How much sleep is ‘enough’?

My child only seems to have cat naps and short stretches of sleep through the night. I’m worried that they aren’t getting as much sleep as is recommended, and that this will impact their healthy growth and development. How much sleep is “enough”?

One of the ways sleep training culture works to undermine parent’s confidence, is by scaring them into thinking that normal infant sleep behaviours are signs of chronic sleep deprivation. However babies have very different sleep patterns to adults, with a much shorter sleep cycle. An adult sleep cycle of 90-120 mins takes up to 5 years to establish, and at age 3, a normal sleep cycle for a child is 60 mins. In babies, a normal sleep cycle is 20-40 mins.

This is often referred to as a "catnapping” and claims are made that such short naps will not allow baby to get sufficient sleep, and will result in chronic overtiredness. But since a baby’s natural sleep cycle is 20-40 mins, how can napping for 20-40 mins at a time be a problem?

What’s important to look at is overall sleep quantity, sleep quality (e.g. do they wake rested and happy or do they wake tired and groggy, and underlying health issues e.g. snoring, mouth breathing, reflux)

The same applies to night sleeping.

The length of a sleep cycle doesn’t change simply because it is dark outside. Many babies will wake every sleep cycle. And whilst that might be a recipe for sleep deprivation for the parents, it is not a problem for the baby.

Just like with adults every child has different sleep needs. So whilst the recommended amount of sleep for their age might be 19/24 hrs, some children will thrive on 16, or even less. When you see information claiming that an X month old baby needs Y hours of sleep keep in mind that those are averages. Just like with growth charts, and average is simply the mid point of a bell curve.

So rather than focusing on how many hours sleep they get, or if they nap for multiple sleep cycles, ask yourself if they wake seeming happy and well rested?

If the answer is yes, trust them. Trust that their body is telling them what they need, and they are meeting it.

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If the answer is no, then the first step should always be looking for underlying reasons. Then look at what you can do to ensure that your child gets the most sleep. Contrary to popular belief sleep training doesn’t equal more sleep, either immediately or in the long term. In fact in the short term it is likely that sleep training will equal less sleep for your little one, as the fastest methods of getting them back to sleep are taken off the table and replaced with methods that see them work themselves up into crying jags they then have to be calmed from.

So wear them, contact nap, feed to sleep, rock, sway - whatever gets them to sleep / back to sleep the fastest is the best choice to avoid a sleep deprived child.

As for your sleep if you have a baby who’s waking every sleep cycle overnight, the best possible way you can maximise sleep is by bed sharing and learning to breastfeed side-lying. It takes a bit of practice, but once you master it baby stirs, baby latches, baby goes back to sleep, and you don’t even necessarily notice. (Also breastsleeping means that mum and baby synchronise their sleep/wake cycles, so you feel less drained as you aren’t jolted awake in the middle of non-REM sleep)

If you don’t breastfeed, or bedshare, look at what you can do to maximise your sleep in other ways. Go to bed earlier. Teach yourself to nap during the day, meditate. If you have a partner, take shifts in a spare room or with earplugs. Work out other times to have couple time/”me time” so that you can go to bed early, then one person goes to bed at 7 and sleeps till 12, the other sleeps from 12-6. That way you both get a solid block of 5-6 hours sleep, (plus dozing for the other half of the night,) rather than both of you being woken every 20-60 mins all night.