There are so many skills as adults that we take for granted: being able to feed ourselves, sleep through the night, get dressed, brush our teeth. The list is endless. They don’t even seem like skills anymore, and we certainly wouldn’t list them on our resume as achievements. However, for our babies and children learning to feed, dress, and sleep themselves, these skills are huge achievements.
Hang on. I hear you saying, “Is sleep really a skill?”
Isn’t sleep just a natural and normal biological response our bodies need for rest and restoration. Yes, that’s absolutely right. But, babies, especially newborn, also need a lot of help from their parents to go to sleep, stay asleep and work out the best times to sleep. No one wants a baby who is sleeping all day and awake all night.
Being awake all night and sleeping through the day is generally a problem that occurs with newborn babies. When babies are born, they don’t have set biological clocks or rhythms yet. They have no idea it’s night time, morning or afternoon. They just know when you sat down, and it’s time to eat.
Newborn babies are little eating machines. With the amount of growth they are experiencing, they need to keep their little tummies full. They need energy so their body can adapt to this new environment.
Although newborn babies need a huge of amount of sleep, a whopping 16-20 hours a day, they don’t take it all at once. Newborns will keep their own schedule through 24 hours a day. They will wake briefly to have their nappy changed, feed, and get comfy to head back to sleep. It means the first few months of sleep with a newborn can be chaotic, messy and exhausting.
As newborn babies have no biological clock or circadian rhythm developed and their bodies do not yet produce melatonin (a sleep hormone), they have no ability at all to self-soothe. It is the reason why you cannot sleep train a newborn baby.
They need assistance at this stage of development. However, you can begin with some healthy sleep habits to guide your newborn to sleep. You can also guide them with the best times for sleep with the majority lengthening at night, not during the day.
Newborn Sleep Patterns and Cycles
A newborn will sleep anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours during the day and the night. At around 6 weeks of age, night sleep should begin to consolidate. Babies start to sleep longer stretches in the early hours of the evening.
But what happens when those stretched hours begin to consolidate during the day and night time sleeps starts to lessen?
I’ve got up with lots of pointers below to help your baby sort out their days from nights. But first, let’s understand a little more about how newborns sleep.
Day and night confusion is a common problem and easy for a baby to accidentally fall into. While your baby was in your womb, you might remember that while you were up and active during the day, your baby was calm and quiet. The moment you laid down for a well-earned rest, your sweet little baby decided to wake and start practising gymnastics.
This is why newborns enjoy rocking so much since it mimics the sensation they felt while in your womb as you were walking around going about your daily business. While in the womb, they often got used to sleeping mostly during the day time hours. Not only does your baby come into the world experiencing sleep at different times from you, but they also have different sleep cycles.
Their sleep cycles last approximately 45 minutes.
These cycles are broken down into 2 stages of quiet sleep and active sleep. They spend half the amount of time in each stage of sleep. The active phase of sleep is similar to REM sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep for adult occurs at the end of a sleep cycle and is where dreaming occurs.
Newborns go first into an active stage of sleep, where they will enjoy rocking, singing, white noise, and are quite easily woken. Hence, it can take your newborn a good 20 minutes of drift into a deep and quieter stage of sleep.
After 20-25 minutes of quiet sleep, they will head back to active rest. That’s why newborns often catnap and are easily woken after every sleep cycle during the day. Hence, consolidating day sleep in newborns can be difficult but not impossible. Newborns often need our help to link their sleep cycles together and help them to sleep for more extended periods.
How to Help Your Baby Properly Distinguish Between Night and Day
Light is one of the most important influences in your baby’s sleep schedule. When your baby’s circadian rhythms start to develop, one of the key influencers is light, most preferably sunlight.
Around the 2-month mark is when your babies internal process and circadian rhythms start to develop. But, that is an approximation. They can occur earlier or later, so it is a great idea to get into good sleep habit straight away.
From around 8 weeks of age, babies start to develop their own sleep hormone melatonin. The absence of light stimulates melatonin. Hence, if you are trying to help your baby get to sleep, having them in a dark environment is your best option.
Even if your baby is under 8 weeks of age, you can still start putting good sleeping habits in place. It means darkness for both naps and night-time. This way will help your baby’s body to know that it is time to sleep.
