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The expression “sleeping like a baby” brings to mind a long, quiet snooze. But on the same token, new parents are warned that their little bundle of joy will arrive with a big serving of sleep deprivation. What can parents truly expect when it comes to newborn sleep? Let’s dig into the science of sleep in the first three months of life.
How much does a newborn sleep?
Most newborns sleep between 14-17 hours per day, collectively. While they need quite a bit of sleep, there isn’t much of a sleep pattern present at birth. It’s normal for newborns to wake to eat every 2-4 hours to feed, and sometimes they may also need settling or diaper changes in between those wake ups. From 0-12 weeks, babies take 3-5 naps per day. At birth, babies haven’t yet developed a circadian rhythm and often confuse night and day. This is why the newborn phase is a recipe for tired parents, and the help of a newborn care specialist or postpartum doula is so valuable. Professional support can help your whole family get better rest from the get go.
How often are newborns awake?
For the first three months, babies will only stay awake for 60-90 minutes at a time. Newborns that stay awake longer are prone to becoming overtired and fussy. During awake windows newborns cycle through different phases of alertness. During the quiet alert phase, newborns are quietly soaking in their environment with all their energy going into seeing and hearing. This is the perfect time to make eye contact with your baby and speak or sing softly to them.
Another awake phase is called “active alert.” During this phase, babies move their arms, legs, and facial muscles. They may make small noises or begin to root for the breast or bottle. During this phase they are less interested in making eye contact and may begin to become more interested in objects in their environment.
After these periods of wakefulness, newborns become drowsy. During this phase their eyes become glossy, they are less active and may yawn or stare off into space. Watch your baby closely for signs of tiredness, as it’s important to put them to sleep during this window. Babies that stay awake past the drowsy phase may become conversely over-alert due to the release of cortisol and other stress hormones.
Crying is another phase of alertness. Newborns use crying to communicate many different needs, like to be held, fed, changed, soothed, or put to sleep. It’s not always easy at first to tell what your baby needs when they cry, but it gets easier in time. If your baby begins to cry after first fussing or rubbing their eyes, they may be overtired.
What does normal newborn sleep look like?
Many parents are surprised to learn that their newborns are quite active sleepers. During sleep, they may grunt loudly, move their body, or even open their eyes briefly before gently closing them again. Newborns are such active sleepers because they drop quickly into REM (lighter) sleep. This changes during the 4-month sleep regression when babies begin to cycle through different levels of sleep.
It’s so important for parents to understand what normal newborn sleep looks like. Many well-intentioned parents hear their babies making noises in their bassinet and quickly scoop them up to feed them. Meanwhile, their babies weren’t yet ready to wake up. This can quickly lead to a cycle of overtiredness where babies are fussy, dozing off during feeds, and have trouble settling down for sleep. Hiring a professional for overnight newborn care is a great way to reset and get back on track with a healthy sleep pattern.
How can I help my newborn get good sleep?
Healthy sleep habits start from day one. Newborns need consistent sleep practices to develop a healthy sleeping pattern.
First off, always follow safe sleep guidelines. The ABC’s of safe sleep address the basics: babies should sleep Alone, on their Back, and in a Crib. While room sharing is encouraged for the first 6 months – a year, babies should never share a sleep surface with an adult or child. Babies should always be put to sleep on their back on a safe sleeping surface such as a crib or bassinet. There should be nothing in the bassinet except a well-fitted sheet and a pacifier.
The room environment is another important factor. Keep the temperature at 68-72 degrees and don’t overdress your baby. For most babies this means a simple sleeper and a swaddle blanket. Swaddling is a wonderful way to promote better sleep by preventing the startle reflex during sleep. Newborns can be swaddled with arms-in until they begin to roll, at which point it’s time to stop swaddling.
Keep the room dark during naps and nighttime. Babies aren’t afraid of the dark – they’re used to it! If you do choose to use a nightlight, opt for a red bulb.
Newborns are used to the sounds of the womb. Keep white, brown or pink noise playing in your baby’s room. Soothing music is great while winding down for sleep, but once it’s time for lights out stick to simple white noise.
One of the best ways to set your baby up for sleep success is to hire professional support. Newborn care specialists and postpartum doulas are experts in all aspects of infant care and work to support your whole family. Overnight newborn care allows you to get better rest, promoting postpartum healing, while also developing healthy sleep rhythms for your little one.
For an ebook detailing how to get your babies on a schedule and sleeping through the night for 12 weeks, we highly recommend this ebook, from Jules and anya.