A newborn sleep schedule - is it needed? Doctors and sleep experts share the facts

Will a newborn sleep schedule work? Let's find out...

Newborn sleep schedule as illustrated by mum watching newborn sleep
(Image credit: Getty images)

A newborn sleep schedule may seem like the 'done thing' these days, but not everyone thinks it's needed. We speak to doctors, sleep experts and parents to find out more for you. 

For new parents, there are so many decisions to make - from the best cot mattress, to deciding bottle, or breast, do baby sleep books work and what exactly are the developmental leaps? There is just so much, please know that you're not alone in trying to figure all of this out. Parenting is a new, exciting, and terrifying adventure. And we're here to help.

Sleep expert and mum-of-two, Sarah Patel tells us; "Sleep itself isn't something we need to teach because it's a behaviour, not a skill. We are all born being able to sleep. However, falling asleep and getting back to sleep are things you can gradually and responsively help babies to do." 

And she's right, sleep plays a vital role in a baby's growth, development, and overall well-being but we're not sure the brand-new little beings need support so early on. In this article, we ask the doctors and baby sleep experts all the questions to explore the importance of a newborn sleep schedule, shed light on baby sleep needs, and share guidance to help you and your baby sleep soundly.

Newborn sleep schedule - is it needed?

While not needed, as such, many experts believe it's best to start a schedule and keep it very flexible in the early months. According to the NHS creating a structured sleep routine for your newborn may help establish healthy habits and promote better sleep for both your baby and you. The term newborn refers to the age range of birth to two months so as of eight weeks old, the baby's internal clock (circadian rhythm) kicks in and they start to recognise the difference between night and day. Until this time expect your newborn to sleep between 14 and 17 hours (give or take) over a 24-hour period. However, while expert opinions differ on the rigidity of a newborn sleep schedule, the consensus is that establishing a consistent sleep routine, even if it's flexible in the early months, can benefit both babies and parents. 

What the experts say

Nanny Sharz, sleep consultant and ambassador for nanny payroll and HR specialists Nannytax tells us; "Sleep training is not something you need to teach a newborn – they spend most days sleeping. I prefer to use sleep conditioning which involves different techniques to create a healthy, peaceful sleep environment for your baby. Things like putting your baby to sleep in a dark room (there should be just enough light for you to see your hands in front of you), using a white noise machine, swaddling, avoiding nursing or feeding to sleep, and establishing a consistent routine. Eventually, your newborn will fall asleep independently and you will be able to place them in their cot without much fuss."

And while Dr. Harvey Karp agrees, he acknowledges that newborns may not follow newborn schedules, he believes that a consistent routine helps signal to babies that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep. When they do sleep, your newborn will sleep for two to three hours at a time, then gradually three to four hours at a stretch. Sleep expert and mum-of-two, Sarah Patel tell us; "For most newborns, it's helpful to act quickly [when you notice sleep signs] because they can become overtired quickly. But as babies get older those first signals may just be an indication that 'I'm starting to get tired but I don't necessarily need to sleep right now'."

Dr Harvey Karp
Dr Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp is a pediatrician and child development expert. He is also the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a parenting solutions company. Dr. Karp is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. His landmark discoveries empower parents and revolutionized the understanding of the needs of young children.

Nanny sharz - woman smiling at camera
Nanny Sharz

Nanny Sharz has 18 years of experience as a childcare expert, nanny, parent coach, sleep consultant and potty training specialist. 

Image of woman holding a cup and smiling at camera
Sarah Patel

Sarah is a certified sleep consultant for babies and young children, she also has a PGCE in Primary Education, a BSC in Cognitive Science, and an MA in Education. Sarah is passionate about empowering and supporting parents to get more sleep without leaving little ones to cry themselves to sleep. 

What a routine for a newborn looks like

Below is an example of timings for a typical sleep schedule for a one-month-old, including morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, early evening, night, and overnight. It is not by any means set in stone but an idea of how a sleep schedule might look:

  • 6:00 am: Wake up and feeding
  • 6:30 am: Playtime and interaction
  • 7:00 am: First nap (around 1-2 hours)
  • 9:00 am: Wake up and feeding
  • 9:30 am: Tummy time and sensory play
  • 10:00 am: Second nap (around 1-2 hours)
  • 12:00 pm: Wake up and feeding
  • 12:30 pm: Walk in pram or gentle rocking
  • 1:00 pm: Third nap (around 1-2 hours)
  • 3:00 pm: Wake up and feeding
  • 3:30 pm: Playtime and social interaction
  • 4:00 pm: Fourth nap (around 30 minutes to 1 hour)
  • 5:30 pm: Wake up and feeding
  • 6:00 pm: Bath time and gentle massage
  • 6:30 pm: Bedtime routine (e.g., lullaby, storytime)
  • 7:00 pm: Bedtime and feeding
  • 7:30 pm: Nighttime sleep (expect frequent wake-ups for feedings)
  • 10:00 pm: Nighttime feeding
  • 12:00 am: Nighttime feeding
  • 3:00 am: Nighttime feeding
  • 5:00 am: Early morning feeding

During the first few months of life, newborns require plenty of sleep to support their rapid brain development and physical growth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), newborns generally need around 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day, spread over several sleep periods. However, it's important to note that every baby is unique, and individual sleep patterns may vary slightly.