I know you may be feeling exhausted and grumpy if you had lots of wake-ups during the night. But, do your best to engage your baby. Open the curtains, flood the room with sunlight, and say good morning!
Let your baby know it’s morning time and get your baby out of their pyjamas and changed into new clothes for the day. Aside from food and light, social interaction helps to influence circadian rhythms. A morning routine is essential in these early months.
Make sure the room is nice and dark for naps too. Napping in the light doesn’t help your baby realise it is day time. It just makes going to sleep more difficult for them. Once nap time is over, make sure you give your baby lots of light and social interaction.
Sunlight lets your baby’s body know that it is time to be awake and have a great time. It also helps them to sleep later by increasing the production of melatonin at night.
What To Do During the Day
Don’t let your baby sleep longer than 3 hours during the day.
I know its hard to wake your baby, especially if you both haven’t been sleeping well during the night. It can seem cruel to wake a perfectly sleeping baby, and there’s that old saying, ‘Never wake a sleeping baby’. Well, it’s just not true. Sometimes you should wake your baby.
If your babe has slept for 3 hours, it’s a great time to wake them and give them a feed. It stops them from getting into the habit of taking long stretches of sleep during the day and shorter night stretches. Waking them for a feed during the day also help your baby to get more calories during the day. If your baby doesn’t get enough during the day, they will wake for more feeds during the night.
Set a wake-up time.
Seven in the morning is perfect. Try to stick as close as possible to 7 am and try to be as happy and chatty as you possibly can. Get lots of light into the room and change your baby out of their pyjamas as soon as you get them up. All of these little acts help to set your baby’s Circadian Rhythms when they begin to develop.
Even if it has been a rough night, try to keep a consistent morning wake-up time. A consistent wake-up time, like 7 am, will work with your baby’s internal rhythms. The external cues of the day will help sleep fall into place for the rest of the day.
Give your baby lots of social interaction during awake time.
Social interaction is one way to help set and develop your babies circadian rhythms as they begin to build. Having lots of lovely chatty play time with mummy and daddy is wonderful for so many aspects of your babies development, including their sleep patterns.
After 3 weeks of age, make sure all naps take place in the dark.
There’s an old tale that you should sleep your baby in the light during the day to help them begin to distinguish between night and day. It is ok for the first few weeks of life. But after 3 weeks, it’s a great idea to get into the habit of putting your baby down for naps in the dark.
When your baby begins to produce their own melatonin (a sleep hormone, which starts to develop around 8 weeks of age), they will be sleeping in the best conditions to help with production. Even though at 4 weeks, your baby isn’t producing their own melatonin. It’s a good habit to get into for naps and darkness provides less stimulation for baby when they are trying to settle for sleep.
Have a good wind down routine.
This is a beautiful way to help your baby learn the cue for naptime that they can carry into toddler years and beyond. The method will change slightly as your baby grows, but babies and children thrive on consistency and routine. Your newborn will love to be swaddled, rocked, listen to white noise and your voice while they drift into sleep.
Keep appropriate awake times for your baby, so they don’t get overtired.
Awake times for newborns are 60-90 minutes long, but, your baby may not even be able to stay awake for 60 minutes. Watch for your baby’s tired cues: yawning, pulling at ears, looking out into space, or closing fists. An overtired baby is more likely to wake frequently at night.
Expose your child to natural sunlight, especially in the afternoon.
Sunlight is happiness, and it makes our brains feel happy, so they release serotonin and serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, that lovely sleep hormone.
What to Do During the Night
Get a good bedtime routine going.
It doesn’t matter if your newborn is still waking frequently to feed at night; you can even get a good bedtime routine going at an appropriate time. As your newborn grows, you can start to move bedtime earlier to 6 pm.
The best bedtime routine begins with a bath and getting into pyjamas. Give your baby a lovely feed, clothe them, play some white noise, lower the lights and sing a song or read a book or anything that will be nice and calming for your baby. You can keep some routine until your baby is all grown up and going to school.
Keep the lights low for feeding and changing.
It is a huge influencer of your baby’s circadian rhythm when it starts to develop, so keeping the lights low for night changes and feeding
If you are breastfeeding and offering pumped bottles at night, try to be aware of which bottles you are giving your baby and when.
Research showed that what influences breastmilk is your circadian rhythms and contains tryptophan which is an amino acid that makes melatonin. The levels of tryptophan rise and fall according to your circadian rhythms.
