Newborn Sleep Patterns

Setting realistic expectations with your new baby
dad sleeping skin to skin with newborn

Newborn sleep is a reality that many new parents struggle with. You have spent so much time preparing for your little one and they are finally here and in your arms. Suddenly, you have questions about things you never worried about before—like, how will your newborn sleep, is it normal and how can I help? Now, the fun begins!

Although there are a few things you can do to help shape newborn sleep, your main challenge will be to just go with the flow and understand what’s natural. When we say newborn, we are talking about babies in the 0-3 up to 4-month stage. Sleep during this phase can be random and unpredictable as far as when they fall asleep as well as how long they sleep for. You may get a 2 hour siesta one day and 30 minute cat nap the next. There is no exact schedule and one day can be very different from the next.

(Most) Newborns sleep a lot

Most newborn (fresh out of the bun oven) babies will sleep a lot during the day. Unless you have a baby that has a medical condition such as acid reflux, for instance, that prevents effortless sleep, newborn sleep might even seem excessive. Do not worry if your newborn is sleeping 16-18 hours out of 24. This is completely on track and this is what you want! You may hear myths like people telling you to keep your baby awake all day so that they sleep longer at night. Resist the temptation to follow this advice as it can cause more harm than good! You do not want your baby to become overtired, as this will actually cause them to struggle to fall and stay asleep.

Newborns sleep often

An important task when helping your newborn sleep is to be aware of how long he or she is awake between naps. A newborn should only be awake for 45-60 minutes—that’s it. Some babies will naturally fall back asleep within that time while others will need more help drifting off. Keeping the amount of time your newborn is awake to a minimum will help them achieve that 16-18 hours of total sleep they need without causing them to become overtired.

Learn your baby’s cues

This may seem overwhelming but once you bring your baby home, you are with them 24/7 for the first little while. You will learn very quickly how to distinguish what they need by their different cries and sounds. In conjunction with watching the clock for the time spent awake, try to learn your baby’s unique cues that they are ready for sleep before they become overtired. Once you see those cues, find your go-to soothing technique to help them relax and drift off. Some of the more sensitive, over-stimulated, or fussier, colicky babies may need some trial and error to find the right soothing technique such as infant massage. These babies may need a combination of soothing methods.

Prepare for some hormonal changes

With the arrival of a new baby comes a range of emotions as well as some hormonal changes. You are so in love, you can barely take it! You may cry one minute out of nowhere and be laughing the next. Adjusting to your own lack of sleep may also cause some extra emotions and anxieties. And when your baby finally does fall asleep, you may find that you are awake worrying about everything under the sun!

Be aware and accept this as a part of the process of negotiating newborn sleep. Prepare your partner for all of this, as well as the fact that you may need to call on them in the middle of the night. Even if your partner works the next day, they can still help. You also have a new baby that you are caring for 24/7, which is a demanding task as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—you’re in this together!

Consider making an arrangement with your partner so that they can have an evening shift with the baby while you get some sleep so that you can feel somewhat refreshed to take over the overnight wakings.

Sleeping with your newborn

Many babies need their parents’ warm bodies and the sound of their heartbeats to be able to settle. You may have to do whatever you need to do including wearing your baby, which is universally common at this stage. Just because your baby does not want to sleep on their own just yet, does not mean that you are doomed forever!

For this reason, some families choose to bed share, which is a personal preference not without its detractors. However, if you choose this route, make sure that you get some guidance for doing it safely.

Newborn sleep “habits”

It is impossible to keep your very newborn baby from falling asleep while eating. This is what they do, they eat and sleep. Trying to keep them awake while eating or expecting them to fall asleep on their own without your help in the very beginning is a pointless exercise. However, once they are between 2-4 months of age, consider feeding your little one after naps instead of before. Once they are out of the very newborn stage, you can also start to attempt to put them down in their bassinet once per day and move forward from there. Please know that there are no ‘bad’ habits at this age!

Comparing babies’ sleep

No two babies are the same so comparing newborn sleep patterns with a friend or family member’s baby will not help you in any way. Yes, some babies come out sleeping long stretches at night, but it does not mean that there is something wrong with your baby if they do not. The majority of newborns are up several times per night for the first couple of months and you can usually expect to see that extend into some longer stretches around 2-3 months of age.

Take care of yourself

We understand how difficult this is. You have just brought home this tiny baby, you feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Telling you to take time for yourself is easier said than done. However, we cannot stress how important this factor is for both you and your baby. You can try going for a walk or if you're not comfortable with leaving home yet, perhaps just set 20 minutes aside to take a warm bath or lie in bed and watch a show or read a book/magazine that makes you happy. When your baby is really young, start with a few minutes and build upon that as they get a little bit older. Taking time to rejuvenate will do a lot of good for you, which in turn will do a lot of good for your baby.

The fact of the matter is newborns need you! They may not sleep at the times you want them to sleep, and they may need to sleep on you or get to sleep with your comforting help for the first couple of months. That’s just a fact of newborn sleep. It is important for you to lower your expectations about your fresh baby’s sleep habits, stop comparing, and go with the flow as much as possible.

Try to reduce your stress and enjoy the time spent building a bond with your new little squish. Though it’s supposed to be joyful, you are also in survival mode and should do what you can to get through the first few months. Just know that you can help them sleep a little more independently and predictably once they are a bit older and ready for the changes. With all of that being said, if you are feeling overwhelmed and need more guidance, know that our expert help is always there or reach out to your health care provider with no hesitation.

*Originally published November 15, 2016