What Are Realistic Expectations for Baby Sleep? EP 25

Are you crushing the nap schedule or is the nap schedule crushing you? Do you have the right bedtime? Does your child get the sleep they need? Many (and I do mean many) parents are getting hung up on concerns about how their child is sleeping when really the problem is the gap between reality and their expectation for what should be happening. If you don’t know what realistic expectations are, it’s hard to know how well sleep is (or isn’t) going. And answering the “what is realistic” question is harder than you think.

This podcast episode will cover why realistic expectations are so challenging, what science and experience suggests are grounded expectations for the first year, and parameters to know if you and your child are on the right track. Full details are available in the episode with summary show notes are below.

Where Do Sleep Expectations for Kids Come From?

The shorter list is, where don’t they come from. Ask 3 people what normal sleep looks like and you’ll get 3 different answers. Some books suggest that your newborn should be sleeping 12 hours by 12 weeks. Others would tell you that waking to eat 3X a night by their 3rd birthday is a non-issue. Poke around well-intentioned comments in online communities and you’ll find unicorn babies sleeping 16 hours a day along with more challenging babies waking 8X a night and the casual reader has no good cues to understand which is a realistic guidepost for their child.

Why Are Solid Guidepost So Challenging?

Accurate and consistent guidelines for babies and toddlers and sleep are challenging for three key reasons:

  1. Many expectations for baby sleep are based on old understandings/books on baby sleep. Our understanding of how sleep works and what normal looks like have evolved.
  2. The normal range of sleep for most ages is +/- 3 hours. This is huge!
  3. Certain developmental issues (the maturation of the circadian rhythm, consolidated naps) take time and some babies will achieve them sooner than others.

A few readers have shared feedback on the book,“I wish it had more schedules/charts” but these are the reasons why concrete schedules/charts are a challenge. There is a wide range of normal!

What About The Sleep Through the Night Guidepost

One of the biggest guideposts parents are interest in is, “When will my child sleep through the night?” And to be clear there are a million things that can work against your child sleeping through the night. The lack of independent sleep is clearly the biggie. But if you establish independent sleep and gradually night wean (as outlined in the book), it is realistic for most kids to be reliably sleeping through then night by 6-9 months. And by STTN I mean sleeping solidly until a ~5 am snoozebutton wakeup.

Normal Sleep by Age

0-3 months – total crapshoot

3 – 6 months

  • Less chaotic but naps still short/variable
  • Consistent bedtime
  • 0-2 feedings per night (sometimes 3)
  • Night typically 11 hours but can be as short as 9 or as long as 13

6-12 months

  • Naps more predictable
  • Consistent bedtime and morning wake time
  • Full night weaning (except for an early am snoozebutton) is possible here if you choose to do so
  • Move towards a more BTC approach happens organically during this time

And know that no matter what you do there will be bad days or even bad weeks. Short naps and mysterious night wakings will plague even the most diligent parent. It will feel very uncomfortable when this happens. You might have a mini freakout, “I have done all the right things, why is this happening!” Resist the urge. A few rough nights or short nap days may mean nothing. It may mean that babies are variable and these things happen. It’s uncomfortable and unenjoyable. Sometimes parenting is like that.

As always you can listen to the podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast aggregator. If you have any suggestions/questions for the podcast feel free to email me at And warm reviews are always welcome!


Pacifiers, Sleep, & Breastfeeding

Pacifiers, Sleep, & Breastfeeding • The Baby Sleep Geek


Too Young to Cry it Out?

I originally wrote this post in 2011. Suffice it to say my thinking on the subject has changed radically. I know more today than I did then. One thing I know is that the term cry it out is terrible, pejorative, and vague. But I’m leaving it here because people find this article Googling the term so its a helpful marker for searching parents. 

At it’s most basic, cry it out is one approach to achieve independent sleep. Leaning to fall asleep independently is foundational to good sleep. You can put off independent sleep, or convince yourself that the root issue is teething or a growth spurt, but at the end of the day this is the bridge that all families need to cross. 

