Newborn Sleep – Everything You Need To Know
Newborn sleep is the hot topic when you’ve had a baby. Newborn babies have very different sleep patterns and needs compared to older babies and children.
At Nurtured Birth we believe the period after birth is an important space for mothers to heal, for bonding with your new baby, and adjusting to a new family dynamic.
Sleep and rest are a big part of this and knowing what to expect in the first few weeks can ease the transition into early parenting.
Can newborn babies sleep too much?
Newborns tend to be very sleepy in the first few days after birth.
They sleep for around 16-20 hours in a 24 hour day and there’s no pattern to their sleep as their brains haven’t started producing melatonin, the hormone responsible for wake-sleep cycles.
It’s very normal for your newborn to have day and night mixed up because during pregnancy, your baby was tuned into your body cues about day and night.
Newborns can’t cope with being awake for more than 45-60 minutes. After this, your newborn becomes overtired and their body produces too much cortisol, making it even harder to go to sleep.
As their nervous system starts to mature, your newborn becomes more alert and sensitive to their environment.
How should a baby sleep?
New parents are often surprised at how much their newborn wants to be held, even when sleeping. Newborns are driven by an innate instinct to feel safe and comfortable, especially as they’re adjusting to the world outside the womb. They survive by seeking out comfort and safety, crying if they’re put down or left in a quiet, dark room alone.
New parents can feel they’re doing the ‘wrong’ thing by holding their sleeping newborn. Just remember your newborn is wired for this connection and you can’t ‘spoil’ them by holding them when they’re asleep.
Make sure when your baby is sleeping on their own you follow the safe sleeping guidelines (you can find more information here).
Can you teach a baby to sleep?
Many new parents look for ways to help or teach their newborn to sleep ‘well’. Society perpetuates the idea a ‘good baby’ is one that learns to sleep for longer periods as early as possible.
There are plenty of so-called baby sleep experts pushing the idea that newborns can be ‘taught’ to sleep well if only parents do X or Y. That if you start off the ‘right’ way, then you’ll have a perfect sleeping baby within no time.
When these steps fail, it leads to parents feeling like failures and becoming more frustrated. And when you’re in the thick of being woken several times a night, it’s tempting to think there’s something ‘wrong’ with your baby.
The reality is, newborns don’t sleep badly to inconvenience anyone. They are sleeping in a way that is normal and appropriate for their development and needs.
What does newborn sleep look like?
Newborns sleep very differently to adults, spending most of their time in rapid eye movement sleep (REM). This means they have short sleep cycles of around 55-50 minutes and can be very active in their sleep (twitching, stretching, crying out). They can also move through sleep cycles quite frequently.
REM is very light sleep, and is thought to be a necessary part of newborn brain development. But it also has another protective purpose. Babies who are in deep sleep find it harder to wake up if they’re not getting enough oxygen. While REM is lighter sleep and newborns can wake up from more easily, they are less at risk of SIDS.
As babies grow and develop, their sleep will change. It’s not an exact science, because not all babies develop the same way. Some babies want longer periods of feeling safe, others need more or less sleep, and there are babies who are completely textbook.
Around 6 weeks of age, your baby’s brain starts to produce small amounts of melatonin, ramping up around 12 weeks after birth. It’s not instant but you will notice your baby’s sleep starts to fall into a more organised pattern.
Exclusively breastfeeding can help your baby to sort out their sleep patterns. Breast milk contains an amino acid called tryptophan that the body uses to make melatonin (how cool are women’s bodies!). Tryptophan levels change according to your circadian rhythm, so when you breastfeed your baby before bedtime, they fall asleep faster.
Remember newborns have small tummies and can’t last all night without fuelling up. Frequent night-wakings to feed is normal and necessary for newborns. As your baby grows, they may space out feeds and wake less often at night. Some babies might still wake to nurse but go back to sleep quickly.
How to cope with sleep deprivation with a newborn?
Most new parents find it really challenging to cope with a sudden sleep deficit when they have a newborn. New mamas who are up several times a night breastfeeding are also recovering from birth and the exhaustion of pregnancy. An important part of coping with sleep deprivation is looking after yourself:
- Sleep when your baby is sleeping. Even a 30 minute power nap can help you get through the day. Prioritise having a nap over household chores, entertaining visitors etc.
- If you are too awake to nap or have other children to care for, make time to sit quietly or rest. You might find yourself dozing while your baby sleeps and older children are watching a TV program.
- Set up a safe sleeping space for you and your baby at night. Breastfeeding mothers who sleep close to their babies (safe cosleeping or room sharing) get more sleep than those who don’t sleep in the same space.
- Let your baby be exposed to natural lighting during the day and keep lights dimmed at night. Natural light can influence your baby’s sleep patterns and keeps your own circadian rhythms on track (helping you to produce plenty of sleep inducing breastmilk!).
- Ask for help if you’re feeling really sleep deprived. Your partner, family or trusted friend can cuddle and care for your newborn while you have a restorative nap. If you don’t have support from family and friends, consider a postnatal doula to provide support.
- Sometimes babies don’t sleep due to health issues such as reflux. Seek guidance from your doctor, midwife or maternal health nurse if your instincts are telling you something isn’t right.
- Often parents mistake their baby moving or vocalising as a sign they’re waking up and rush into soothe, and then disrupt their baby from settling into the next sleep cycle. Tune into your baby and you’ll start to know the difference when they’re truly awake.
- Never feel you are going to spoil your baby by responding to their needs when they’re signaling they need you. Babywearing can be a great way to keep your newborn close and help them feel safe, while you go about your day.
- Recognise if you’re feeling completely wiped out and stressed due to sleep deprivation and seek support. Watch for signs of postnatal depression and anxiety.
- Accept this is a stage most babies go through and grow out of, until the next growth and developmental stage arises. Be gentle on yourself.
Click here to find out how Nurtured Birth’s postnatal doula can surround you with support and nurture as you navigate the early days of parenting.
Author: Sam McCulloch, Wordsmith at Nurtured Birth