Let’s Talk Expectations Around Newborn Sleep
It’s 2 a.m., and you’re wide awake. So is your one-month-old. She is perfectly happy to be awake, cooing and ogling this great new world around her. You, not so much. In fact, you’ve been working on around five hours of sleep nightly for the past month. Your daughter is healthy and adorable, and you and your partner are entranced with her every move. But she hasn’t gotten this day/night thing down yet — and so you’re up multiple times a night, trying to coax her back to quietness and sleep.
“Newborn sleep is messy and disorganized,” says Jamie Caldwell, a pediatric sleep specialist and founder of Caldwell Sleep Consulting, LLC. “Day and night confusion is prevalent. Sleep periods can last 30 minutes to 3 hours and occur at seemingly random times.”
This is to say that your expectations for “normal” behavior by your infant may be sadly inadequate. About the only thing you can expect for sure is that your baby will only stay awake at any given time for 45-60 minutes, says Caldwell. “This is due to their immature circadian rhythms,” she explains. “It takes several months for babies to adapt to the 24-hour cycle.”
According to Stanford Children’s Health, a newborn needs 16 hours of sleep, which usually breaks down to eight or nine at night and another eight during the day. By the time they’re six months old, they are down slightly, to 14 hours a day, but the times have shifted: 10 at night and only four during the day. So if you’re reeling from lack of sleep with your newborn, never fear: it’s only a phase.
5 Ways To Help Your Baby Fall Asleep
How can you help this small bundle of joy fall asleep so that you can get some much-needed rest? We asked Dr. Sarah Mitchell, DC, a baby sleep expert and author of The Helping Babies Sleep Method, for some easy ideas to get your child to sleep.
Take Advantage of the Sweet Spot
As we noted above, newborns are only able to stay awake for roughly an hour at a time. If you get up at 2:00 a.m. to feed your baby, by 2:45 or so, they should be primed to go back to sleep. “Initiate sleep at this time even if you’re not seeing traditional sleepy signs such as yawning,” says Mitchell.
The Benefits of Burping
“The need to burp can make it harder for babies to fall asleep and can interrupt naps,” Mitchell says. “Do a preventative round of burping before sleeping, even if that burping is away from feeding time.”
Keep Them Warm — But Not Too Warm
Babies tend to run warm by nature because their metabolism is working hard, and they are growing quickly. If they are too hot, they will be uncomfortable and may have a hard time falling asleep. “Make sure you’re using natural fibers to sleep in such as wool or cotton since synthetics such as polyester can trap heat and lead to overheating — which can be dangerous for newborns who don’t regulate temperature very well,” says Mitchell.
Feed on Demand
If you’re hungry, you know how hard it is to fall asleep. The same is true of your child. Pediatricians recommend feeding on demand, or every three hours, during the day for the first three months of your child’s life. If you give them a regular dose of calories throughout the day, you can help avoid what Mitchell calls the “snacking cycle” that can have you up and feeding throughout the night.
Minimize Visual Distractions
Your infant doesn’t have 20/20 vision until they’re roughly three years old. But that doesn’t mean they are not visually inclined from birth, and according to Mitchell, “visual distractions such as shadows on the wall can make it harder for babies, even newborns, to fall asleep. Minimize visual distractions by keeping it dim or dark as early as four weeks of age.”
Most Common Causes of Newborn Sleep Interruption
So why do babies wake up at night in the first place? There are a number of factors that could have your child waking up when they should be sleeping.
- Sleep cycle transitions: adults and older children, who have years of sleep-filled nights behind them, transition through the cycles of sleep without even noticing. But babies are still unfamiliar with their cycles, so they may wake up when they transition between REM sleep and non-REM sleep.
- Teething: once your baby starts teething, at about six months of age, they may wake up because they are experiencing oral pain or discomfort as the teeth begin to erupt.
