A quick story: When Aubrey and Anne brought home their first baby, they didn’t know all that much about what to expect. Sure, they were aunt and uncle to a few nieces and nephews, but barely any of their friends had kids. So the thought of putting little Milo on any kind of baby sleep schedule had never crossed their minds. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Until it’s not. Once their infant was around six months, the new parents were feeling increasingly frazzled as he’d stopped sleeping through the night and their schedules were completely ruled by his sleep whims. “Well, what’s his sleep schedule?” Aubrey’s sister asked one day. Huh? Maaaybe they’d missed something along the way.
Let’s be honest, a sleep schedule isn’t entirely for your little one—it’s also crucial for parents who have to plan their days around daycare runs, work, and activities. But if we had all the time (and nannies) in the world, would it matter if our babies skipped the schedule completely? How important is a routine for a growing babe? Here’s what the experts have to say.
What is a baby sleep schedule?
Essentially, it’s a predictable routine for when your baby sleeps and when they’re awake, catered to their age and personal preferences. A sleep schedule loosely (or very rigidly, for some parents) defines their nap times, bedtime, and wake time.
Dr. Wendi S. Defrank, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, says, “Infants need between 10-12 hours of sleep per night.” Add to that 2-4 hours of daytime sleep for babies aged 4-12 months, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics, and you’re looking at 12-16 total hours of sleep per 24-hour period. So, with all this sleeping (supposedly) happening, should parents get out their colored pencils and start crafting a naptime flow chart?
Sleep schedules can mean different things to different people, says Deanna Buley, Sleep Guide Manager at Batelle Sleep School. She explains that the most popular options are by-the-clock schedules, those based on age-appropriate wake windows, and parents or caregivers relying on sleep cues. Here’s how they work.
This schedule is very predictable as it sticks to the same consistent naptimes and bedtimes every day. The good news is you can plan outings or playdates in advance knowing your baby will have consistent wake and sleep times. The not-so-good news is that this routine can cause some stress when trying to adhere to its strict nature. Unfortunately, babies don’t run quite like clockwork, but the by-the-clock schedule works for some.
Wake window schedule:
“This schedule can be more flexible since it’s based on following your child’s natural rhythm using science and anecdotal evidence to guide parents on the times of day when they should look for sleep cues,” says Buley. A wake window is the amount of time your little one is awake in between naps and between their last nap and bedtime. While there are suggested wake windows, these times vary from baby to baby. On Happiest Baby, pediatrician and bestselling author Dr. Harvey Karp lists wake windows as follows:
Newborn: 45 to 60 Minutes
1-2 Months: 1 to 2 Hours
3-4 Months: 75 Minutes to 2.5 Hours
5-7 Months: 2 to 4 Hours
8-10 Months: 2.5 to 4.5 Hours
As Buley explains, tracking these wake windows in combination with watching for sleep cues like eye rubbing and yawning can provide you with a more adjustable schedule as your baby’s needs change.
Sleep cue schedule:
Some parents rely solely on their ability to spot sleep cues like fidgeting and fussing before putting their child down to nap. According to sleep consultant Amanda Jewson, founder of Baby’s Best Sleep, there are two phases of cues to look for in older babies. Early cues, which happen first, are the ones you want to catch to get your baby to bed without tipping into overtired territory. These include:
- Reduced Activity: less movement and play.
- Quieter Vocalization: decreased cooing or babbling.
- Slower Motions.
- Loss of Interest in toys, activities, and even people.
- Clinginess: wants to be held more, or gets upset when put down.
- Cuddling: seeking comfort from familiar objects like a blanket or stuffed animal.
Once you get to the later cues, you might be looking at a more challenging naptime or bedtime if your little one is overtired. These include:
- Irritability and increased fussiness.
- Crying or Whining: intensified vocal expressions of discomfort.
- Rubbing Eyes or Face.
- Thumb Sucking: If the baby uses this as a self-soothing mechanism, it can be a late sign of tiredness.
- Resisting Comfort: They might resist efforts to calm them down.
Related: 8 Dos and Don’ts of Baby Sleep (So Everyone Gets More Rest)
What are the benefits of a baby sleep schedule?
Not only does your baby’s sleep offer you a little shuteye, but it’s also crucial for their development—so a schedule is definitely an asset if it helps them get the Zzz’s they need. In a review of infant sleep and cognition in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep, findings indicated a positive association between sleep and memory, language, executive function, and overall cognitive development in typically developing infants.
They also make everyone’s lives less chaotic. “Schedules add routine and predictability,” Buley explains. “This can help reduce stress and help parents feel a little more in control of their day.” And when you’re less stressed out, you sleep better and so does your baby.
