Sleep and settling: a guide for new parents

Guide your little one to good sleep habits with these expert tips.

Enter any gathering of new parents and, before long, the conversation turns to sleep and settling. Everyone compares and shares tales of joy and woe. Some babies will be sleeping well, others will not. 

If your baby’s in the no-sleep camp, you’re likely feeling frustrated, exhausted and possibly at the end of your rope. Which is totally normal, by the way - as is your baby's sleeping behaviour. Understanding your baby’s sleep needs and adjusting your expectations might help alleviate what you’re feeling.

Here we break it down. 


A sleeping baby

How much sleep do babies need?

Babies and toddlers need sleep for their health and immunity, as well as for physical and mental development. But try telling them that, especially in the early days. 

Most newborns can’t differentiate between night and day until around three months. During this time, they alternate between active and quiet sleep cycles lasting 30-50 minutes. During active sleep, babies may jerk, twitch or suck. During quiet sleep, they’re still and breathing deeply. They’ll usually wake after a sleep cycle and need resettling.

Up to three months, babies sleep around 16-20 hours in a 24-hour period and wake every two to four hours to be fed.

Between three and six months, these patterns start to change: the average baby will sleep between 10 and 18 hours a day, usually nap three times a day and still wake for night feeds.

Things remain much the same between six and 12 months, although the amount of sleep they need averages about 14 hours a day.

It’s good to remember that consistent sleep patterns generally develop in the first 12 to 18 months, but it can take longer if you’re using sleep aids. Sickness, developmental milestones and teething can also disrupt sleep.

The baby who doesn’t sleep well

If your baby isn’t sleeping anywhere near the recommended amount of time, it can be problematic. A sleep-deprived baby can be irritable, emotional and harder to settle for their next sleep. They’ll likely have a reduced appetite and focus.

Clearly, your baby’s lack of sleep will impact yours, so you can feel foggy, stressed and struggle to concentrate. In our quest for sleep, however, we can unintentionally create ‘sleep associations’, such as a reliance on dummies, or being fed to sleep. If these become difficult to change, chat to a child-health nurse for support and advice. 

Set realistic expectations 

As new parents, we expect our lives will mimic those wonderful happy baby advertisements, or the stories ‘supermums’ tell about their babies who sleep through the night from three months. When things aren’t that way, we often struggle.

Rather than place exceptional expectations on ourselves and our babies, we need to be realistic and kinder to ourselves. Take one feed, play, sleep cycle at a time and remember that the first half of the day is usually easier to manage, as babies are often overtired and more difficult to settle in the afternoon and evening.

In difficult times, give yourself a break or go for a walk with the pram just to get outside.

Tips on baby sleep 

Here are some more tips that may help you settle your baby at every age.

Newborns to six months

  • Check your baby’s comfortable and not too hot or cold before sleep. Change their nappy and feed them if hungry.
  • In the early weeks, cherish those cuddles by holding your baby in your arms until they fall asleep.
  • Use gentle rhythmic patting, rocking, stroking, talking or soft singing before putting your baby into the cot asleep. These repetitions signal relaxation and sleep.

Between three and six months

  • Start your baby’s sleep routine with a relaxing massage, bath or a change of scenery, such as going for a walk.
  • When it’s time to put your baby to sleep, use repetitive, slow, rocking and rhythmical movement.

Around six to 12 months

  • Encourage your baby to calm down by cuddling them and talking quietly.
  • When they’re calm and drowsy, place them on their back in the cot, comforting them with gentle ‘ssshhh’ sounds, gentle rhythmic patting, rocking or stroking.
  • As your baby calms or falls asleep, move away from the cot or leave the room.
  • If your baby starts to become distressed, return and comfort them again before moving away or leaving the room. Some babies may need you to stay until they’re sleeping.

From one to three years 

  • Talk quietly to your child and reassure them that “It’s time for sleep”, before positioning them on their back in their cot or bed awake.
  • If you’ve tried putting your child to bed but they remain distressed, pick them up and cuddle them. Check their nappy and reattempt to settle them. If they still don’t respond, try cuddling them again.
  • Another idea is to give your child a cup of water and remain in the room until they fall asleep. 
  • The time to settle your child will decrease as they learn to self-settle.

When to ask for help

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do or try, your baby still struggles to sleep and settle. Consequently, you may struggle, too. There are always good and not-so-good days. When the not-so-good days outweigh the good, it’s time to reach out for help.

Getting help will strengthen your emotional and physical health, as well as your confidence and existing abilities as a parent. 

Where to get help

Group information sessions held during the day by your local council or child and family health service are a great way to get advice and help. When your child’s sleeping issues begin to impact the family, however, it could be time to consider a residential early parenting centre (sometimes referred to as “sleep school”), where you can stay for four days.

Phone support is also available. Medibank’s Baby Sleep Support line, delivered by Tresillian’s specialist child and family health nurses, is there seven days a week to provide you with practical advice and evidence-based strategies to help you settle your baby or toddler. Nurses will address your immediate concerns and offer practical advice. If you need more support, we can offer you an individualised, comprehensive sleep and settling plan with follow-up telehealth coaching calls.

Time can do funny things when you're raising a baby: some days seem to fly by, some seem to crawl by! So while it might seem like the total opposite, this period is just for a short while and it won't be too long before you join the ranks of parents saying, "They don't stay babies for long!" In the meantime, understanding the investment you're making in helping your baby's brain grow strong and stay strong can make all the difference.

Need a little extra support?

Sleep and settling

Our sleep and settling support line, delivered by Tresillian’s specialist nurses, is here to help eligible members with hospital cover, at no extra cost on 1800 973 573.

Medibank Mental Health Phone Support

Members with Hospital cover can talk with a mental health professional over the phone in relation to any mental health or emotional concern, 24 hours a day 7 days a week by calling 1800 644 325.~

Health Concierge

Eligible members with hospital cover can now talk to a member of our Health Concierge team for advice on how to have a healthy pregnancy, at no extra cost on 1800 789 414.#

Looking for something else?

Visit Medibank Planning, Pregnancy and Parenting for a range of tools and advice to help you at every stage of your pregnancy journey.

Help the way you want it

Contact us 

Call us on 134 190 to speak to a consultant. Alternatively, chat to us 24/7 online.

Self-service options

Login to MyMedibank or Download the MyMedibank App for self service options.

Find a specialist

Find a specialist or Member's choice hospital using our find a provider tool.  

Things you should know

~ OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

∓ The Medibank sleep support line is available to eligible members with Bronze hospital cover and above. Excludes Overseas Visitor Health Cover, Working Visa Health Cover and Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC). Waiting periods may apply. Some referred services may involve out of pocket costs.

# Health Concierge is available to all eligible Medibank members who hold hospital cover. Excludes Overseas Visitor Health Cover, Working Visa Health Cover and Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC). Some referred services may involve out of pocket costs.

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).