Newborn sleep – what to expect and how to help your baby
So your bundle of joy has just arrived (or is due any day now), and you know that your sleep is going to be disturbed for a while! But what should you expect, and how can you help your newborn to sleep well?
Just as a side note, this article is not about getting your tiny baby to sleep through the night. They are, on the whole, incapable of sleeping for long stretches when they are so little.
As a parent, you’re likely to understand how important it is for your baby to get plenty of good quality sleep. It’s also important for you as mum or dad to be well rested (or as much as is possible when you have a child!) so that you are in the best position to look after your little bundle of joy. Sleep plays a huge part in children’s development; influencing their growth, memory, ability to regulate emotions and fight off illness, to name just a few things. By helping your baby with their sleep you’re setting them up for a lifetime of good habits.
Newborn sleep can be disorganised and vary from day to day. It is normal for them to have no patterns to their sleep times and to cat nap or wake frequently. If someone tells you that their 6 week old baby is sleeping through, you might like to take this with a pinch of salt or delve deeper to find out what they really mean by sleeping through!
Until around 20 weeks/4 months, newborns have very short sleep cycles, and spend a lot of their time dreaming. After the 4 month mark (you may have heard of the dreaded 4 month sleep regression) they develop more adult-like sleep cycles and are more likely to be able to sleep for longer stretches. The ‘regression’ is actually more of a ‘progression’ because it’s a huge leap forward in your baby’s development, where their sleep cycles become longer (around 90 minutes) and more organised. They will have predictable cycles through light to deep sleep and dreaming, which will repeat 5 or 6 times a night. When your baby comes into a light sleep at the end of each cycle, they will have a very brief awakening, which we do as adults too. If they have learned to self-settle they will likely go straight back to sleep, or not even wake fully (as an adult you might turn over, or adjust your pillow, or not even realise you’ve woken), but if they’re used to being rocked or fed to sleep then you might find they cry out for you to help them get back to sleep. This is the earliest point where you might like to consider some gentle sleep training to help them settle back to sleep by themselves, without needing any input from you. You’ll probably find that your newborn baby’s sleep needs vary from day to day. They might nap 4 or 5 times a day and sleep anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours at a time! Over a 24 hour period you should expect to see 14-18 hours of sleep, which will gradually reduce as they get older.
In order to help your baby, here are my 10 top tips for settling them, establishing a routine and creating the perfect environment for them.
- Try introducing a flexible routine, such as Tracey Hogg’s ‘EASY.’ She suggests you start with Eating when your baby wakes, followed by an Activity (which can be something simple like looking at a book together) then Sleep. The Y stands for ‘You time’ where you get to rest for a little while.
- If you prefer a stricter routine, you might like Gina Ford’s suggestions, but be warned, they are very rigid!
- Look out for signs of tiredness and try to put your baby down when they show these, and before they get overtired. Over tiredness causes hormones to be released which make it more difficult for your little one to drop off and to stay asleep. A 0-3 month old is likely to be able to stay awake for 45 – 90 minutes at a time. Look out for staring into space, whinging and pulling ears as signs of tiredness
- Create a bedtime routine. it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just do the same things, in the same order, every night. This will teach our baby that bedtime is coming and they will begin to wind down as a response. Warm baths are great at bedtime as they reduce the body temperature in preparation for sleep.
- Dr Harvey Karp wrote about the 5S’s in his book ‘The Happiest Baby Guide to Sleep.’ The 5 S’s help your baby to settle if they are fractious and include swaddling (whilst your baby is young enough), shushing (or white noise), swinging, sucking (perhaps a dummy or their thumb) and side/stomach holding. Have a little google of these, or I’d recommend his book if you want to find out more.
- Expose your baby to their sleep space every day, even if they don’t like to sleep in it! Just a couple of minutes lying there or looking at a toy will show them that it’s not a scary thing to be avoided!
- Use a hot water bottle or similar to warm your baby’s cot before placing them in it. Make sure you remove it and check the temperature before placing your baby down
- If your baby falls asleep in your arms, you could try rousing them very gently, just so their eyes open, as you put them down. This will show them the feeling of dropping off to sleep on their own, without them having to do much of the work!
- Always follow current safety guidelines. You find these on the Lullaby Trust website.
- Give yourself a break. Being a parent, especially the parent of a newborn, is hard. I’m not going to give you the whole ‘sleep while the baby sleeps’ spiel because it’s not always possible to do that, but get an early night, enjoy some chocolate or trashy TV and be kind to yourself. You’re doing a great job.
Daisy is a certified baby and children’s sleep consultant, working with families all over the world to solve their sleep challenges. For support and advice you can follow Lavender Blue Sleep Consulting on instagram.com/lavender_blue_sleep_consulting or contact her at email@example.com. Daisy also has a free guide to helping your child sleep through the night, available at https://www.lavenderbluesleepconsulting.com/free-guide.