Category Archives: Child sleep needs

Avoiding the perils of an overtired baby

sleepy babyWhen you are a new parent, there are so many things that are new and different then your life was before becoming a parent.  One thing that is very shocking to new parents is how much sleep your child actually needs.  It is also surprising how frequently they need to go to sleep.  When babies become overtired, their brains begin to produce cortisol, which acts as a stimulant in their bodies and actually inhibits sleep.  If you have a newborn, you are probably have already experienced the dreaded “witching hour.” This is often a product of being extra hungry as the day wears on (hopefully storing up on feedings for a longer stretch of sleep at night) and overtiredness creating the perfect storm of crying and hysterics (among both parents and children alike).

Children typically become overtired when they are awake for too long.  Sometimes it can be hard to know what too long really is.  Here is a chart that can be helpful at determining how long your child can be awake before becoming overtired:

0-5 mos 6-8 mos 9-12 mos 12-28 mos 2-4 yrs
Wakefulness window 1-2hrs 1.5-3hrs 2-4hrs 4-6 hrs 5/6-12hrs
Number of naps 4-5/day 3/day 2/day 1-2/day 1 nap/QT
Total daytime sleep Varies 3-3.5hrs 2.5-3hrs 2.25-2.5 hrs 0-2hrs

The other way to know when your child is becoming overtired is by watching their sleepy cues.  Sometimes these are things that are very obvious like eye rubbing, yawning or even ear rubbing (commonly mistaken as a sign of teething or an ear infection).  Other times, sleepy cues can be more subtle like slowing down of play, vocalizing less or when your child is making less eye contact.  Fussiness, crabbiness, irritability or your ability to do anything to make your child happy (as is the case with toddlers) is often a sign that you have missed that window and your child is now overtired.

So you may be wondering why that wakeful window is important or “won’t my child eventually go to sleep even if she is overtired?”  Yes, children will eventually fall asleep, even when overtired, but it often takes longer for them to settle and there is much more crying involved.  In general, it is much harder for children to fall asleep when overtired and they will actually “fight” sleep at this point.  Being overtired for naps leads to shorter naps because when your child is overtired at the beginning of the nap, it makes it harder for her to get through the sleep cycles and stay asleep for her naps.

Trying to figure out when to put your child down for naps and bedtime can often feel like a moving target in the beginning.  As your baby moves towards 4-6 months of age, it can become easier to decipher what he or she is telling you about when it is time to go to sleep.   In the meantime, take heart.  Figuring this out isn’t as easy as it may have once sounded!

How much sleep does your child need?

Girl SleepingParents often ask me how much sleep their child needs, both during the day and at night.  The following is a very detailed list broken down by ages to give you and idea of  how many hours of sleep the AVERAGE child requires at various ages (taken from “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by Dr. Richard Ferber-original edition). Remember, every child is different- some need more or less sleep than others- but variations should not be huge.





1 week 8½ hours 8 hours (4 naps) 16½ hours
1 month 8½ hours 7 hours (3 naps) 15½ hours
3 months 10 hours 5 hours (3 naps) 15 hours
6 months 11 hours 3¼ hours (2-3 naps) 14¼ hours
9 months 11 hours 3 hours (2 naps) 14 hours
12 months 11¼ hours 2½ hours (2 naps) 13¾ hours
18 months 11¼ hours 2¼  hours(1 nap) 13½ hours
2 years 11 hours 2 hours (1 nap) 13 hours
3 years 10½ hours 1½ hours (1 nap) 12 hours
4 years 11½ hours No nap 11½ hours
5 years 11 hours 11 hours
6 years 10¾ hours 10¾ hours
7 years 10½ hours 10½ hours
8 years 10¼ hours 10¼ hours
9 years 10 hours 10 hours
10 years 9¾ hours 9¾ hours
11 years 9½ hours 9½ hours
12 years 9¼ hours 9¼ hours
13 years 9¼ hours 9¼ hours
14 years 9 hours 9 hours
15 years 8¾ hours 8¾ hours
16 years 8½ hours 8½ hours
17 years 8¼ hours 8¼ hours
18 years 8¼ hours 8¼ hours

Remember, most children need A LOT of sleep! Many parents think that if their child refuses to
go to bed before 11pm that they “just don’t need a lot of sleep”. In fact, that child may actually be
Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your child fall asleep almost every time he/she is in the car?
  • Do you have to wake your child almost every morning?
  • Does your child seem cranky, irritable or overtired during the day?
  • On some nights, does your child seem to crash much earlier than his usual bedtime?
  • Does your child often wake for the day before 6:00a.m.?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions your child may not be getting enough sleep.  It is more important to focus on your child’s behavior than the actual number of hours of sleep. “In general, the more children sleep at night, the better behaved they will be” says Dr. Weissbluth.
How true that is!
The right AMOUNT and QUALITY of sleep effect our children’s:

  • attention spans
  • adaptability
  • irritability
  • ability to play independently
  • ability to take in fully and learn from their environment

Adapted from Kim West, LCSW-C, LLC, The Sleep Lady ®