Welcoming a newborn into your life is an incredible journey filled with joy, wonder, and a whole lot of sleepless nights. In those first few weeks, it might feel like you're living in a perpetual cycle of feeding, changing nappies, and rocking your little one back to sleep. However, there's good news – this phase is perfectly normal, and it won't last forever.
1. Understanding Newborn Sleep Patterns
Babies are born with an abundance of maternal melatonin, making them incredibly sleepy during their first few weeks of life. During this phase, your baby will wake, feed, poop, and then drift back to sleep only to repeat again moments later. At this stage, your primary focus should be on establishing great feeding and ensuring that your baby is gaining weight as expected.
It helps to understand that newborns don't have a fully developed circadian rhythm, which means they'll sleep and feed around the clock, with little distinction between day and night. To help them distinguish between these two as quickly as possible, keep naps in well-lit rooms during the day and maintain a quiet, dimly lit environment at night during any wakeful periods.
2. Create the Ideal Sleep Environment
Once your baby has learnt day from night, which is usually by three to six weeks, you should then transition to keeping all sleep times in the dark, including naps. This can help avoid catnapping during the day, as any light in the room can start be stimulating to a curious baby. Exposure to sunlight in the morning also signals to your baby’s brain that it's time to wake up, even if they haven't had a restful night's sleep.
To facilitate a deeper sleep at bedtime, ensure that your baby's sleep space is entirely dark, no night lights needed! Melatonin, the hormone responsible for promoting deep sleep, is produced only in the absence of light, making a pitch-dark room essential for quality sleep.
3. The Magic of White Noise
White noise can work wonders when it comes to soothing your newborn. The gentle, consistent sound mimics the comforting environment of the womb, helping your baby fall asleep more easily. It also serves as a sound buffer, masking any external noises that could otherwise startle your baby awake.
Consistently using white noise as a sleep cue is key, as it helps to create a reliable signal that your baby associates with sleep times, and can help them settle to sleep easier and stay asleep longer. It’s also helpful to play when you’re trying to get them to nap in a new environment or on the go.
4. Swaddling for Comfort
All newborns have a strong Moro Reflex (Startle Reflex), often triggered by changes in light, noise, or sudden movements. This reflex can easily disrupt your baby's sleep. Swaddling your baby with their arms by their side mimics the snug feeling they experienced in the womb and helps prevent the Moro Reflex from abruptly waking them mid sleep.
Remember, it's important to stop swaddling their arms in as soon as your baby shows signs of rolling to ensure their safety. This is when you can switch to a baby sleeping bag or sleep sack that still ensure they can stay cosy and warm all night.
5. Multiple Sleep Associations
Allow your baby to fall asleep in different ways for different caregivers. Whether you find it easiest to feed, rock, bounce, or pat your baby to sleep just make sure to regularly practice having another caregiver settle them to sleep as well. This way they won’t get too attached to one single way of falling asleep and both parents can still have some freedom when needed.
6. No need to rush "Drowsy but Awake"
While you may have heard the advice of putting your baby down "drowsy but awake," it doesn't always work as expected. Babies often wake up when placed in their bassinet, and the cycle of repeatedly picking them up and laying them down can lead to longer wake windows and overstimulation. Instead, practice putting your baby down awake in their bassinet and use hands-on touch and shushing to help them transition from awake to asleep. As they get more and more comfortable falling asleep their with your help that’s when you can try popping them down “drowsy but awake” and see if they’re able to get themselves of to sleep without needing much assistance.
7. Recognize REM Sleep
Understanding your baby's sleep patterns is crucial. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is often referred to as Active sleep. Young babies in REM sleep will start to breathe more rapidly, twitch, jerk, grimace, grunt and even cry. Their eyelids can flutter, and they may even smile. In contrast, babies will breath slower and barely move during non-REM sleep, which is considered a quieter and deeper type of sleep.
Parents can often confuse REM sleep movements as them waking up, but, babies often transition from REM sleep back to non-REM sleep without fully waking. So before interrupting their seemingly restless yet peaceful slumber, check to ensure they're genuinely awake or whether they’re just about to transition back into another deeper sleep cycle.
8. Wake Them to Feed During the Day
Newborns are excellent calorie regulators over a rough 24 hour period, and tend to wake more in the night to compensate for any missed feeds during the day. So if your baby sleeps for an extended period during the day and it's approaching more than three hours between feeds, it's best to wake them for a feeding to ensure their getting enough of their calorie needs met during the day and in turn giving you the best chance of catching some ZZZZs overnight.
9. Follow Wake Windows
Newborns can only tolerate short periods of wakefulness before becoming overtired, usually ranging from 45 minutes to just over an hour in the first few weeks. Missing their ideal sleep window can lead to the release of stress-related hormones and increased fussiness. Following appropriate wake windows ensures that your baby is neither under nor overtired, giving them the best chance of settling easily for sleep and taking a longer, more restful nap.
In these initial six weeks, establishing healthy sleep habits is essential for both your baby's well-being and your sanity. By creating a conducive sleep environment, providing comfort through techniques like swaddling and white noise, and paying attention to your baby's unique sleep cues, you can navigate the challenging early stages of parenthood with greater ease and confidence.
Written by Melissa, an internationally certified baby sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep Code. Baby Sleep Code offers virtual one-on-one sleep consulting packages and downloadable educational resources like their Newborn Sleep Guide. Their services are 5-star reviewed and have often been described as “Life Changing.