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Become your own sleep consultant! The secrets of a sleep diary

Become your own sleep consultant! The secrets of a sleep diary

Sleep diaries are a really useful tool when it comes to assessing what sleep looks like for a little one.

It’s also one of the first things I work through with my clients! Usually, families I work with complete a 3 to 5-day sleep diary, but you can do it for longer if you wish!

You can download a free sleep diary template here to assess your family’s sleep. 

So, I am going to teach you what I Look out for in a sleep diary and how you can interpret the patterns in a sleep diary so you can become your very own sleep consultant.

What you need:

  • Your completed sleep diary

  • A piece of paper and a pen

  • This guide!

Step 1: Developmental Considerations

First, consider what developmental stage your child is in.

It is important to note what developmental stage your little one is at.

  • Crawling,

  • Teething,

  • Fine motor skill development,

  • Babbling,

  • Separation anxiety,

  • Language development

  • Eating more solids.

  • Sitting,

  • Walking

  • Starting

Developing brains and bodies can often disrupt sleep due to high levels of brain activity. Understanding this can help us appreciate why we might see wonky sleep situations and mediate our expectations as little ones progress through these stages. These aren’t small things, and it can be a big upheaval!

We need to account for development as it can have a significant impact.

Step 2: Total Sleep

Next, go through your sleep diary day by day and add up how much sleep they have during 24 hours. Remember to include nights and naps!

Write this down for each day.

Using this 24-hour total compare it to the table below to see the average sleep totals for a child of your little one’s age.

Age Day sleep (hours) Naps Night Sleep Total Sleep in 24 hours

0-3 months

Evenly spread across day & night

Varies, even spread

Varies

14-17

3-6 months

4-5 hours

4 naps

9-10

13-15

6-9 months

3-4 hours

3 naps

10-11

12-14

9-16 months

2-3 hours

2 naps

10-11

11-14

16-24 months

2-3 hours

1 nap

10-11

11-14

2-2.5 years

Up to 2 hours

1 nap

10-12t

10-13

2.5-3 years

Up to 2 hours

0-1 nap

10-12

10-13

The age-appropriate sleep averages are simply that; there can be outliers, with some little ones needing more or less sleep than the average. I generally find most children fall within this average range.

Step 3: The Results 

Your child is below the average:

If your child has significantly less sleep than average AND is grumpy, dysregulated, and unhappy during the day, we would want to try to address this by adding sleep to their 24 hours. The action you take here would depend on how much additional sleep they need.

We can do this by:

  • Adding in a short cat nap.

  • Extending their current nap(s)

  • Consider reinstating a nap if you recently dropped one.

  • Moving bedtime earlier to extend overnight sleep

  • Consider some contact sleep time

 

Your child is at the top end or above average:

If your child is at the top end of the sleep average for their age and experiencing fragmented sleep, disrupted naps and challenges getting to sleep, here’s what I would do.

Increasing sleep pressure can be a simple and stress-free way to improve sleep outcomes without changing anything behaviourally!

 

We can do this by:

  • Looking at the length of daytime sleep

  • Reducing the number of naps they have

  • Trialling a later bedtime

Step 4: Nap Data

We also want to look at the data about nap timings and durations.

Again we want to look for the total amount of day sleep to be within the average range. Ensure that it’s reasonably evenly distributed to manage sleep pressure.

For some, strict schedules and inflexible wake windows aren’t an effective way of managing sleep. I try to encourage families to read cues from their child for sleep and follow a loose daily pattern for sleep.

We might want to look out for how close the final nap is to bedtime, especially if you find bedtime challenging and problematic, addressing either the nap or bedtime by moving it.

We need to view all of this data in relation to a child's development and temperament during the day. Any little on who is happy, energetic and cheerful, its highly unlikely they are sleep deprived.

Step 5: Spotting Patterns

Natural biological pattern:

We can use this information to recognise patterns in our child’s sleep. Perhaps they seem to fall asleep or get grumpy at a particular time in the evening. Perhaps they wake up at a similar time each day?

Tip:

As you can see from the sleep averages table, most children under the age of 2 DO NOT achieve 12 hours of sleep overnight. Whilst some children can sleep this long, the vast majority don’t! This is really important to recognise when we think about lots of messaging around infant routines. Many mainstream sleep guides recommend a 7am to 7pm routine, but when we think about sleep in relation to this table, that often isn’t a feasible reality!

For example: 

If your child religiously wakes at 6 am but is generally a happy little one achieving an average amount of sleep in 24 hours. We could address this by moving their bedtime later. To compensate we might need to move their naps to align with the new bedtime. We could do this change steadily and monitor the change by adjusting naps and bedtime by 15-30 minutes each night. Or you could attempt to do this in one go.

My recommendation would be to continue your sleep diary to monitor these changes!

Step 6: Important Factors

Sleep Deprivation or Sleep Fragmentation

It’s very important that we recognise the difference between broken sleep and being sleep deprived.

Unless a baby is very much awake and alert during the night, then I advise parents not to count night feeds as awake time. This is because when babies feed in the night, they, more often than not, do this in a light stage of sleep. Us being awake does not correlate to them being awake!

Lots of families can feel concerned their little one is sleep-deprived because they wake 3-4 times a night for 30 minutes or more of feeding. It's easy to assume that this time should be subtracted, and therefore, you might think your little one is getting more than 2 hours less sleep than they need. This often leads to unnecessary anxiety that we need to cram in more sleep, which can end up creating more stress and more problems.

If we took this approach and tried to add in more naps or try an earlier bedtime we would likely be met with dysregulation and resistance.

Try not to have a fixed mindset that dysregulation equates to tiredness. If we think in this way we actually would be missing the problem and might risk making sleep worse!

When we understand the difference between sleep being fragmented or a child being sleep deprived, we can whittle down the possible issues and eliminate anything that might worsen sleep.

 

Using sleep trackers:

When using sleep apps and trackers, we need to be mindful that these are useful for us to monitor our child’s safety. But we must remember they are not sophisticated enough to note the difference between active sleep and awake time. Take any monitor-reported sleep notes with a pinch of salt, sometimes these numbers can feel overwhelming or like a target to beat.

Some families can find these unhelpful, so consider turning off these features or using simpler baby monitors if this is you.

Remember: If tiredness isn’t the problem, sleep isn’t the answer.

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