Because the nervous system of newborns is immature, newborns sleep a great deal, but only for an hour or two at a time, independent of day or night. By 4 to 6 weeks of age, many infants are on a cycle of waking for 4 hours and sleeping for 4 hours. Only by 2 to 3 months of age are infants capable of adopting a pattern of nighttime sleeping. By 1 year of age, most infants sleep 8 to 9 hours continuously through the night.
Parents can assist infants to sleep at night by handling and stimulating the child less in the late evening and keeping the child's room dark at night, which is important in the development of normal vision. Infants should be encouraged at an early age to fall asleep on their own and not in a parent's arms. In this way, they will be able to quiet themselves when they wake in the middle of the night.
To minimize the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS—see Miscellaneous Disorders in Infants and Young Children: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)), infants should sleep on their back, rather than on their stomach. This recommendation has helped reduce the incidence of SIDS in recent years. Also, infants should not sleep with soft pillows, toys, or heavy blankets, which may obstruct their breathing. Putting an infant to bed with a pacifier also helps prevent SIDS (breastfed infants should be at least 1 month old or accustomed to breastfeeding before given a pacifier).
Last full review/revision November 2006 by Ruth A. Lawrence, MD