Newborns sleep 16 to 17 hours a day on average, but most newborns don’t stay asleep for more than two or three hours at a time. Why? Because newborn sleep cycles are short. They spend much more time in REM sleep (light sleep) than we do during the first few weeks of life. Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” clearly never spent time with a newborn!
As a parent, it’s our job to bond with our baby and respond to their cues, which means that we’ll be up several times during the night to change, feed, and comfort them.
So how do we help our newborns to establish healthy sleep habits in the midst of this crazy, overwhelming period? Here are some tips that will help to create a positive association with sleep, create an appropriate environment for sleep, and encourage daytime calorie intake, which helps to consolidate night sleep.
These newborn sleep tips are small but effective. Don’t panic if you can’t accomplish everything right off the bat, and don’t give up if your baby doesn’t respond well to all of them right away. Have patience and keep trying! The goal is to establish healthy patterns over time.
FOR THE FIRST TWO WEEKS…
- Create a tranquil environment for your newborn – It’s important to keep in mind that your new baby’s central nervous system is easily taxed. Newborns can’t process or handle lots of stimulation and will habituate or “shut down” when they are overloaded. Habituation looks like sleep. After habituating, babies “wake up” and will sometimes cry intensely to release stress – this often occurs in the mid to late afternoon when they are reaching the end of their day. Be sure to keep the environment quiet and calm during the first few weeks at home.
Too much habituation during the day may also keep your baby up more at night. Keep visitors to a minimum, and be sensitive to your baby’s sleep cues.
- Shut down your baby’s world by 6 or 7 pm. A bath, dim lights, and quiet atmosphere all help baby wind down for night sleep.
- Have a dedicated space for baby that is conducive to restful sleep, and use it as soon as you bring baby home. Babies will learn quickly that this space is for sleeping, and being placed in that space will eventually cue them to sleep. Avoid stimulating patterns on sheets, walls, pictures near the crib, mobiles, etc. – they can stimulate babies and interfere with the process of falling asleep.
- Expose your newborn to gentle light. This will help him to distinguish day from night – open the blinds when he gets up, keep him in brighter rooms or natural light when he’s awake, and dim the lights when it’s time for sleep.
- Do what feels right. Newborns need our help to relax and settle in to sleep. For the first few weeks rocking, walking, holding or feeding to sleep is fine. But once a day try to rock, walk, feed or hold your newborn to the point of drowsiness, NOT until they are fully asleep. Then gently lower your baby into her sleep space and let her finish going to sleep.
- Do a little bit of tummy time every day. Not only is it essential for motor development – it is important for sleep safety. Good control of the head and upper body reduces the risk of SIDS and suffocation, and will help prevent plagiocephaly, or “flat head”. Be sure to supervise your baby during tummy time, and start with 3 – 5 minutes three times a day.
- Encourage soothing techniques other than nursing. Try rocking, singing or walking. Developing a variety of soothing techniques is important in order to avoid always having to nurse your baby to calm and sleep.
AT ABOUT 3 WEEKS…
- Start introducing a flexible routine of feeding, activity, sleep.
- Establish a routine that promotes feeding upon waking to avoid the association between feeding and sleep.
- Establish a consistent bedtime and naptime routine – swaddling, white noise, and a darkened room is a simple and effective routine.
- Your baby’s daytime awake periods should not exceed 2 hours. Sleep begets sleep. Watch for cues that your baby needs to sleep – eye rubbing, fussiness, etc. and get them down as soon as possible.
- Encourage intake of calories during the day to encourage sleep at night. Don’t be afraid to wake your baby up from a nap for feeding during the day. If he sleeps through a daytime feeding he may be up more frequently at night trying to catch up on those missed daytime calories. If a baby feeds well, they will sleep well.
FYI – Week three is the week that many feeding and crying challenges present – babies are more wakeful and temperament and personality emerges. Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s are great for calming fussy babies, – Swaddle, Side/Stomach, Shushing, Swinging, and Sucking – but be sure to speak to your pediatrician if you have concerns about extreme fussiness that might indicate a medical condition or feeding issue.
If nursing is well established, and even if you are committed to breastfeeding…
- Week three is the golden time to start introducing a bottle -just one bottle a day. Pump in the morning (more milk production occurs in morning) and let dad give a warmed bottle before bath – this is a great way to get Dad involved and have a “back up” in case you can’t be there for a feeding.
BY 4 WEEKS…
Try putting your baby in her crib or bassinet drowsy but awake at least once a day. Avoid too much picking up and putting down if she fusses during the process of falling asleep – it can be over-stimulating. Try instead to sit by the crib and use soothing techniques other than feeding to soothe her until she falls asleep. Remember that you can always pick up if necessary and try again another day if your baby doesn’t settle.
Please know that nothing you do in the first year of life to help your child sleep can’t be undone when the time is right. So relax and enjoy this special time!