It is the tool of last resort. Nobody comes home from the hospital with their precious new baby thinking, “A year from now we’re going to let you cry and we’ll all feel terrible about it. Welcome home baby!” They try lots of other approaches and many will find success with those other approaches! And some won’t and they’ll eventually get ground down into a sleep-deprived pulp before settling on cry it out as a sleep strategy.

Which begs the question, is there such a thing as too young to cry it out?

Right Tool for the Job

Newborns are generally crappy sleepers for three primary reasons.

  1. They are highly disregulated which means they cry a lot, are noisy, grunty, and gassy when they do sleep. And they generally need immense amounts of soothing to successfully fall and stay asleep.
  2. Newborns do not have a fully developed circadian rhythm so they essentially nap around the clock. Thus it is normal and developmentally appropriate for your newborn to be awake for 2 hours during the middle of the night then take a 4 hour nap in the middle of the day.
  3. Newborns eat frequently and are often messy so feedings may entail pooping, spitting up, full pajama changes, etc. Thus middle of the night feedings can become a long and messy process leaving everybody wide awake and unhappy about it.

Independent sleep does not solve these issues.

Let me repeat that because you’re tired and probably scanning this on your phone at 4 am.

Independent sleep does not solve these issues.

Thus if you’re looking at your 2 month old thinking that sleep training is the solution to your non-sleeping woes the answer is generally, no. Time, soothing, and often taking turns with your partner at 2 am is your best path forward.

What Does Too Young Mean?

There is a pervasive belief that there is an age at which children are developmentally incapable of falling asleep without parental assistance. And anyone attempting independent sleep prior to this magical age is a parental monstrosity. But experience suggests some very young babies are capable of falling asleep entirely on their own. Those of you who spend hours a day nursing, rocking, feeding, bouncing, or shushing kiddos who resolutely will not sleep without this are likely giving me the digital side-eye right now.

The short answer is, there is no exact age at which we know for sure babies are capable of falling asleep independently. But overwhelming experience suggests that a) it’s fairly young and b) it’s generally much sooner than we think. Which begs the question…

When Should You Teach Your Child Independent Sleep?

But the answer to when is, “As soon as you reasonably can.” Ideally you establish independent sleep before it’s a problem – so around 3-4 months of age. There are multiple approaches to independent sleep that can work particularly well for younger babies (I wrote a whole book about them) and I highly recommend experimenting with some gradual tactics. It’s never easy but it definitely doesn’t get easier as they get older.

Whenever your child falls asleep a certain way you are teaching them this is how we sleep. The more you do it one way the deeper that groove becomes. Does this mean you need to make independent sleep a top priority the second you come home with your newborn infant? Of course not! But generally earlier is better. You have more tools, more tactics, and the flexibility to experiment with different approaches without courting the ire of the Goddess of Consistency.

But … Tears?

Possibly. Babies, especially younger babies, cry a lot and getting them to do anything (diaper change, into car seats, etc.) without any tears can be a challenge. They may cry while you are actively working to soothe them to sleep. They may need to blow off some steam in order to fall asleep at all. So it’s very likely that there will be some tears involved with helping your younger baby fall asleep no matter what you do.

The answer to when for tears as a committed approach to independent sleep at bedtime is highly variable. The real answer is, “I trust you to make the right decision for your family.” Generally this happens when all other attempts have failed and sleep is an utter disaster, so commonly around 6 months. I don’t say this as a hard line, however, but more of a general guideline for consideration. For some it might be closer to 4 months. For others, far later. And for some the answer is “it won’t matter because you’ll find success with a different path.”

All Roads Lead to Rome

Fostering healthy sleep for our children means establishing independent sleep. There are many paths to achieving independent sleep and it can happen when kids are younger or older. But, unlike the eating last hot dog at the mini mart, you can’t skip this.

If your child, at any age, is not sleeping check out the book, identify what’s working for you (schedule, positive sleep associations, etc.) and what isn’t. Formulate a plan to set your kiddo up for success. Consider joining the Facebook group for troubleshooting and support. Maybe cry it out is the answer and maybe it isn’t. But this is your best path to set yourself up for success. And know that whatever you decide to do, I’m rooting for you.