What You Should Know about Baby Sleep as a New Parent
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
So you’re about to have a baby or you have a new little bundle who has just moved in. Likely you’ve been wading in a sea of information on what you need to know as a new parent. You’ve sat through courses, or asked moms you know, or have joined a pregnancy forum and you’re on information overload.
It may seem too early to start thinking about sleep and your baby, but being prepared with knowledge about what you can expect and how to set a strong foundation for healthy sleep hygiene in your child will prove to be parenting gold.
Newborn sleep cycles are far shorter than those of older children and adults and babies spend more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is thought to be necessary for the extraordinary development happening in their brain. All this unpredictability is a necessary phase for your baby and it doesn't last long – though it may seem like an eternity when you're sleep-deprived.
One thing to point out is your baby’s sleep typically matures week by week based on your estimated due date. If your baby is born before his/her due date, you’ll want to adjust for that. So, if your baby was born a month early, for example – then at eight weeks of life, developmentally you should expect your baby is more like four weeks old in terms of sleep maturity.
At this stage it’s important for you not to have too many expectations of your baby. Their sleep is unorganized with no patterns and they haven’t yet developed Circadian rhythms. They sleep a lot. You can expect babies to sleep 18-20 hours a day in the first few weeks.. I wouldn’t be too concerned with baby sleeping “too much.” As long as baby is waking up to feed enough, or you can successfully deliver a full feed while baby sleeps, sometimes called “sleep feeding,” your baby is probably sleeping exactly as much as he/she needs to. Of course if you have any questions or concerns about if your baby is sleeping “too much,” or he/she is not gaining weight, you should always talk with your pediatrician.
The goal in the first six weeks is really to bond with your baby, for you to get to know him/her and vice versa. And for you to focus on healing from childbirth and taking care of your body. That definitely means sleeping when baby sleeps and trying to nap with your baby during the day.
Really, push aside the responsibilities – dishes, laundry, house-cleaning, whatever, and focus on getting the rest your body needs. Sometimes easier said than done, but if you have a friend or family member, or partner or spouse that can take some time to support you by doing the grocery shopping, chores and errands, making you snacks and meals to feed that insatiable hunger you likely are feeling as your milk supply is coming in and normalizing or as pregnancy hormones regulate in general even if you’re not breastfeeding -- that’s going to really help you get the rest you need.
Understand you can’t create bad habits in the first few weeks. The baby is just too immature developmentally to manipulate and you should do whatever it takes to promote sleep in both mother and baby right now, especially with a fussy or colicky newborn. Your baby will cry for a need, so tend to every cry. But do make sure it’s an actual cry before running to his or her bedside. More on that later.
As you get to know your baby, pay attention to why your baby is waking and how he/she signals you. Hungry cry? Discomfort? If you’re baby seems uncomfortable and you’ve done everything else to meet his/her needs – a diaper change, nursing or bottle feeding, rocking – it may be a good idea to check with your doctor about possible common afflictions in young babies like reflux, GERD, gassiness or milk allergy and see what you can do to help get your baby more comfortable at night. They may recommend a certain medication, slightly inclined sleep, a specific diet for you if you’re breastfeeding, or a special formula if your bottle feeding. But definitely check with your doctor before trying any new medication of formulas at home. Understanding your babies “language” will help us later as we start to rely on their cues for sleep.
Night time sleep at this age probably consists of a pretty late bedtime, because baby is napping regularly into the evening hours and then having a time of wakefulness – and at least a few nightly wake-ups for feeding or possibly diaper changes. The most important thing for a newborn is that you be available to him/her upon waking – meeting their needs, including soothing them.
Soothing for your baby might include nursing, rocking, a pacifier or swaddling. Maybe all of the above.
At night, let the baby set their own pace. As the baby gets older, they will naturally give you longer stretches as they don’t physically need to feed as much and are growing a little less rapidly. But while babies sleep stretches are still sporadic, follow their lead.
You may notice your baby is facing some day/night confusion where he is more wakeful at night than during the day. During pregnancy, a baby’s sleeping rhythms are closely tied to mom’s movement. When mom’s up and moving around, her movement lulls baby to sleep. By contrast, when mom lies down to rest, baby often wakes up. Babies also rely on their moms’ hormones (specifically melatonin) to help them sleep. Once your baby is born, he has to rely on his own internal clock to tell him when it is time to be awake and when it is time to sleep. However, his internal clock is not even close to being developed yet. This is another reason why he may be wide awake in the middle of the night, and sleeping soundly in the middle of the afternoon. There is no quick fix for day/night confusion but there are a couple things you can do to help.
First off, many parents think maybe if they keep baby awake during the day it will promote better sleep at night. But it’s really the opposite. A baby that is kept awake during the day when she wants to be sleeping is going to be over-tired and irritable, which is a recipe for more difficult sleep at night. So just allow baby to sleep when he needs to sleep in the first six weeks.
A side note on early evening fussiness – although it may be due to being over-tired, it may also be what is called “the PURPLE Crying period.” The Period of PURPLE Crying begins at about two weeks of age and continues until about eight weeks or a bit longer. This may happen more so in the late evening. It is sometimes also referred to as the witching hour. Getting through these difficult periods requires extreme patience and knowledge that this is normal. If you are alone and it's happening and you can't deal with it, it's best to place your baby down on a safe surface like the crib and walk away for a moment. Take a breather. And if you can, recruit help during this period. Like sleep development, it's important to understand this is normal and due to a lack of biological immaturity and that it will not last long.
Another way you can help with Day/Night confusion is to keep the lights off at night so baby can start to recognize and associate dark with nighttime and light with daytime. Keep feedings calm and quiet, and do diaper changes quickly.
Make sure your baby gets some light, preferably sunlight, during the day during wakeful periods. Light is one of the primary things that helps ‘set’ our internal clocks.
Although light cues may not instantly program your baby's internal sleep clock, routine will help your baby start to learn we sleep when it’s dark and we wake when it’s light. Circadian Rhythms will start to really develop around 8-12 weeks, but you can help support the development now with the right environment.