If you’re looking for ways to support your little one in resting at night, Defrank says a sleep schedule can help even in infancy when babies are still waking up for feedings. “Setting a regular bedtime with a ‘bedtime routine’ helps them settle quicker and sleep better,” Defrank says.
With all that in mind, if a baby is getting enough sleep, do they need a sleep schedule?
Let’s get to the million-dollar question so we can all take a nap: If their baby is sleeping sufficiently, should parents stress about establishing a schedule? Like with all things baby sleep, the answer isn’t black and white.
Buley stresses that the timing and amount of sleep is a personal preference and can vary depending on their age, development, and individual disposition—and you know your little one best of all. One specific schedule might not work for all babies, and if things are going well with how parents and caregivers are handling their little one’s sleep, there’s no need to fix something that isn’t broken. That being said, if your little one is grumpy all day, wakes a lot during the night, or yawns through their mommy and me play group, Buley says adhering to some type of organized and consistent sleep schedule is often the first thing she’ll try.
In Defrank’s view, most babies (and children of all ages for that matter) benefit from some sort of schedule and the routine that comes with it, which helps babies transition to their naps and bedtime with more ease. Buley agrees that all babes need sleep and anything that helps them get it is worthwhile.
Overly rigid sleep schedules can cause more stress for parents, which is why Buley suggests using wake windows in conjunction with attuning to your baby’s sleep cues to create a flexible schedule. “An adaptable approach to a sleep schedule is usually best,” she says.
Defrank and Buley agree on the guidelines that provide an idea of the amount of sleep babies need, though it’s best to take them with a grain of salt. “A child who is cheerful, alert, and engaged during their awake times is likely getting adequate rest, regardless of whether their sleep duration matches the guidelines precisely,” Buley says.
And remember that whatever works for your family and gets your baby the sleep they need is the right schedule (or non-schedule) for you.
When should I put my baby on a schedule?
“Sleep is disorganized and erratic for at least the first three months,” explains Buley. This is why, according to The Sleep Foundation, experts don’t give strict recommendations for sleep schedules in newborns.
If you’re trying to start a new sleep schedule to get everyone in your house some much-needed rest, the best time to start is when your little one is approaching 4 months old, when their sleep is becoming more established. “There’s not much point in any sort of schedule until the circadian rhythm matures [after the 4-month sleep regression], then a schedule can be a more reliable and useful tool,” Buley says.
Related: How to Create a Calming Bedtime Routine for Baby
What if my baby resists a sleep schedule?
If your baby cries, screams, arches their back, or seems super annoyed that bedtime is here, your little one might be fighting sleep. “Resisting sleep at naps is easier than resisting sleep at night due to the nature of the circadian rhythm,” Buley says. As she explains, melatonin kicks in at night and makes it harder to fight the inevitable.
What can help your little one settle is creating a consistent sleep routine at bedtime and a shorter version of this routine for naps—which, according to Defrank, can mean a bath, book, and bed at night and just the book before naps in that same safe sleep space. “At first, children may resist, but keep at it,” Defrank says. “All good habits take some time to become routine.” Finding the right bedtime can be a process, as Buley says you’ll have to find the time when your infant is tired but not overtired.
And as far as naps go, don’t feel like you have to sit in a dark room all day rocking when things don’t go smoothly. “If baby is resisting a nap, it’s best to either switch tactics, take a break and go into a different room, or get some fresh air and resume trying again in 15-20 minutes,” Buley says.
Are there consequences if we fall off our sleep routine?
So if your baby refuses to sleep or you’re stuck in line at Target and miss your little one’s nap, will the sky in fact fall? Buley’s answer to this stress-inducing question is that it depends. “Some little ones are more sensitive than others to changes in their routine.”
So many things can disrupt your schedule, says Defrank, like illness, vacations, or other changes in the household (think switching rooms or parents going back to work). “The best way to get back on track, even if you have an off day, is to keep consistent with the sleep routine and your nighttime interactions, and not to panic,” says Buley. Defrank adds, “Don’t give up, and go back to your regular routine as soon as you are able.”
If your baby misses a nap or bedtime is pushed back, you might witness more fussiness and tears during their waking hours. When this happens, the Pediatric Sleep Council suggests offering another sleep opportunity when naps are missed or making bedtime earlier, depending on your baby’s nap frequency and age.
Baby sleep isn’t a cookie-cutter process
Once the no-schedule schedule stopped working for Aubrey and Anne, they decided to put Milo on a two-nap schedule, and he was clearly ready to settle into a routine. Now, there’s a bit of order to the chaos of new parenthood, and their baby is happy, engaged, and learning to crawl. Soon after, the six-month sleep regression threw them for a fun loop, but isn’t that just parenting in a nutshell? “As with most things baby-sleep related, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that works all of the time,” says Buley. But for some, having a routine in place can help weather those storms.