- Disrupted sucking: Babies often fall asleep while breastfeeding or sucking on a pacifier. If that sucking activity ends, they can wake up because the soothing sensation has stopped.
- Hunger: Babies have tiny stomachs, need to be fed every few hours, and may wake up in the middle of the night with hunger pains until they have adjusted to the schedule that their parents are encouraging.
- Earache: babies are prone to ear infections and earaches, and lying down may exacerbate them because it changes the pressure in the ear canal. Ask your pediatrician for help managing the pain if you think your child is experiencing an earache.
Not sure how to interpret your baby’s midnight behavior? Whether they’re engaged in ear-splitting howling or babbling aimlessly, your child’s behavior may be related to the developmental milestones they are experiencing every month of their young life. To help you determine what’s likely to happen, the CDC has a list of appropriate behaviors for your child from birth to five years.
5 Ways To Get Your Newborn Back To Sleep
We talked to numerous experts to get their take on the best way to get your newborn back to sleep when they wake up, whether it’s for a daytime nap or midnight sleep time. Here are some of their suggestions.
Carry Your Baby
Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, a lactation consultant and parenting coach, suggests that “wearing your baby” in a sling, wrap, or front carrier can help them to doze off. “Wearing your baby is a great way to be able to move around and get things done while baby sleeps,” she says. “Many babies prefer to sleep within an arm’s reach of their parents.”
Wait for Drowsiness
“Put your baby down to sleep when they seem drowsy,” says Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, M.D., a pediatrician and consultant at Mom Loves Best. “Do not wait until they are completely asleep to put them to bed. This will help your baby to learn to fall asleep. Many babies will fall asleep without any other special maneuvers.”
Provide Calming Sounds
A sound machine can help you to fall asleep while listening to falling rain or forest sounds. It does the same for your baby. “The white noise makes it easier for a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Jamie Caldwell.
Soothing For Both Of You
Consider how your own behavior may be impacting your child. “Newborn babies are co-regulated by their adult caregivers, so getting skin to skin with them when they are upset, singing to them, rocking them gently, keeping the lights low in the room during the nighttime hours, and staying calm in your own body are ways to help support and soothe a baby,” says Lauren Fox, LCSW, a social worker who specializes in maternal mental health.
Family physician Dr. Tabitha Cranie, M.D. suggested a fix-it to get your baby to sleep that also works for adults: massage. Gently rubbing your baby’s arms and legs, even their face and belly, may distract and soothe them enough to get them to stop crying. And once they’ve calmed down, sleep may come over them fairly quickly.
Sleep Safety Tips
You want your baby to be comfortable while they sleep — but even more important, you want them to be safe. Here are recommendations endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that ensure your baby will sleep safely and wake up refreshed and ready for another day.
Babies Should Sleep on Their Backs
Roughly 3,400 babies die suddenly in the U.S. each year from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and one of the best ways to protect your child is to always place them on their back in the crib. Stomach and side sleepers are more likely to experience SIDS, so unless your child is a preemie who needs to be on their stomach for breathing issues, back sleeping is best.
Although the AAP does recommend that you keep your baby in your bedroom for the first year, it’s best if they don’t share a bed with you. This is especially true for children younger than four months old, if you’re a smoker, or if the bedding and mattress are particularly soft, as with a waterbed. If you feed your baby in your bed, return them to their crib afterward.
Opt for a Firm Sleep Surface
Always choose a high-quality mattress for your baby’s crib or bassinet, preferably one that meets the standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Use a tight-fitting bottom sheet that won’t bunch up or possibly come loose and get tangled up with your infant.
Avoid Crib Clutter
Your baby may have been gifted with multiple cute and cuddly stuffed critters, but they don’t belong in the crib. Nor do they need rattles or other toys, multiple pillows, sheepskins, or bumper pads. Dress your child in a wearable blanket to keep them warm and dispense with blankets that could suffocate or strangle an infant.
