Firstly, huge congratulations on your pregnancy, or if you're reading this as a new mum, then welcome to the crazy, emotional but blooming fantastic world of motherhood.
I wanted to write this piece to help set expectations about sleep with a newborn, why it’s like it is, and the importance of trusting your baby's instincts during this period, whilst you all adjust to the change.
Let me set the record straight on newborn sleep. You ARE likely to experience some level of sleep deprivation with a newborn. BUT - there’s a good reason for this.
Imagine going from a dark and cosy, warm environment that gently lulls you to sleep through movement and where your tummy is always nicely full, to BRIGHT lights, LOUD noises and WIDE, open spaces where your arms fling around searching for comfort and that feeling of hunger that you’ve never experienced before!
This period of adjustment to the world outside your womb is a time of enormous change and development. We refer to it as the fourth trimester.
Rightly so, newborns rely on closeness, on the calm rocking and shushing that mimics the womb as they navigate the new world they’re in. And, for at least the first 3 months, they will need your help to sleep.
How long do newborns sleep?
Newborn babies sleep a lot - an average of 16 hours in a 24 hour period - but it’s disorganised. Typically, it can look like this:
- They sleep in short bouts - from 30 minutes to 4 hours at seemingly random times throughout the day and night.
- They spend a lot of their sleep in lighter, REM sleep so you may see fluttering eyelids; rapid, irregular breathing; occasional body movements; and vocalisations (grunts or brief cries).
- It’s uncommon for them to connect sleep cycles independently so they will need your help to get back to sleep. Meaning if they fell asleep nursing, when they wake between sleep cycles, they may need to nurse again to connect those cycles.
Newborns sleep routine
Babies don’t spend long periods asleep in a deep sleep state for 2 main reasons:
- Because they only have a tiny stomach, the size of a marble (compared to a clenched fist in adulthood) and need feeding regularly.
- It keeps them safe. It allows them to stay alert to any potential predators or harm and is believed to help protect a baby from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
How to help newborns to sleep
Like us, babies have circadian rhythms, or biological processes that cycle about once every 24-hours. This may sound blissful but the problem is, this internal clock is not pre-programmed.
It can take at least 12 weeks for a newborn’s circadian rhythm to mature enough for them to be able to distinguish night from day.
This is a normal developmental milestone that can’t be rushed but we can certainly help nudge it along:
- Expose your baby to natural daylight, and involve him in the stimulating hustle and bustle of your daytime activities (the fresh air for you and a gentle walk can do wonders for new mums).
- When evening falls, dim the lights and keep the environment calm. Our modern LED lights omit a lot of blue light which, as plenty of research has shown, delays the onset of sleep at night.
In these first few months, it really doesn’t matter how you get your baby to sleep.
Don’t worry about creating bad habits in the early days - they need you and are just not developmentally capable of self-settling.
Nurse, rock or just cuddling - whatever is the least stressful means of getting baby to sleep, then go with that.
Do make sure you are following safe sleep guidelines though, this means no pillows or cot bumpers and always on their back. More on sleep safety can be found at The Lullaby Trust.
My top tips
Expect the emotions and be kind to yourself
- In the first few weeks just focus on recovering and bonding with your new baby, learning to feed and having lots of cuddles.
Keep timings loose and flexible
- Newborns don’t know their day from night so sleep is disorganised but try to go with it and enjoy this precious time. Sleep when they sleep!
Create a sleep-friendly environment
- Bedtime routine - start it early! Do the same steps every night. This will teach your baby that sleep is coming and they will develop a positive association with sleep.
- Blackout curtains
- White noise can help mimic the sound of the womb.
- Calm environment with few distractions (no mobiles).
- If required, get an amber or even better, red night light.
Don't wake a sleeping baby!
- Unless there is a medical reason to, or they have missed a feed window, there is no need to wake a baby.
Don’t worry about creating ‘bad habits’
- A baby doesn’t know how to fall asleep so will rely on us. Any sleep crutches can easily be undone around 4-6 months of age - this is generally the age you may see those sleep crutches starting to be less effective so you will naturally start to make changes.
Enjoy this precious time with your baby!
If you want to understand more about ‘Sleep Shaping’ and how you can gently start laying the foundations for great sleep then give me a call and I’d love to help.