib can make it difficult for a baby to get to sleep. A new sleeping environment may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
Some babies move out of their caregiver’s room when they move to a crib. This may cause them to experience temporary feelings of loneliness or fear if the baby is going through the normal separation anxiety stage.
Caregivers should maintain a consistent sleep routine to help babies transition to sleep. Ensure the crib is comfortable, with a firm mattress, and that there are no objects the baby could suffocate on in the crib.
Columbia University suggest the following strategies to help babies of all ages sleep longer and more safely:
- placing the baby down in the same place to sleep at night
- establishing a sleep routine
- offering the baby a pacifier
- dressing a baby in light clothing, as overheating increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- putting the baby to sleep on their back
- swaddling young babies before bedtime
It is normal for newborns to sleep on an irregular schedule and struggle to fall asleep, as it can take some time for their circadian rhythm to adjust. Trouble sleeping does not usually mean there is a serious problem with the baby. However, contact a pediatrician if:
Most babies eventually learn to sleep on a regular schedule. The amount of time this takes varies from baby to baby. However, healthful sleep practices, a nighttime ritual, a regular schedule, breastfeeding, and safe sleep strategies can help a baby establish their routine earlier and remain asleep longer.
Sleeping when a baby sleeps may help save caregivers from immense exhaustion, particularly with a newborn.
According to an article in Pediatrics, infants, parents, and caregivers often struggle with sleep in the early months because babies have irregular sleep patterns.
Pediatricians, sleep consultants, and other experts can help caregivers manage sleep issues, so everyone in the home can get some rest.