Newborn sleep is like the wild west! And for good reason– they don’t have an established circadian rhythm yet. They’ve spent 9 months in total darkness and when they’re born, they have an underdeveloped pineal gland. That means they’re not producing hormones that tell them when it’s time to be awake or asleep!
The good news is that parents do have some influence over their newborns' sleep so all is not lost.
Setting appropriate and realistic expectations can help you not only cope through those first few months, but also thrive!
We aren’t talking about sleep training newborns, putting them on strict sleep or feeding schedules, or giving up all the snuggle naps– no way!
This blog’s purpose is to give you some insight into newborn sleep and why they sleep the way they do, some common sleep troubles newborns have, and what actionable steps you can take to support them as they continue to develop their sleep patterns.
In this blog, we will cover:
- What you can do to facilitate sleep
- Troubleshoot common newborn sleep troubles
- Manage cluster feeding and nursing struggles with sleep
- Safe sleep practices while keeping your little one close
- General sleep tips and helpful information to remember
What you can do to facilitate sleep
Because they’re not producing sleep hormones yet, they’ll often have their days and nights confused.
They’ll want to sleep all day, and party all night.
Which isn’t much of a party for parents who DON’T have day/night confusion. This is where parents sometimes struggle the most– but the good news is that we can help them through this!
Some things to help combat day/night confusion include:
- Waking them around the same time each day
- Exposing them to sunlight first thing in the morning and frequently throughout the day
- Waking them to eat every 2-3 hours during the day
- Keeping the lights down/dim in the evening and throughout the night
- Limiting interaction during night time wakings
Over time, they begin to sort things out and their circadian rhythm finishes developing in their 11th week. By 12 weeks is when parents tend to see a predictable pattern emerging when morning wake up and bedtime.
Other things you can do to work on sleep with your newborn include:
- Establishing a routine around sleep times as this will cue them about what is coming. Babies recognize patterns very early on!
- Most babies love to be swaddled but not all babies love the *act* of being swaddled. Incorporate the 5 S’s after you’ve swaddled to help them settle and drift off to dream land!
- Be mindful of their awake times and sleep cues
Troubleshoot Common Newborn Sleep Troubles
Outside of day/night confusion, babies also struggle with things like gas/reflux, overstimulation/difficulty settling, and sleeping in their own sleep space without being held.
You may also be healing from birth (traumatic or not), struggling with feeding (whether that’s nursing or bottles), and/or have your hands full with other children at home too!
It definitely makes things feel overwhelming and impossible to overcome. So here are some things you can do to get through that time period relatively unscathed.
For gas/reflux, some helpful tips are
- Hold upright after feedings
- Try to burp in different positions
- Belly massages during diaper changes
- Roll to the side for a diaper change (instead of lifting their legs up)
- Don’t feed right before sleeping if they’re going to be laying down after
- Feed at a slight incline with their head above their bell
For overstimulation, consider:
- That they’re not awake for long periods (a newborn has a very small threshold for being awake, generally about 45-60 mins including feedings)
- Use white noise to help mimic the womb
- Swaddling also calms them and mimics the womb
- Take them into a very dark room to decrease external stimulation
- Movement is helpful– bouncing, rocking, swaying, car rides
- Familiarize yourself with the 5 S’s from Happiest Baby on the Block
For difficulty getting your child to stay in their sleep space, try:
- Warming their space before you put them down
- Lowering them down while they’re still snuggled into you then gently rolling them to their back
- Hold them for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes before putting them down (it’s an experiment!)
- Keep your hand on them and slowly release pressure so you’re not abruptly gone
- Try to keep their head from tipping back when you lower them down as this elicits the startle reflex
- Sleep with their sheet so it smells familiar
- Spend time in their sleep space during awake time as well so they’re familiar with their space
- Transfer them while they’re still awake and shh/pat them until they’re calm/drowsy/asleep
You may also deal with the witching hour or have a colicky baby. Here are some tips for getting through that time:
- Get outside (especially in the early afternoon)
- Take a warm bath together
- Utilize infant massage
- Step away for a minute (your baby will be safe!)
- Wear ear plugs (for you to stay calm and regulated)
- Ask for help
Manage cluster feeding and nursing struggles with sleep
Cluster feeding is when a baby will suddenly start eating much more frequently for a period of time. It’s usually for a few hours in the evening and differs from their normal eating patterns.
It doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong with their intake or your milk supply, but if you feel like your baby is always eating without being satisfied, it would be good to investigate that with your physician or lactation consultant.
It’s common in infants that are a few days to a few weeks old. They may show their usual hunger signs and won’t stop crying/won't be settled until they’re fed.
It’ll feel like they want to eat constantly or frequently for short periods of time and nothing else is “wrong.” It could also indicate a growth spurt!
Ways to manage cluster feeding with a newborn include:
- Supplementing with formula or pumped milk
- Parking yourself on the couch with a plate of food/snacks for yourself and your favorite show
- Change feeding positions often so you don’t get sore
- Take care of your nipples with lanolin or silverettes when you’re not feeding on that side
- Have a basket of special toys for older siblings
- Hand off baby for a short period of time and take a shower
- Communicate ahead of time if this is a normal pattern for your little one about expectations, ways family can help, etc
Safe sleep practices while keeping your little one close
Ways to practice safe sleep while keeping your baby close to you includes:
- Room sharing
- Keeping a bassinet or pack n play close to you for ease of access
- Always place baby on their back
- Don’t place anything in their sleep space with them (just baby and a tight fitted sheet)
General sleep tips and helpful information to remember
Newborn sleep is a rollercoaster sometimes– it’s okay to feel like what worked last week doesn’t work again this week. That’ll happen as their sleep is developing a lot in the first few months!
The most important thing is to try to create some consistent routines around sleep, getting in good day time naps however you can, and take some shifts with a partner if that’s an option (yes, even if you’re nursing).
You’ll be through the newborn fog in no time. If you’re still struggling with sleep, you can always find a resource or someone to help you get through it!
Ashley Olson is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, owner of Heaven Sent Sleep, and passionate about helping new parents, experienced parents, desperate and sleep deprived parents form healthy sleep habits for their children.
She has over 3 years of experience in working with families and has completed over 150 hours of coursework plus continuing education related to infant and toddler sleep. The focus of her work is on fostering a routine that grows your bond with your child while improving their sleep habits. She specializes in custom sleep plans and one on one support in changing sleep practices!