Milk expressed at night is best given at night feeds and the best time to provide the milk expressed during the day is during day time.
Change your baby first, then re-swaddle and feed.
It is a great way to help your baby settle back into sleep without disturbing them too much. After you have fed your baby, you can easily pop them back into their crib without worrying them.
When you put your back down to sleep guide them feet first so as not to jolt them awake by the sudden sensation of a different surface.
Don’t interact too much with your baby at night.
We all love our babies and want to make silly faces at them, coo and give them kisses, however, lets not accidentally teach our babies that night times is play time. Social interaction is another main influencer of circadian rhythms.
Don’t withhold feeds from your newborn baby at night or let them cry it out.
Your newborn baby cannot soothe themselves, and they may be genuinely hungry. Newborns have little tummies and need to feed little and often. This age is a time for good habit and not for sleep training. Your babies body is still too immature, and they need help from mum and dad.
Tank your baby up before bedtime.
Your baby might like to cluster feed before bedtime, giving them the chance to sleep for longer. Or a feed at 5 and a feed six just before you put your baby down for the night, can encourage them to slumber a little longer. It is a great way to help night sleep consolidation in the early evening hours.
Create the best environment for your baby that is conducive to sleep.
The best sleep environment is cold, dark and with white noise playing. It’s safest and most comforting for your baby to sleep in your room on a separate surface. This way you can be attentive to your babies needs during the night.
Try not to compare to other babies.
Don’t feel discouraged when your friend says their baby slept through the night at ten weeks. All babies are different, and all babies will sleep through the night in time.
Having Realistic Expectations
The first few weeks might seem like a complete blur of feeding and sleeping and changing. It’s best to work with your Newborns cues and feed them when and where they want. After the first month, you can start to keep track of your baby’s sleeping and eating and get a feel for patterns as they begin to emerge. This way you make sure more extended periods of sleep are happening at night rather than during the day.
By six weeks night sleep should start to consolidate, and you can help night sleep consolidate by following the tips above for daytime sleep. When your baby is 4kgs in weight, they are heavy enough and big enough to hold more food and sustain themselves for longer. At this weight, they can go 12 hours at night with 2-3 feeds.
You can work out a night feeding schedule that works for you and baby. For example, you may feed your baby at 6 pm for bedtime, then at 10:30, then at 3 am and again at 7 am to start the day. You may need an extra feed in there at 1 am too. These recommendations are for a baby that weighs at least 4kgs and is feeding efficiently and well during the day and growing at a healthy rate.
What to Do For You
Have nap when the baby naps.
It’s an oldie but a goodie. You may not want to, but two short 30 minute naps during the day can make for a lot of lost sleep during the night. Even if your feeling too restless try to lie down and close your eyes, a little rest is better than nothing. The washing can wait.
Have a friend come over one afternoon.
Call your friend over to watch the baby while you have a nap and catch up on some much-needed sleep. Everybody loves brand new babies, and any friend would be overjoyed to have some cuddle times when you get some much-needed rest
Call a health professional.
If you are struggling with exhaustion and little sleep call a professional and get some help. There is no shame in needing help. Your body and your mind need as much looking after as your baby does. Your baby needs you in the best health possible to look after them. Looking after yourself is looking after your baby too.
Don’t try to switch to formula for better night sleep.
If your baby is feeding efficiently and well during the day adding in bottles of formula probably will not make much difference to nighttime sleep. However, if weight gain, milk transference or feeding are not going well, you should talk to a lactation consultant or your GP to work out the best options to keep your baby happily fed for their rapid growth and development.
Rest assured that it will get better.
Around 12 weeks of age, things start to get more comfortable. You will start to fall naturally into more predictive sleeping as the waking patterns of your baby’s bodies change and become more mature.
Even though your newborns erratic sleeping and feeding schedule may feel anything but typical, it probably is. The first few months can be a total blur of sleep deprivation as you learn to understand your babies cues, their needs as they get used to this new world.
You also have to figure out when to look after yourself while looking after this new tiny little being who takes up so much time during the day and night. When do you get a shower, something to eat and a short sleep time yourself?
Take your time. Don’t pressure yourself. Don’t compare yourself or your baby. And rest assured that by 12 weeks sleep for your baby should become a little more predictable. Always reach out and accept help even if you feel like you don’t need it.