As every parent will know, the world of newborn sleep is foreign and strange. Most newborns spend the majority of their time asleep, waking only for feeding every few hours. They rarely sleep more than four hours a stretch and need your attention day and night. Their internal clocks aren’t yet synchronized with the 24-hour day schedule, and it’s often difficult for new parents to know how long and how often their newborn should sleep.
It’s a recipe for exhaustion, leaving many parents sleep-deprived and desperate for relief. But understanding the science of infant sleep can help you decide on the best strategies to use for you and your family.
Important things to know about newborns and sleep
If you’re a mama, then odds are you’ve heard the phrase “sleep when the baby sleeps” several times from well-meaning advice-givers. The problem is that this advice is not always helpful because most of the time it’s not that straightforward.
Firstly, newborn sleep is very unpredictable, meaning that you have no clue when the next newborn nap is coming. Moreover, there is no way to know how long the nap will last. Another problem is that most (if not all) new parents have other responsibilities, so it’s not always possible to sleep when the baby sleeps.
Going into the postpartum period with some information about what is ‘normal’ in terms of baby and mama sleep is key! Knowledge is power 🙂 So without further ado, here are some of the most important things to know.
Babies actually sleep quite a lot! 16-18 hours a day. Typically 8 – 9 hours during the daytime at 8 hours at night. BUT wake frequently because their tiny tummies need milk regularly. A baby that sleeps through the night in the first couple of weeks of life is not usual – they need to wake up to feed, and don’t tend to sleep more than 3-4 hours in one stretch. This is the case even during the night because their internal clocks aren’t programmed to know the difference between day and night. By exposing your baby to daylight, involving them in your typical daytime activities, and avoiding exposure to artificial light during the evening, you can help “tune in” their internal clock.
Babies and Sleep
Be aware that it isn’t until 8-12 weeks of age that your baby’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) matures enough for them to be able to start differentiating between day and night. As midwives, we tend to see babies quite sleepy in the day but then awake at night – not fair right?!
Newborns are noisy and restless sleepers. They may even wake themselves up with a movement or a noise that they themselves have made. This is because about half of their sleep time is spent in REM (rapid eye movement) mode – very light sleep. Not to worry though because as your baby matures, so will their sleeping patterns – resulting in a quieter, deeper sleep.
Tips for working towards restful sleep behaviours for your baby
- Safe sleeping – always put your baby to sleep on their back with their feet to the foot of the crib and keep the room temperature comfortable – normally around 16 to 20 degrees celsius.
- Babies should sleep in the same room as their parents or adult carer until about 6 months of age to minimise the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Interact with your baby when they are awake during the day, talk to them and make plenty of eye contact – this stimulation will help to tire them out for the night time.
- Avoid overstimulation too close to bedtime – from around 6 weeks of age you can start to introduce a bedtime routine. However, this may be a bit young for some babies and they won’t pay any attention, so use your discretion. If your baby isn’t sleepy at bedtime, don’t force it – it won’t make them any sleepier. Instead, help your baby settle down for bed by using the hour before bedtime as a time of happiness, security, and emotional reassurance. No one sleeps well when they’re anxious or irritated – and babies are the same.
- Newborns who wake in the night need food, comfort, a nappy change or just to be close to you. Go to them when they cry to see if they have a specific need – sometimes you may have to try everything to see what it is that has woken them up. But be cautious about intervening too soon because your baby may be asleep or ready to go back to sleep on their own.
- Keep the environment calm and avoid stimulating your baby when you go in to attend to them. Use a gentle low voice tone and try not to turn on too many lights.
- When you need artificial lighting at night (to change a nappy or feed), use bulbs or filters that block blue wavelengths.
Tips for working towards restful sleep behaviours for mamas
- If you are feeling overwhelmed and need support – ask for help. This could be your midwife, doctor, partner or trusted friend. Sleep deprivation is torture and feeling like it is all too much is normal. It’s important to speak up and find support to make a plan for you and your baby.
- Start by taking advice from trusted sources and ignoring all the noise, such as questions about ‘how your baby is sleeping’ or your fellow mamas’ stories of babies that sleep through the night from very early on.
- Share the load! Use your partner, family and friends – they may offer to come around to look after your baby so you can have a short rest – take them up on ANY offer!
- However, visitors coming around to meet your baby can be rescheduled if you have had a rough night. Have no shame in cancelling visitors if you feel you need to get some rest.
- When your baby is asleep, try to avoid doing chores around the house/checking your phone. If it is possible, take yourself somewhere restful – perhaps that will be the bed or your sofa and focus on relaxing – if you fall asleep that’s great but if you don’t that is okay too.
- Try mindfulness and breathing exercises. Our HATCH members have guided sessions which help with embedding a mindfulness practice into a routine.
- Consider using some gentle music or an audiobook to rest and recharge, but avoid screens which emit blue light.
Newborns have special sleep patterns and special needs, and it’s completely normal for new mamas to feel overwhelmed. Baby’s sleep is something that most new parents stress about, which can add to already extreme exhaustion levels. As long as your little bundle seems well-rested and happy most of the time, you really have nothing to worry about, especially in the beginning. If you’re concerned about your newborns sleeping habits, remind yourself of the above facts, then relax and try to get some very well-deserved rest. If you want to know more about how HATCH mamas and babies benefit from sleep advice directly from experts, get in touch to find out more from our midwives.