Finding Sleep for Your Newborn

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You probably spend many, many hours during your pregnancy preparing for labor, birth, and breastfeeding. You may have even taken an infant care class. But most of these preparatory classes do not cover in detail a topic which turns out to be the #2 concern of new parents—sleep. Considering the amount of time newborns spend sleeping—or not sleeping—and the amount of anxiety this causes, this is unfortunate. I work with many families who have unrealistic expectations of what newborn sleep looks like. Perhaps they have a friend or neighbor who claims their three month old is sleeping through the night. Is it really true? Is something wrong with their newborn if they aren’t seeing this much sleep in their house? My goal is to help educate families about what normal newborn sleep looks like and how to maximize sleep so that your whole family can feel better-rested.

What Does Newborn Sleep Look Like?

Your newborn needs to sleep often. Newborns nurse and sleep around the clock, and just like they cannot go very long between nursing sessions, they also can’t go long between sleeping sessions; most newborns can barely make it one hour between naps before becoming overtired. This means that by the time you change your baby’s diaper, nurse, burp, and re-swaddle, he is ready to fall asleep once again. Repeat this 6 or more times a day and a least 3 times at night!


Your newborn may have day-night confusion. An undeveloped circadian rhythm, couples with the need to nurse frequently, can create day-night confusion, where a baby is up nursing more frequently at night and sleeping more during the day. While this is a normal developmental phase, you can help your baby learn that night is for sleeping. Keep those nursing sessions boring and dark and expose your baby to natural light first thing in the morning and after naps.


Newborns cannot be put on a schedule. While newborns are born with a circadian rhythm, or biological clock, it hasn’t fully developed. Their naps are very inconsistent in length and time. This can be difficult for new parents who want to create some sort of consistency and schedule. Unfortunately it’ll be months before you can plan your baby’s naps by the clock, but you can try to create some loose patterns to build in a sense of consistency. Many parents find success in eat-activity-sleep. But remember, your newborn’s need change frequently and he may need to nurse outside of this pattern!


Your newborn’s brain functions differently during sleep. Newborns also spend more time in what is referred to as “active sleep” or REM sleep. Newborns spend about 50% of their time in this lighter stage of sleep compared to a three year old who spends only about 33% of his time in REM sleep. “Quiet sleep” or non-REM sleep develops as your baby’s brain matures. This means that your newborn will sleep lightly, stir often, and probably be a loud sleeper. If you hear your newborn stir or squeak, fight the urge to immediately pick him up. He may just be transitioning between sleep cycles and if you go to him you risk waking him fully. Instead, give him a minute to see if he’ll settle again.


How can you helping your baby sleep well?

In the first few weeks of life, adjusted if your baby was born early, your baby may have what I refer to a honeymoon period. During this time your newborn may fall easily into sleep and sleep long stretches. You may even need to wake your baby in order to get in your 8 to 12 nursing session per 24 hour period. And just as you are finishing nursing and changing his diaper, your newborn is falling asleep once again! This is normal, but is likely to change.

Eventually your newborn becomes more wakeful, taking in and learning from the world around him. This often occurs around the two week mark. It is during this time, that you want to focus on maximizing sleep to ensure that you and your baby stays well rested. Why is this so important? A baby that is well-rested will fall asleep sooner, sleep longer, and wake later. A well-rested baby is also more likely have an easier time learning independent sleep. This doesn’t mean that your baby will sleep through the night by 3, 4, or 5 months. But what it does mean is that he will be more likely to sleep in longer stretches, when he is developmental ready to do so, without the need for any sleep training.

For the first eight weeks of life, your focus should be only on bonding with your baby, establishing breastfeeding, and healing from your delivery. Don’t worry about creating “bad” sleep habits.

There is plenty of time to establish healthy habits once your baby has adjusted to life out of the womb! But there are steps you can take now to help you and your baby get the most sleep possible. The two most important tips I have for new parents are to recreate the womb and catch the sleep wave.


Recreate the womb.

Think about the space your baby just emerged from. It was dark, very noisy, in constant motion, and very tight. Recreate this!

· Get him cozy. Use a swaddle to create that secure, coziness. For the best and safest results, use a swaddle that has Velcro or zipper fasters and be sure that you use the right size. If it is too big it can slip up over your baby’s face making breathing difficult.

· Use white noise. Think of how loud it was in your womb—Nine months of continuous blood swooshing, heart pumping, and food digesting! Use a white noise machine or phone app, box fan, or radio static to recreate this sound. Not only has white noise been shown to limit stress in baby’s, but it also helps block out loud older siblings (and partners!).

· Use motion. Did you notice while you were pregnant that your baby slept while you were active during the day and kicked you all night? That is because motion was lulling your baby to sleep! Use it to your advantage during the newborn period by wearing your baby for naps or using a swing. While naps in motion are not restorative when your baby is older, it is often a life safer for newborns. Once your baby has fallen asleep you can always stop the swing or gently put your baby down.


Catch the sleep wave.

· Watch for the window. Remember what your lactation consultant said about crying being a late sign of hunger? It’s also a late sign of tiredness. If you wait until your baby is crying, or even fussing, you’ll miss the sleep window. Falling asleep will be much harder for your little one, and take much more soothing from you. Instead, as soon as you see that yawn or first eye rub, drop whatever you are doing and begin soothing your baby to sleep using whatever method works for you.

· Sleep early and often. Just like your lactation consultant reminds you to nurse early and often, think sleep early and often. Your newborn can likely only go one hour between naps before becoming overtired, and this means he needs to be asleep by then, not just beginning the soothing routine. Do not wait until your baby is clearly tired to help him fall asleep! Balance watching for sleepy signs with watching the clock and help your baby fall asleep before he becomes overtired.

Are you still having trouble helping your newborn sleep?

For some babies, all that soothing, rocking, swaying, and bouncing, is just too stimulating and it keeps them up rather than help them fall asleep. Instead of working so hard, simply start putting your baby down awake after a very short routine in a consistent space that is cool, dark, and quiet to sleep. He may surprise you and fall easily into sleep, especially if you have caught the sleep wave just right! If he fusses mildly, that is OK. Give him a minute, as long as he is not upset. But if he cries, go to him and soothe. Don’t be discouraged. This is just practice, and with five or more naps a day, there is plenty of time to try again!


Just like learning to breastfeed comes easily for some mother-baby pairs, learning to sleep comes more easily for some than it does for others. If sleep doesn’t seem to come easily for your baby, please don’t stress it. Do whatever works for your family right now! Don’t worry about what sleep will look like in the future or how your friend’s baby is sleeping. There are no rights or wrongs, just what works for you right now.

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