Baby Sleep Guide: Basics, Safe Sleep Guidelines and Troubleshooting

For parents, baby sleep can be a stressful topic. Just the thought of nighttime approaching is enough to send mom and dad into a panic, thinking: “How bad is tonight going to be?” or “What time will little (insert name here) be up until tonight?”.

Even second and third-time parents struggle at times… Since every child is different, having a good sleeper the first time around is not a guarantee that the same thing will happen with the next one. The advantage of having had a baby before is that you may have learned some useful tricks along the way that you can try on subsequent children.

If you’re looking for guidance to get your baby to sleep, you’re in the right place. From baby sleep basics to no-fuss sleep tips, this comprehensive resource has everything you need to know and more.

Baby Sleep Basics

Baby sleep is complex. Babies are in a state of rapid growth and change from the moment they’re born, so their sleeping patterns and habits change a lot over the first year. One minute your adorable baby is sleeping through the night and the next a sleep regression hits and it back to being up at all hours.

To give parents the best chance at maintaining their sanity during this crucial year, here are some basic details to keep in mind when it comes to baby sleep:

1. Getting the Right Amount of Sleep is Key

Information on how much sleep babies need varies a little from source to source. According to a Sleep Chart by Parents Magazine, babies who are newborn to four months need approximately 16 to 18 hours of sleep in total per day. Babies age four to 12 months need anywhere from 12 to 16 hours.

Keep in mind that these are ranges. All babies are different, so you’ll need to pay attention to your baby and find what works for them individually. On days that your baby wakes up happy and well-rested, note how much sleep they got the night before. This helps you see how much sleep they really need.

2. Know Your Sleep Cues!

Having a solid understanding of baby sleep cues is incredibly important if you don’t want to struggle with an overtired baby every night.

“If you wait until baby is actually showing signs of being tired and then give him a bath, put on his jammies, feed him, and rock him to sleep, the tired time will be over and baby will be revved up and ready to rock and roll for another hour,” explained the authors of The Baby Sleep Book.

Some sleep cues parents should be on the look-out for are:

  • Movements slowing down
  • Staring off into space
  • Yawning
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Red around the eyes
  • Less vocal and interactive
  • Fussiness
  • Amount of time spent awake

Getting to know your baby’s sleep cues is one way that parents can learn to anticipate when their baby will be tired. This way, you can be ready to swoop in with a bedtime (or naptime) routine at the ideal time, instead of when it’s already too late.

3. Babies Need Sleep Routines

Speaking of bedtime and naptime routines, why are these so important? The answer is because babies sleep best when they feel safe. Routines are a way to introduce familiarity to naps and bedtime, so your baby is not only feeling tired, but comforted and calm when it’s time to go to sleep.

Of course, some babies are super laid back and can handle a little change in routine. For other babies, variations in routine really throws off their sleep. You can choose stricter or looser routines based on your baby’s needs and what works for your family.

An example of a bedtime routine you might choose to follow is:

  • Bath time
  • Clean diaper
  • Massage with baby lotion
  • Pajamas
  • Feed
  • Read a book
  • White noise
  • Lay down awake but drowsy

Nap time routines are similar but not as long and usually don’t involve a bath, lotion, or outfit change. A simple nap routine would be something like going into a darker room, singing a lullaby, rocking until drowsy, and putting baby down in the crib.

Safe Sleep Guidelines

When it comes to safe sleep guidelines, a lot has changed over the years. Essentially, these guidelines didn’t exist for previous generations, which is why some of our parents and grandparents are so flabbergasted by all the rules surrounding baby sleep these days.

However, the implementation of these guidelines has helped to greatly reduce the number of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and other baby sleep-related deaths in the past.

“Approximately 3,500 infants die annually in the United States from sleep-related deaths, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); ill-defined deaths; and accidental suffocation and strangulation. The number of infant deaths initially decreased in the 1990s after a national safe sleep campaign, but has plateaued in recent years,” explained the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2016 press release.

This press release outlined new recommendations for safe sleep, based on the latest evidence. These recommendations suggest that babies should:

  • Sleep in the same room as their parents for at least six months (ideally up to a year)
  • Sleep on a separate surface, such as a crib or bassinet
  • Never sleep on a couch, armchair, or soft surface ̶  alone or with someone else
  • Be placed on their back on a firm sleep surface with a fitted baby crib sheet
  • Have a bare crib without any bumpers, toys, pillows, or blankets
  • Avoid exposure to smoke, drugs, and alcohol

Check out this useful new-mom infographic from American Baby, in partnership with Safe Kids Worldwide to make sure your baby is sleeping safely.

Ways to reduce the risk of SIDS in baby sleeping Infographic

There are a few other recommendations, including offering a pacifier at nap and bedtime and making sure babies get all their vaccinations.

These recommendations greatly reduce babies’ risk of SIDS. Room sharing ALONE reduces the risk of SIDS by up to 50%, according to the AAP.

Making Safe Sleep Guidelines Work

The thing about safe sleep guidelines is that they wrongly assume that parents will be in the position to follow them all the time. Even when we try our best, sometimes things come up. You might find yourself falling asleep breastfeeding your newborn or wonder how to keep your baby warm without a blanket during the winter.

Pediatricians and other experts should be open to answering these kinds of questions without judgement, so parents can learn the safest ways to handle these types of scenarios.

For example, the AAP suggests moving to a bare bed instead of a couch if you think you might fall asleep feeding your baby and to place the baby in their crib as soon as you wake up. Also, sleep sacks and/or layered pajamas are acceptable alternatives to blankets when its cold (just make sure your baby is dressed appropriately since overheating can be dangerous).

