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Bringing a newborn home – even if you’ve done it before – can be bewildering. Sleep consultant Nicci Proome writes about what to expect from a newborn’s sleep patterns.
There is no greater feeling than a new parent cuddling into their newborn baby. The overload of love and connection flowing between the parent-baby duo is inexplicable, and the honeymoon stage of newborn parenting is undeniably bliss.
At first your sleepy baby gives the illusion of sleeping all day, waking only to feed and cuddle and then drifts back to sleep. Parenting appears to be easy – right? Until, one day, we find ourselves in a bit of a frazzle, up all night, rocking and bouncing, running through the list of “what have we changed and why is this happening?” scenarios.
The honeymoon period is over
The truth is, there is a very strong chance that you haven’t changed a thing, but your baby’s sleep has.
Babies are born with a jet pack of maternal melatonin. This is transmitted in vitro before baby is born. It makes your baby very sleepy in the first couple of weeks, and thereafter, begins to wear off. Baby becomes more alert to their surroundings and finds it harder to drop off to sleep if proper sleep hygiene has not been put in place.
What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene refers to external factors that play into how and where a baby learns to fall asleep, and a gentle hands-on sleep plan is absolutely necessary at this point. Healthy sleep habits are a learnt behaviour and practice is essential.
Parents need to gradually teach their new babies healthy sleep habits. This takes time, patience and an understanding that these tiny little creatures are learning a new skill, and with that learning we have to remember consistency is key.
To start we need to lay a foundation for healthy sleep and that involves the introduction of sleep hygiene. In short, this means that we are going to create a safe sleep environment that promotes the best possible sleep a baby can achieve at any given time.
Good sleep hygiene consists of:
- a firm, breathable baby mattress in cot, bassinet or bedside co-sleeper
- no loose blankets, sheets or toys in the cot until after six months
- no cot bumpers – even the “breathable”ones
- no bed sharing, as this can cause suffocation, overheating and becoming wedged/crushed
- room sharing, which is recommended for babies up till one year. This will automatically sync parents’ sleep patterns with your baby. Closeness and
- bonding can be achieved through room sharing in a safe and controlled manner.
To start, your newborn will be on a 24-hour cycle, meaning they will eat, sleep and poop around the clock. It is only from around three to six weeks that you will begin to notice a distinct difference in behaviour during the day and overnight. This is the result of their “body clocks” developing.
Their body clock is entrained by food, light and social interaction. It is really important from this stage to carry out a predictable and consistent day-night routine. Tiny baby routines should not depend on a minute by minute timer, but on a predictable series of events to satisfy your baby’s instinctive need for consistency in order to feel safe.
Baby’s awake windows
It is also important to keep their awake windows in mind. These windows increase a few minutes every week as babies’ developing internal systems mature. For example, before they are three weeks old they can only handle a one-hour awake window. Anything more than this will result in a grumpy, overtired newborn.
However, as your baby grows, so will their tolerance to being awake. The trick is to keep to the recommended awake windows and to slowly adjust according to their age.
How to promote better sleep
The best way to encourage better newborn sleep is to actively lay the foundations slowly, gently and consistently. Ways in which we can do this are:
- Introduce a wind-down cuddle before each nap. Give lots of hands-on attention, letting baby know they are safe, loved and never alone.
- A firm swaddle can do wonders to calm an over-stimulated baby. Yes, they might fight it, but once the sympathetic nervous system has calmed down through the deep pressure of the swaddle, baby will become calm and actually enjoy the swaddle for many weeks to come
- White noise is a great way to keep newborn babies’ sleep environment consistent. As baby wakes through their sleep cycles, the sound of the white noise will ease them back to sleep. In fact, white noise can be used all the way up until a year.
- An absolute must in newborn sleep is to support them while they learn how to sleep in their own cots. The trick is to rock or hold them until they are drowsy but awake, and only then place them into the cot. This is where most new parents walk away and baby wakes. The trick here is to pat baby gently off to sleep. This can take as long as 20 minutes to start, however as baby becomes familiar and confident within the consistency of the nap routine, it will shorten considerably.
Why is my newborn not getting enough sleep?
In some cases our newborn babies are just not getting enough sleep to start. Factors that contribute to this are:
- Keeping babies awake for too long between naps which directly affects the duration of sleep in a negative way
- Allowing baby to cat nap, which never really gives the restorative sleep that their growing bodies critically need
- A too busy environment causing overstimulation
- Lack of sleep hygiene and proper parental support
- A dysfunctional/ unpredictable routine
How do you know if your newborn is getting enough sleep? First and foremost, a baby who sleeps well tends to eat well and flourishes with regards to meeting milestones.
Babies grow and organise brain activity during sleep. This results in a content baby, one who is easily pleased, less fussy and an absolute pleasure to parent.
In a nutshell, sleep is critical in the development of a young baby, however, how we teach a baby to sleep is even more important. Our aim is to gently instil a predictable sleep routine that allows baby hands-on security while gently reducing our input.