Baffled by your new baby’s sleep patterns? Wondering when you’ll get some sleep yourself? Here’s help.
Tiny, warm, and sweet-smelling, newborns are undeniably adorable. Unfortunately, these perfect little bundles don’t come with instruction manuals. Along with the many surprises of early parenthood, many new parents find themselves puzzling over their baby’s sleep patterns. Is she sleeping too much? Is it normal for him to feed so much at night? Why are her naps so short?
If your baby doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a peacefully sleeping newborn, don’t fret: Your little one is one-of-a-kind, and so are his sleep habits. From their first days of life, babies have individualized sleep patterns. Some restful newborns snooze contentedly with no problems, sleep for long stretches at night, and take predicable (if not regular) naps throughout the day. Many other babies present their parents with some significant sleep challenges.
Contrary to popular belief, newborns don’t just magically “sleep when they need to sleep.” And brand-new parents are usually just getting to know their new family member, and haven’t yet figured out their baby’s unique sleep needs or sleep cues. But supporting healthy sleep starts early, so read on for tips on helping your new little one sleep well (so you can catch a few zzzs, too!).
Don’t be surprised if life with a new baby is a round-the-clock snoozefest (for the baby, at least). New parents are often shocked by how much new babies sleep, says Roslinde M. Collins, M.D., sleep specialist at Vermont’s Rutland Regional Medical Center. “During the first month of life, newborns need a significant amount of sleep, up to 18 hours a day,” she says. “But lots of parents wonder if something is wrong when their baby sleeps that much.”
Make Some Noise
In the womb, your child drifted off to sleep surrounded by the whoosh of your pumping blood, the thumping of your beating heart, and the rumbling of your stomach. After being soothed by a comforting blanket of noise for nine months, new babies often find life outside the womb strangely quiet, says Harvey Karp, M.D., pediatrician and bestselling author of The Happiest Baby On the Block. He recommends high-quality white noise to comfort newborns and help support longer sleep periods. “White noise is like an audible teddy bear—it’s very soothing to babies,” he says.
When your sleepy little one finally opens her eyes, grab your camera—she’ll be snoozing again before you know it. In the first month of life, most newborns can only tolerate being awake for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. An age-appropriate daily routine consists of feedings, diaper changings, short periods of playtime, and then being put back down to sleep. By three months of age, many babies can tolerate staying awake for an hour and a half at a stretch.
Newborns don’t have a predictable nap schedule until three to four months of age when regular nap patterns begin to emerge. Until then, don’t fret about short naps. Just wake your child from any nap longer than two to three hours, to protect nighttime sleep.
In the early weeks of life, your baby’s circadian rhythm begins to develop. This “body clock” helps her organize her sleep patterns, resulting in more daytime wakefulness and sleepiness at night. This rhythm doesn’t fall into place until the second month of life. Until then, many babies swap day for night, preferring to snooze all day and play all night and leaving new parents knackered.
To help babies learn that night is for sleeping, seek out plenty of bright light during the day and avoid nighttime light exposure, says Collins. This allows your baby’s brain to produce adequate melatonin during nighttime hours. “Melatonin is the hormone that tells our brains when we should be sleeping, and it’s suppressed during light exposure,” she notes. That means saying no to nightlights, installing blackout curtains, and using a very dim light for nighttime feedings and diaper changes.
Like older children, newborns give signs that they’re ready for sleep. But for new babies, sleep cues are often subtle. Appearing glassy-eyed and “burrowing” into your chest are signs that some babies are ready to be put down for sleep. Once your baby begins displaying these sleepy signs, move swiftly to get him down to sleep before overtiredness (and crankiness) sets in.
You can help set the stage for peaceful bedtimes in the future by establishing a simple winddown routine. Performing the same sequence of events in the same order before naptime and bedtime helps your baby understand that sleep is near. A story, quiet time in a crib or bassinet, a feeding, and swaddling can all play a part in your child’s sleepy-time routine.
Support Independent Sleep
Parents often believe that newborns need to be rocked or nursed to sleep, but nursing and rocking are learned habits—in the womb, your baby drifted off to sleep without your help. It’s perfectly fine to nurse or rock a new baby to sleep, but if you’d like your child to learn to sleep independently, take small steps to start now.
Put your baby down to sleep when he appears tired and try to allow him to fall asleep unassisted. Your kiddo may surprise you by revealing that he can fall asleep independently, at least some of the time. Allowing him to do so whenever possible is the key to healthy sleep habits through babyhood, toddlerhood and beyond.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and sleep expert. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.