Troubleshooting Baby Sleep Issues

Getting sleep as a parent is super important, whether you just had your first baby or you’re on your second or third one. You need plenty of rest and sleep to keep up with the needs of your growing family! Struggling to get baby to sleep on a regular basis can be problematic for several reasons.

A study by Cook et al. (2012) said, “Infant crying and sleep problems (e.g. frequent night waking, difficulties settling to sleep) each affect up to 30% of infants and often co-exist. They are … associated with adverse outcomes including postnatal depression symptoms, early weaning from breast milk, and later child behavior problems.” Solving sleep problems early can help parents avoid these outcomes.

Here are three common baby sleep issues and easy, actionable tips to help parents fix them:

Frequent Night Waking

If frequent night waking is becoming a problem for your baby and keeping you up at night, it’s important to address it before things get worse. If your bedtime routine just isn’t working and baby just isn’t staying asleep at night, you might want to consider sleep training.

A 2018 study by Korownyk and Lindblad found that “Sleep training improves infant sleep problems, with about 1 in 4 to 1 in 10 benefiting compared with no sleep training, with no adverse effects reported after 5 years.” Improved sleep for babies also means better outcomes for parents when it comes to their mental and physical health.

Sleep training gets a bad reputation because of the “Cry It Out” method, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Parents who use this technique are still there to reassure their babies, and do not let them cry all night. There are also gentler methods of sleep training, including Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t jump up the second you hear your baby make a sound or you risk waking them up unnecessarily. Babies often wake up in between sleep cycles, which last about 30-50 minutes, and often settle back to sleep themselves if you let them.

Difficulties Settling to Sleep

Several things can make it difficult for your baby to settle to sleep, including being hungry or overtired. If you know all your baby’s needs are met and they still always struggle to get to sleep it can be tough. One solution that helps a lot of babies with this issue is learning to self-sooth.

The best way to teach a baby to self-sooth is by laying them down drowsy but awake. An example of this would be rocking your baby until you notice their eyelids getting heavy, then putting the baby in the crib. The idea is that they fall asleep in the crib, not on you. This way, babies learn to sleep independently.

Forming Sleep ‘Crutches’

If parents don’t teach their babies to sleep independently from an early age, their babies often form sleep ‘crutches’. This is when babies associate certain things with sleep, like falling asleep while breast or bottle feeding, getting rocked to sleep, or the infamous needing a car ride to fall asleep.

If your baby has one or all these sleep crutches, it’s not too late to make a change. The key to breaking these associations is to form positive new ones. For example, instead of rocking baby to sleep you might place them in their crib and gently pat their back until they fall asleep. Each time you try to pat their back less and less, until eventually you can just put them down to fall asleep on their own.

Breaking unwanted sleep habits and encouraging babies to enjoy sleeping in their crib is a great way to improve baby sleep. Babies with the skills to settle without falling asleep in someone’s arms often fall asleep easier, sleep longer, and don’t always need help getting back to sleep if they wake up during the night.

No-Fuss Sleep Tips

1. Balance Sleep and Stimulation During the Day

Most babies are curious; they’re learning about the world every day! Everything is new to babies at first. Part of the fun of being parents is seeing your baby interact with and respond to its surroundings. Play and stimulation are important, so your baby is tired enough to sleep at night or when it’s time to nap.

The thing is, babies also get overstimulated (and overtired). To avoid this, parents must strike a balance between awake and asleep time during the day, so their baby is not super fussy or wired come night time. The best way to do this is to find a technique that works for you, like the 2-3-4 Nap Schedule, and do your best to be consistent.

A lot of parents assume that if their baby misses a nap during the day they will sleep better at night, but this usually isn’t the case.

2. Create an Ideal Sleep Environment

We’ve all seen cute videos of babies falling asleep sitting in high-chairs or bouncers. These things happen sometimes, but it’s usually not that easy. If the TV is blaring, the lights are on, and the rest of your family is having a lively conversation, chances are your baby isn’t going to fall asleep easily.

A few simple things that parents can do to create an ideal sleep environment for their babies are:

  • Dim the lights (to signal the production of melatonin, a hormone that encourages sleep)
  • Maintain a quiet environment with minimal talking
  • Lullabies or white noise to calm and block out other sounds
  • Offer a pacifier
  • Younger babies can be swaddled
  • Make sure that your baby’s room is a comfortable temperature, not too hot or cold

Creating an ideal sleep environment at night time will help your baby to differentiate between night and day, so they will sleep better at night. For naps you can be more relaxed. You may only want to avoid sudden loud noises since babies should be able to fall asleep with some noise and light during the day.

3. Stick to Your Routine (But Be Flexible)

When you have a baby, having a routine in place can really be a lifesaver. This way every day can still be a little different, but the overall expectations are the same. You know what you need to do and when and your baby knows what to expect from you.

If baby gets used to napping and going to bed at the same time every day, there’s less fuss when that time comes around because they’ll already be tired. Of course, things like teething and sickness can send our routines off balance, so it’s important to be flexible and make small adjustments as needed.

Don’t get so caught up in routines that you forget to enjoy precious moments and sneak in as many snuggles with your baby as possible while they’re little!


Sleeping babies might be adorable but the topic of baby sleep itself often is not. Until you find your groove, getting your baby to sleep can be a grueling, frustrating process that makes you want to both cry and pull out your hair simultaneously. Even when you do get the hang of it, there are still hard days.

A visit to the pediatrician can help parents rule out things like allergies, reflux, or sleep apnea as the reason for their baby sleep woes. If you try these tips and baby is still having trouble getting to sleep or staying to sleep, you may want to consider if a medical condition might be the source of the problem.