Baby sleep tips: A guide for the science-minded parent

Baby sleep tips and topics:

A guide for the science-minded parent

© 2008-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

New parents often hear conflicting advice about sleep. Which baby sleep tips are based on scientific evidence? In these pages, you'll find information based on the latest research in sleep physiology, pediatrics, and anthropology.

For instance, you'll find an evidence-based baby sleep chart, and a critical look at baby sleep requirements. Parents should be wary of one-size-fits all recommendations. When it comes to total sleep duration, babies vary a great deal. One healthy newborn might sleep as little as 9 hours a day. Another might sleep as much as 20 hours. By the age of 12 months, the differences are less extreme, but still substantial: Healthy babies range between 10 and 16 hours (Galland et al 2012).

Here you'll also find articles about sleep patterns in newborns and older babies, including information about sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, cross-cultural sleep practices, and more.

In addition, there are articles on the science of SIDS, SIDS prevention strategies, and the safety of bed sharing, as well as

If you're looking for information about sleep in older children, see my evidence-based guide to family sleep topics.

Like other offerings at, these articles include full scientific references--so you can evaluate the evidence for yourself, and make an informed decision about what is best for you and your family.

More detailed information about these articles is provided below.

How babies sleep: A survival guide for tired parents

Looking to improve your family’s sleep life? An excellent first step is to get familiar with the science of baby sleep.

Once you understand how, why, and when babies sleep, it will be easier for you to decide on the best sleep strategies for your family. And—while it’s a cliché—I think it’s true for most people that understanding brings peace of mind.

If you have a new baby, check out my article on newborn sleep. It explains why newborn sleep seems out-of-sync with the 24-hour day, and offers baby sleep tips for helping your newborn develop her own circadian rhythms.

It also reviews baby sleep cycles, which are key for understanding why newborns are so easily aroused from sleep. The article includes baby sleep tips for avoiding unnecessary night awakenings and tips for improving your own sleep during the newborn period.

In addition, you should check out my article baby sleep patterns. There you will find information on reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

After the newborn period

If your baby is already over 4 weeks old, you might prefer to skip ahead to my article on baby sleep patterns. This article explains how baby circadian rhythms and sleep cycles mature over time, and reviews the environmental risk factors for SIDS. It covers how parenting styles, developmental milestones and medical conditions that can affect baby sleep. And the article also reviews two ideas promoted by many Western medical professionals—that babies should “sleep through the night" and that babies should learn to “self-soothe." Are these achievements necessary—or even realistic? The evidence suggests they may not be.

How many hours of sleep does your baby need?

To my surprise, I’ve learned that there isn’t any straightforward, scientific answer to this question. Those authoritative-looking sleep charts you see everywhere are based on scientific guesswork, and they do a poor job of conveying how much variation there is among individuals. To learn more about estimating your baby’s sleep needs, see my articles on baby sleep requirements and the signs of sleep deprivation.

Tips for identifying and treating sleep problems

Some babies suffer from medical conditions that disturb their sleep. If your baby seems to be having trouble falling asleep—or staying asleep—it is prudent to have him checked for one of these medical conditions. For more details, see this article on the organic causes of baby sleep disturbances.

However, Western sleep researchers report that most ongoing baby sleep problems are not caused by underlying medical conditions. Instead, they are caused by environmental factors—-and these are factors you have the power to change.

In my “troubleshooting" article, I review science-based baby sleep tips for the most common causes of infant sleep problems. I also discuss the controversy about leaving babies alone to "cry it out," and review what sleep training programs may be safe and appropriate for babies under the age of 12 months.

But does your baby really have a sleep problem? Perhaps everything is going reasonably well, except that you are worried that your baby is sleeping too little--or too much. If this is your concern, check out my article on baby sleep requirements.

Baby sleep solutions

For more baby sleep tips, see this review of infant sleep aids. In addition, see my article on infant sleep training. It reviews two scientifically-tested sleep training programs appropriate for babies over 6 months old.

References: Baby sleep tips

Galland BC, Taylor BJ, elder DE, and Herbison P. 2012. Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: A systematic review of observational studies. Sleep Medicine Reviews 16: 213-222.

Wooding AR, Boyd J, and Geddis DP. 1990. Sleep patterns of New Zealand infants during the first 12 months of life. Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health 26: 85-88.

Content last modified 2/14

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