When you become a parent for the first time, you learn pretty quickly that the phrase “sleep like a baby” is a tad misleading. Sure, when you first bring your little one home, they do spend a good portion of the day and night sleeping, but after the first couple of weeks, your sleepy baby starts becoming more alert and that can often lead to broken sleep, longer wakeful periods and unfortunately, some pretty intense sleep deprivation for parents. However, as the saying goes, the days/nights are long, but the years are short. The newborn sleep phase is just that – a phase. Your new baby won’t be a new baby for long, and you may even find yourself longing for the days of non-stop newborn snuggles at some point in the future. But when you’re in the thick of it, there’s no denying that it can be really tough. Becoming aware of what is actually happening with your little one can make those long days and nights a little more bearable, so here is the rundown on everything you need to know about newborn sleep.
- NEWBORNS CAN’T DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN NIGHT AND DAY
Unlike adults, babies’ sleep patterns are not governed by circadian rhythms (i.e., the physiological changes that typically follow a 24-hour cycle). Our exposure to light during the day, and darkness at night, results in signals being sent to our bodies about when to begin producing melatonin (the hormone which helps facilitate sleep) in line with our optimal sleep windows. When babies are in the womb, they receive these signals about day and night from the mother, but when they are born, that hormonal connection is broken. This is why babies tend not to follow any discernible sleep patterns for the first few months of life. It takes at least 12 weeks for a baby’s own circadian rhythm to establish itself, which is when parents may start noticing slightly longer sleep stretches overnight (emphasis on the word may). Until then, it is important to follow and babies’ cues in relation to sleeping and especially feeding; and respond to both on demand.
- COMMON TIRED SIGNS IN NEWBORNS
The best way to ensure you have a well-rested baby is to be aware of their tired signs and allow them to sleep as soon as possible once you notice them. Newborns have a very short capacity for awake time (around 45-60 minutes for most babies, including feeding/burping/changing etc) and the most common tired signals are:
- Rubbing eyes
- Jerky limbs
- Staring into space
- Looking to suck/sooth
As soon as you notice any of these signs, it is advisable to get baby to sleep pronto! Little ones can become overtired very easily and it is much harder to settle them to sleep if you miss their early tired cues.
- NEWBORNS WILL OFTEN NEED YOUR HELP TO FALL ASLEEP
It may come as a shock when your newborn doesn’t just magically fall asleep in your arms even when you KNOW that they’re definitely tired. But this is actually a quite common occurrence and perfectly normal. Many babies struggle to fall asleep once the maternal melatonin has worn off and so they need a lot of hands-on assistance to help them get there at times. Swaddling, rocking, bouncing, patting, and swaying are just a few of the ways you can help send your newborn to the land of nod. Contact naps are also helpful and there are some excellent slings and carriers on the market these days so you can have your hands free while baby naps. If you are attempting sleeps in the bassinet or crib, a very dark room and white noise can also set up a positive sleep environment. Being in the dark helps baby to begin producing melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone) and white noise mimics sounds from inside the womb which can provide added comfort. Don’t be worried about “creating bad habits” by assisting your baby to sleep, especially in those very early days. It is completely natural to do so and being well-rested supports baby’s growth and development too. There are gentle ways to teach your baby to fall asleep independently when they’re older, but in the newborn stage, they really do need a lot of hands-on support. So again, follow their cues and provide whatever assistance they need in those early days.
- NEWBORNS OFTEN EXPERIENCE “WITCHING HOUR”
You’re having a lovely day with your precious, content little newborn and all of a sudden 5pm hits and they are screaming their lungs out and nothing you do seems to help. This is what is known as newborn witching hour, although it can often last for two or more hours at a time. It’s a period of extreme fussiness in an otherwise happy, healthy baby, and usually falls between the hours of 5pm and 11pm. While perfectly normal newborn behaviour, it can be incredibly distressing for parents who are trying everything to help their babies to no avail. Many of the suggestions for helping baby to fall asleep when they’re tired may also help you get through your baby’s witching hour - if they have one. Swaddling, rocking, using white noise, holding them on their left side (helps with digestion), holding them in a carrier – these are all ways you can try to comfort your baby while they’re crying. It is also important to eliminate the most common reasons for a baby crying first (i.e. hungry, tired, dirty nappy, tummy pain etc.). If you begin to feel too overwhelmed, it is always advisable to put baby in their crib or basinet and take a few minutes to compose yourself and breathe. It is important to take care of yourself as well as baby in those intense moments. And rest assured that most babies will outgrow the witching hour by 3 months of age – so hang in there!
- WHEN DO BABIES START “SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT”?
When you hear the term “sleeping through the night” you probably assume that this means a baby is sleeping 10-12 hours straight. However, for newborns, sleeping through the night means being able to do stretches of 6+ hours at a time. It is biologically normal for some babies to need a feed overnight even up to 12 months of age, so if your baby begins doing longer stretches of 6+ hours and is able to settle quickly for another sleep after a feed, congratulations! Your little love is technically sleeping through the night. Eventually, an unbroken night sleep pattern of 10-12 hours will likely emerge for all children, but the timing will be different for each individual based on a range of factors including their temperament and nutrition. While it can be a challenging wait, you will get your sleep back at some point. You can pretty much say goodbye to sleep ins for the foreseeable future though – sorry!
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