When you have a newborn at home and haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in what feels like forever, you might find yourself dreaming about getting your baby on a sleep schedule. But what's the right time to start? “Many parents start too early, and they get discouraged,” says Alanna McGinn, owner of Good Night Sleep Site in Burlington, Ont. In her sleep-consulting practice, she doesn’t start trying to get babies on a schedule until they’re at least four months old, when their natural sleep rhythm starts to develop.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist and founder of SleepDreams in Vancouver, waits till five or six months. “That’s when their nighttime sleep often consolidates into a nice five- to six-hour stretch,” she says. Every infant is different, but when yours is ready, here's how to initiate your baby's sleep schedule.
To encourage a sleep schedule, your baby’s naps should take place in a consistent sleep environment. Experts say the best naps occur in your baby’s crib, which should be placed in a dark, cool room. White noise can help block out daytime sounds while a mini bedtime routine—for example, where you change your baby’s diaper and sing to her—can also prepare your wee one for sleep.
Surprisingly, the morning nap, not long after babies have woken up, is usually the first to stretch out into a long chunk of sleep. “After a nice night’s sleep, babies do better with the first nap in the morning,” says Garden. But don’t be surprised if that nap is only 45 minutes at first. “That’s one sleep cycle,” she explains. And while you can shoot for an afternoon nap too, it may be a while before your baby is regularly taking both morning and afternoon naps. “For most children, as the day wanes on, their behaviour starts to go downhill because they’re tired,” Garden says. And overtired kids have a harder time napping well.
Once you’ve got your baby napping regularly in the morning, it’s time to work on stretching that sleep out. Catnapping is common, but McGinn suggests you shouldn’t assume the nap is over if your infant wakes up 35 to 40 minutes after you put her down. Stop and listen to see if she falls back asleep, says McGinn. Leaving them in that consistent sleep environment will help your baby understand that this spot and time of day are for sleep.
Typically a four- to six-month-old will need three naps a day: one in the morning, one in the afternoon and a buffer nap late in the afternoon to tide her over until bedtime. By seven or eight months, that buffer nap usually goes away and babies are able to take nice long naps—around an hour or an hour and a half—in the morning and afternoon. McGinn suggests young babies go to bed between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., and go down for that first nap around 8 to 9 a.m.
“Naps take time,” says McGinn. “They’re a hard skill to learn.” Don’t give up if, after a few days, it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. Your baby might have a great nap one day, but not the next—and that’s normal. Don’t stop giving your little one the opportunity. “You’ll see progression, but, as with all milestones, it’s usually two steps forward, one step back,” says Garden. And don’t compare your baby to the one next door. Babies are different, and they reach different sleep milestones at different times. “Twelve months might be the average age for a baby to walk, but we don’t expect them all to be able to do it by then. In the same way, your baby will determine when she’s ready for longer stretches of sleep.”