Pediatrician and author Dr. Jennifer Shu, tells us, "Newborns are naturally inclined to sleep for short periods of time and wake frequently to eat. As they grow, their sleep patterns gradually change, and they start consolidating sleep into longer stretches." 

Whether it's the EASY baby routine or the Ferber method, there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to a newborn sleep schedule, as your baby grows, you'll become familiar enough with her hunger and sleep cues to develop a feeding and sleep schedule that works for your family.

Newborn sleep schedule illustrated by Baby sleeping

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When can you use newborn schedules?

Between three and six months is when your baby’s bedtime, naptime, and wake times will increasingly happen around the same time each day. Because of this natural routine, you can start to anticipate your baby's natural sleepy times and work toward putting her down while she's drowsy but still awake, teaching her the valuable life skill of how to fall asleep on her own.  Baby sleep training should really only be considered from around the 4-month mark. 

Mum-of-one, Dionne tells us, my newborn slept brilliantly it was when they started becoming more alert to the world that it seemed their sleep fell off a cliff. That was when I looked up sleep training. I needed it, I was a sleep-deprived shadow, I needed more than 20-minute snippets throughout the night."

Tips for how to get a baby on a sleep schedule

  • Consistency is key -  Give your baby a chance to get into the groove of a new routine or idea you want to try. Patience, and consistency for the win. Dr. Alan Greene, emphasizes, "Repetition helps your baby understand that it's time to prepare for sleep." 
  • Keep the environment sleepy - and by that we mean, when your newborn wakes every 2-4 hours keep the room dark, your voice low and calm, with minimum interaction or talking.  Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician, and author, also advises, "Using white noise, swaddling, or a gentle rocking motion can help soothe your baby back to sleep after nighttime feedings." 
  • Naps for the win - Dr Harvey Karp tells us; "Naps are imperative for a child’s growth, development, overall health—and for better nighttime sleep. When your little ones skip a nap, they’re primed to be overtired at bedtime, which triggers a fight-or-flight response that unleashes cortisol, a hormone that keeps babies alert...which is not ideal for sleep. Keep naps to 2 to 2.5 hours tops. I know it sounds totally counterintuitive (they say, “Never wake a sleeping baby!”) but babies only sleep a certain amount in 24 hours and if they sleep too much during the day… guess what happens to the amount of their sleep at night? That means you should wake your little one if they’re still snoozing at the two-hour mark. This’ll help maintain longer stretches of sleep at night."
  • Be flexible - Mum-of-two, Lucy tells us flexibility was the game changer for her; "I was so het up with sleep schedules and sticking to them religiously when they're a helpful guide. The real master is the baby, they know themselves, watch them and take their lead."
  • Watch for sleep cues - Dr. Mitchell recommends paying attention to a baby's sleep cues, such as staying still, staring into space, yawning, and rubbing their eyes, to identify when they are ready for sleep.
  • Trust your baby - Give them time and a chance to fall back to sleep, if they're not crying for you but babbling to themselves, leave them be. Chances are they're self-soothing with that babble.
  • Newborn bedtime routine -  A soothing bedtime routine for newborns with calming activities, such as a warm bath, gentle massage, or lullabies, signals to babies that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Dr. Karp's "5 S's" technique, which includes swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing sounds, swinging, and sucking, is known to be effective in soothing newborns and promoting better sleep. 

While it may take time for your baby to adjust, consistency is key. Dad-of-three, Lee tells us; "We learned by our second to give things longer than two days, and it really did make a difference. We would agree to 10 days minimum if we decided to try a different strategy." 

Always check with your GP, Health Visitor or NHS about when it's okay to let your baby consistently sleep for four or more hours at a time, as they need feeding throughout the night to keep hydrated.

There's so much to know and learn about baby sleep, and we have you covered from sleep regression ages, to expert-approved baby sleep books and which baby sleep training to try; Ferber method, controlled crying, or maybe neither. Oh, and remember to check out the best baby sleep aides too - they're a God send.

Video of the week: 

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.