Tiny, warm, and sweet-smelling, newborns are undeniably adorable. Unfortunately, these perfect little bundles don’t come with an instruction manual. Along with the many surprises of early parenthood, new parents often find themselves puzzling over 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 snooze contentedly with no problems, sleep for long stretches at night, and take predicable (if not regular) daytime naps. Other babies present their parents with significant sleep challenges.
Contrary to popular belief, newborns don’t just magically “sleep when they need to sleep.” And new parents haven’t yet figured out baby’s sleep needs or cues. But supporting healthy sleep starts early, so read on for tips on helping your new little one sleep well.
Don’t be surprised if life with a new baby is a round-the-clock snoozefest. 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.
Make Some Noise
In the womb, your child drifted off to sleep surrounded by the thumping of your beating heart and the rumbling of your tummy. After being soothed by a comforting blanket of noise for nine months, new babies often find life outside the womb strangely quiet, says pediatrician Harvey Karp, 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.
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 changes, short playtimes, and then being put back 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.
Day for Night
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 at night — leaving new parents knackered. To help babies learn that night is for sleeping, 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, and using a dim light for nighttime feedings and diaper changes.
Recogize Sleepy Signs
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 sleepy signs, get him down to sleep before overtiredness (and crankiness) sets in.
You can help set the stage for peaceful bedtimes by establishing a simple wind-down routine. Performing the same events in the same order before naptime and bedtime helps your baby understand that sleep is near. A story, quiet time in a crib, a feeding, and swaddling can all play a part in your child’s sleepy-time routine.
Support Independent Sleep
Parents often believe newborns need to be rocked or nursed to sleep, but these learned habits — in the womb, your baby drifted off to sleep without your help. It’s perfectly fine to nurse or rock a newborn 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 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 and beyond. MP
— Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and sleep expert.