I’m sharing a ton of sleep tips for newborns today. Newborns sleep a ton! As you know, newborn sleep is often a little chaotic. A newborn will eat and sleep at all hours of the day regardless of day or night. This is a super challenging and exhausting time for parents. With a few small habits, you can set up your little one with healthy sleep habits that will hugely benefit them (and your sleep) down the road. This is called sleep shaping. Today, we’ll look at newborn sleep, how sleep changes over the first few months of life, and finally, how to set up good sleep habits now for your infant.
In the first few months of life, newborns spend most of their time asleep. They will sleep anywhere from 12-18 hours per day on an irregular schedule and will be awake 1-3 hours at a time. Newborn babies do not have a circadian rhythm yet which means the daylight makes no difference in their sleep habits. This is called day-night confusion.
Newborns have just two stages of sleep compared to the five stages of sleep adults have. Sleep for newborns is either active sleep (REM) or quiet sleep (non-REM). Both types of sleep make up 50% of total sleep time. Newborns in active sleep will breathe irregularly, jerk, twitch, smile, make sounds and their eyes may dart under their eyelids. In contrast, you’ll know your newborn is in quiet sleep when twitching and other movements have stopped. During quiet sleep, your baby is harder to wake up.
The newborn stage is quite chaotic with regards to sleep. The good news is infants have more predictable sleep patterns by three months. Around the three month mark, infants begin producing melatonin meaning any day-night confusion should start to improve, and their circadian rhythm is beginning to develop as well. By three months, most babies have stable sleep patterns with a long period of nighttime sleep. During the day, they have longer periods of wakefulness than before.
This is my number one and the most important newborn sleep tip. A safe sleep environment helps reduce Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a leading cause of injury death in infants. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should always be placed on their back to sleep. They should sleep alone in a crib or bassinet with a firm, flat mattress and fitted sheet. There should be nothing in the crib including blankets, crib bumpers, or stuffed animals.
More information on a safe sleep environment: here.
Babies begin to recognize routine starting at age 3 months. That being said, it’s never too early to create a bedtime routine. For infants approaching the 3 month mark, I recommend a short and simple bedtime routine. A good bedtime routine will have several sleep cues aka signals to your little one it’s almost sleeping time. For most infants this age, I recommend changing his diaper and putting him into pajamas. Next feed him in a well lit space. Now, transition the room to dim light, place him in a sleep sack, and sing a song before placing him into his bassinet or crib. For more help with creating a bedtime routine read this post.
For most parents, your inclination is to feed your baby right before bed. Many families follow a play, eat, and sleep routine. This happens naturally because most babies get very sleepy after feeding and will often fall asleep while feeding. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It does however create a sleep association, meaning your little one develops a habit and will want to feed to fall asleep. This is usually fine at bedtime but is less desirable in the middle of the night and when they’re a little older.
To help prevent this sleep association, I recommend setting up your little one’s routine to separate feeding from sleeping. To do this you would transition to eat, play, and then sleep. By not feeding your infant to sleep, it will give you and your baby the chance to practice other age appropriate methods of self-soothing. Feeding to sleep can be a very difficult association to end when your baby is ready to sleep through the night down the road.
The other advantage of the eat, play, and sleep routine is a better understanding of your infant’s cries. By separating feeding from sleeping you will better understand what each cry means. For example, if you are currently feeding your baby to sleep and she begins crying, it is difficult to know whether she is crying because she is still hungry or if she is just tired. On the other hand, if you separate feeding from sleeping and your baby is crying when they wake up, you can pretty safely guess they need a diaper change and a feed.
Sleep associations are basically anything that helps your baby to fall asleep. This includes the items, movements, or your presence that help your little one to fall asleep more quickly at bedtime. In the first three months of life, I recommend creating positive sleep associations. Positive sleep associations refer not only to something that your child can do to comfort and help themselves back to sleep but also refer to sleep cues indicating it’s time to sleep. For infants and newborns this can include swaddling, a sleep sack, singing a song before bed, and white noise. These are all things that signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep. As discussed above, I recommend avoiding feeding to sleep when possible as this creates a sleep association that can be difficult to break down the road. For more information about sleep associations, make sure to check out this article.
Most babies will spend the first weeks of their lives napping in the arms of loved ones. This is called contact napping. Babies absolutely love this as it feels safe and cozy. During the first three months it’s absolutely okay to rock your baby to sleep or to contact nap. The goal is to gradually wean them from the need to be assisted to and back to sleep as they as they approach three months of age. The best way to do this is to allow your baby to nap horizontally as often as possible.
As you can imagine, going from napping on mom or dad or in a carrier to being put on a firm mattress is a tough transition for an infant. They will be frustrated and have a hard time falling asleep. In the first three months, practice the skill of falling asleep in the bassinet, crib or other safe sleep surface when possible. Once your baby is calm but awake or drifting off to sleep and swaddled, place her in the bassinet or crib to give her a chance to sleep there. Practicing this skill in the first three months will lay a great foundation when you’re ready to help your little one develop more independent sleep skills.
Having a newborn is simultaneously all consuming, exhausting and so exciting. Soak it all in and be gentle on yourself! If you have questions about your newborn’s sleep, I invite you to reach out to me.