Swaddle With Care
Swaddling your baby — wrapping them securely in a piece of fabric intended for that purpose — is fine, but always place the infant on their back after doing so. Make sure that the swaddle is not so tight that they can’t move their legs and hips. Once your baby is old enough to roll over, stop swaddling.
How Can Parents Better Manage Their Sleep?
Your baby isn’t the only one who needs a good night’s sleep. New parents often face nights of interrupted slumber, mixed with full days of baby care, work, and caring for other family members.
Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep in order to function well during the day and allow their bodies and minds to recover from the previous day’s events. Lacking that, you may experience memory loss, exacerbated chronic pain, a higher risk of high blood pressure, and other potentially serious issues. All this at a time when you need to be at your best so you can take care of your newborn. If this seems like an untenable position, you’re not alone: almost all new parents struggle to get enough sleep.
SleepJunkie surveyed new parents and discovered that prior to having their baby, 68% of parents slept 7+ hours a night. After the baby came on board, that number dropped to 10%. Most new parents, in fact, fell about three hours short of a full night’s sleep during their baby’s first few months.
Fortunately, by the time they are roughly three months old or a little older, babies begin to figure out the whole business of sleeping through the night, so mom and dad get 8 hours of shut-eye once again.
Is there anything you can do to make it easier to sleep? Dr. Elham Raker, M.D., a pediatric doctor at AskDr.Mom, says it’s a tough call but not a reason to despair. “The old advice of ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is not always doable, especially if you have another child,” she says. “During the night, trade-off waking up with your partner so you can both get rest. And if at all possible, get help — whether it’s from friends, family, or someone you hire.”
New Parent Support Resources
|Resource||What They Offer|
|Postpartum Support International||PSI offers a helpline for both moms and dads needing support (in both English and Spanish), as well as a provider directory, online meetings, and a peer mentor program.|
|Mom’s Club||This group facilitates mom’s groups throughout the world that offer peer support to those with young children, especially stay-at-home moms.|
|Military One Source New Parent Program||A resource for military parents and expectant parents, offering home visits, referrals, prenatal and parent classes, and more.|
|National Parent Hotline||A program of Parents Anonymous, the National Parent Helpline, provides a toll-free helpline and website that can offer emotional support and problem solving and can connect you to local resources for your family.|
|Mother.ly.com||This website provides a wealth of expert ideas and mom-to-mom inspiration on pregnancy and parenting in a breezy, fun format that encourages you to slow down and take a break.|
|Hand to Hold||Designed to provide personalized support for parents before, during, and after a NICU stay, Hand to Hold is a nonprofit organization that supports those with high-risk infants.|
|HRSA Maternal & Child Health (in English and Spanish)||A function of the government’s Health Resources & Services Administration, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau seeks to improve the health of mothers, children, and families. There’s information on everything from childhood bullying to newborn screening opportunities.|
|Fatherly.com||Covers far more than just newborns, but at its heart, this website is for fathers who want to raise great kids. The site offers podcasts, articles, reports, and more on matters pertaining to fathers.|
This Too Shall Pass
It’s 3 a.m. After feeding, diaper changing, and rocking, your child has just gotten back to sleep. You spent a brief moment staring down at them in their crib — the picture of innocence — and are reminded once again why you and your partner decided to have children. Yes, it’s an immense commitment and one that requires you to be your best self, but the rewards are limitless.
You may have more nights ahead of you where you’re awake in the wee hours, but gradually, it will get better, and soon you’ll all be sleeping through the night. And someday, though you might not believe it now, you’ll look back on this night and marvel at how perfect your child was, asleep in their crib. So take heart, carry on, and chalk tonight up as another experience in the adventure that is parenthood.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC’s Developmental Milestones.
Moon, Rachel Y. How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained. June 1, 2021. Accessed December 11, 2021.
Stanford Children’s Health. Infant Sleep. No date. Accessed December 12, 2021.
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. SaferProducts.Gov. No date. Accessed December 12, 2021.