Breastfeeding Lifestyle

Understanding Baby Sleep Patterns: What’s “Normal” Anyway?

Time to read: 3 min.

Sleep deprivation! Ask any new parent and they will probably tell you about the lack of sleep that they are getting. At this point in your life, you are so tired that you can hardly string a sentence together. You probably even understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture!

So, what is normal when it comes to infant sleep? In order to answer the question of what is “normal,” we need to start by looking at what your baby can and can’t do from a developmental perspective...

My Baby is Waking Up Frequently, Both Day and Night

Rest easy knowing that waking through the night is normal and even biologically adaptive. When you are in the thick of frequent night waking’s it may not be easy but be assured that there are various reasons that this is happening.

64% of babies wake to feed both day and night. Their stomach capacity is not big enough to go all night without a feed and breast milk is digested very rapidly. So, of course, they wake up hungry in the night – and it’s likely to happen for at least the first six months.

Night feeding is normal. When you’re awake at night feeding your baby, it may reassure you to know that other mums with babies the same age all over the world are probably doing the same thing.

During the first month, babies need to feed on average 8 – 12 times every 24 hours to ensure they are getting enough milk and that you stimulate the breasts enough to keep building your milk supply. Regular waking and feeding are getting your breastfeeding off to a great start.

Studies show us that many children continue to wake up overnight until around three years of age. Many times, the wakings are brief and the child settles quickly. Other times, settling takes longer. In either case, these wakings do not readily suggest your child has a sleep “problem.”

Frequent night waking is thought to be protective against SIDS. Studies of near-miss infants and siblings of SIDS infants show that these babies have fewer night-waking episodes. In the first few months, infants normally have frequent periods of night-waking as they ascend from quiet sleep to active sleep and back into quiet sleep. Researchers have suggested that arousal from sleep may be essential for resumption of breathing in babies who have less effective self-starting mechanisms. The difficulty with waking up may place infants at higher risk for SIDS.

Is My Baby Getting Enough Sleep?

Most parents have seen the sleep guidelines that recommend how much sleep babies need at various developmental stages. For example, parents are told that newborns should be sleeping around 16-18 hours in a 24-hour period.

The recommendations also suggest that, at two years of age, children require a total of 13 hours of sleep… and so on. When researchers explore questions of how long infants and children should sleep and what are healthy recommendations, their answers are not particularly clear.

As parents, it is important to remember that they are recommendations. Each baby is unique and, just like adults, the amount of sleep that each baby will need will be different. Some will require much more sleep and some will require less.

A recent study showed that 27.9 - 57.0% of 6 and 12-month-old infants did not sleep through the night (depending on 6 or 8-hour definition). No significant associations were found between sleeping through the night and concurrent or later mental development, psychomotor development, or maternal mood. However, sleeping through the night was associated with a much lower rate of breastfeeding.

It’s natural to compare your baby’s behaviour to that of other children, but, try to let your child lead the way.

My Baby Will Only Fall Asleep While Being Rocked, Held or Cuddled

It is important to understand that you are not alone and that it is very normal for babies to want to be held against your warm body. They just love your comforting heartbeat!

Humans are the most immature of all mammals at birth and they need some extra time to adapt to being “on the outside,” while their little bodies and nervous systems develop some more.

They are also known as carrying mammals and this means that babies EXPECT to be carried, to be close to parents and to be touched often. It’s hardwired and cannot be changed. If they are not carried or are separated from their mother, they express their dissatisfaction by fussing or crying. Carrying your baby is the biological norm.

So, it’s perfectly fine to cuddle, rock or breastfeed your baby to sleep. As your baby grows, you can gently try and lie them down when they are sleeping. Some say if you want to put your baby down when they have dozed off, one tip is to hold them until they are in a deeper phase of sleep before you pop him down – when their arm flops it’s a good sign that they are in a deep sleep.

Here Are Some Tips That May Help You Gently Assist Your Baby to Slumber

Wear your baby in a sling, wrap or baby-carrier to help mimic the feeling and movement of being in the womb. Babies often prefer to be carried this way so they can feel closely snuggled up to their mother’s body. It’s a familiar and comfortable sensation for the baby.

Try doing as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. This helps the baby’s senses feel calm and soothed. Holding the baby close to the mother’s heart is also important since the mother’s heartbeat is a familiar sensation from the womb.

Life in the womb was full of motion, so get moving. Take a walk, put your baby carrier on, push a stroller or drive in the car. Many babies will fall asleep more easily if they are riding in a car seat or in a baby carrier or even just being held on mum or dad’s chest while quietly pacing through the house.

Give your baby to your partner or a grandparent to hold while they are sleeping. After all, who can resist the snuggle of a sleeping baby? While bub is sleeping, if possible, you should try to sleep too.

What techniques have you found to be effective at gently helping your baby to sleep? What advice would you give to other mums who are feeling sleep deprived? Let’s have a chat here or on the Medela Australia Facebook page!


Harper, R. M. et al. 1982. Developmental patterns of heart rate and heart rate variability during sleep and waking in normal infants and infants at risk for the sudden infant death syndrome. Sleep 5:28.

Kent JC et al. Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics. 2006;117(3):e387-395.

Kent JC et al. Longitudinal changes in breastfeeding patterns from 1 to 6 months of lactation. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2013;8(4):401-407.

McKenna, J. J. and Mosk, S. S. 1994. Sleep and arousal, synchrony and independence, among mothers and infants sleeping apart and together (same bed): An experiment in evolutionary medicine. Acta Paediatr Suppl 397:94-102.