Understanding Low Sleep Needs Babies: How to Navigate and Support Your Wakeful Child

by LukeAdmin

By Harriet Blannin–Ferguson, Midwife, Child and Family Health Graduate

As a new parent it is really easy to compare your baby and their sleep to your friends baby. We all have that friend, the one with a baby that sleeps for long periods in the day, and through the night from a young age. But here’s the thing – children have different sleep needs.

And for the majority of us, we have babies with average to low sleep needs children. High sleep needs babies do exist, and the methods parents choose are likely to be successful and their child will happily take sleep. But for the rest of us with average to low sleep needs babies we can get caught in a trap of trying to force our wakeful baby to have more sleep than they need and subsequently be up all night with a restless, wakeful baby.

What does ‘low sleep needs’ mean?
An infant with lower sleep needs will have a daily sleep requirement that is lower than the ‘average’ child. Studies have now shown us that there are some children who naturally sit on the lower end of sleep needs. These children will have between 2 – 4 hours less sleep than the “average” amount child and it varies depending on your child’s age.The children that sit on this lower end of the scale are still considered “normal” within the ranges of infant sleep needs.

Some signs that your child may have lower sleep needs include:

  • Generally happy and content with less sleep
  • A baby that drops day naps earlier than the recommended averages
  • Catnapping, and happy to do so!
  • When their naps and bedtime are varied or late it does not seem to impact their overall sleep in a negative way
  • Rarely show many sleep cues
  • Easily woken in the morning or from a nap
  • Early rising in the morning (for example, before 6:00am or less than 11 hours of night sleep) and content with these early wakes
  • Extended or frequent night wakes where your child is happy or quiet and content (these can also called ‘split nights’ which can be developmentally normal for periods of time).

Does my child have low sleep needs?
Infants and young children who sit on the lower end of the sleep requirements tend to have awake windows that are longer than average and cope perfectly fine with these longer wake times. Families with low sleep needs children notice they rarely get fussy before recommended sleep times and sleep well despite the extended awake time and less overall sleep total.
Children with lower sleep needs may also:

  • Need less than the standard 11–12 hours of sleep at night
  • Happily cat nap despite longer awake periods
  • “Fight naps and bedtime”, take longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep if following prescribed sleep timings
  • Generally display “difficult” sleep habits (this is usually due to parents trying to get them to sleep more than they need to!)
  • Parents of low sleep needs babies describe their children as ‘bad’ sleepers or that baby protests or cries around sleep times.

Low sleep needs or do they actually need more sleep?
As a general rule, “low sleep needs” children appear content with their minimal sleep totals. But if your child is having less than average sleep and displaying signs listed below, there is a possibility that they could benefit from being offered more sleep than they’re taking.

Signs that your child may not be sleeping enough include:

  • Decreased interest in people or their environment
  • Lots of yawning, ear pulling, and eye rubbing
  • Red eyebrows or ‘bags’ under their eyes
  • Night wakes with crying, sometimes “false starts” to the night sleep can possibly be due to this if it is within 4 hours of bedtime
  • Waking crying from cat naps
  • Unhappy with early rising
  • Lower frustration or pain threshold
  • Frequent outburst or tantrums
  • Hyperactivity due to increased cortisol and adrenaline
  • Falling asleep anytime they are in motion
  • Night terrors in toddlerhood or babies that frequently sleep–cry. In this instance, parents are encouraged to experiment with some trial and error to determine what they think their baby’s total sleep needs are.

Looks like you have a low sleep needs baby – now what?
The hardest part of dealing with a wakeful baby is not understanding the variability of infant sleep needs. Once we can acknowledge this variability we can accept the unique sleep needs for our unique baby.This part of parenthood is not in your control, you cannot force a wakeful baby to sleep. If you do successfully lull a low sleep need baby into an unnecessary day sleep, they will likely create more awake periods in the night time. It is important to note that having lower sleep needs will not affect your child’s development; they are simply taking the sleep they need and no extra. There are some positives that come with lower sleep needs as these babies handle variability in routine with greater ease. Variable bedtimes, missed or late naps, and frequent catnaps don’t tend to phase them.

Equally, having a lower sleep needs child comes with challenges. Finding the right timing of their sleep without strong sleep cues to guide you can be frustrating. And the standard sleep guidelines you see in mainstream sleep advice does not cater to your child and that can really diminish your confidence as a parent who is trying to help your wakeful baby sleep more. It is normal for families to compare to other babies that nap longer or sleep longer or later in the morning.

Finding support through like minded friends or other parents who can listen, voicing your challenges and concerns, as a parent with a wakeful baby, can be healing and make you not feel so alone. Seeking health professionals who understand your situation can be incredibly helpful to piece together your baby’s overall sleep needs and create a strategy to make your days manageable and push the majority of your baby’s sleep needs in alignment with your night sleep. Know that there is support out there that caters to unique temperaments and variable sleep needs to help you in this season of parenthood.

Harriet is a mother to three little boys, a Registered Midwife with a Graduate Certificate in Child and Family Health and on her pathway to sitting the IBCLC exam in 2023. Harriet has been in the world of midwifery for the past 12 years and loves to offer her knowledge and wisdom on all things pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and early parenting. She loves providing in home consultations to the families across the Central Coast, and in clinic appointments at Motherhood Matters in Sydney. www.thebreasthelp.com.au

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