Snug as a Bug in a Rug! Newborn Sleep Basics
May 18, 2017
Anyone will tell you that one of the most difficult things about being a new parent is getting baby on a good sleep schedule so you can finally catch a few ZZZs of your own. Most newborns have a tendency to act like nighttime is party time, which may not coincide with your way of doing things. It helps to be well-informed about newborn sleep, and to nail down your sleep techniques early on so you can stick to them. Consistency is key when it comes to establishing a newborn sleep schedule.
Newborn babies (those under 3 months of age) need upward of 16–20 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. That’s a lot! So why does the newborn crew get such a bad rap when it comes to sleep? It’s because they sleep in very short intervals during these early weeks, and that doesn’t change at night. Newborn sleep patterns are super erratic. Most newborns don’t sleep more than one to two hours at a time when you first bring them home, and trying to get baby on any sort of newborn sleep schedule can feel like a hopeless endeavor. The best thing you can do is just soldier through the first couple of weeks until baby has the capacity to start consolidating some of her catnaps (and feedings!).
Outside of ultrasounds and hearing baby’s heartbeat, there’s nothing more fun during pregnancy than pulling together a dream nursery that’s just perfect for your little prince or princess. But don’t stress if you don’t get it finished in time for the birth, because scientists and pediatricians alike now strongly recommend you have your newborn sleep in your room, at least for the first few months. The American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends the arrangement of room-sharing without bed-sharing, or having the infant sleep in the parents’ room but on a separate sleep surface (crib or similar surface) close to the parents’ bed.”
James McKenna, PhD, a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, readily agrees with the idea, adding, “infants should always sleep on their backs, on firm surfaces… in the absence of (secondhand) smoke… and their heads should never be covered.” All of these newborn sleep recommendations are made in an attempt to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which occurs when a baby dies in his sleep without warning and without being otherwise ill or impaired. Peaking between the ages of 1 and 5 months, the risk of SIDS can be reduced by incorporating the following newborn sleep tips:
- Always have your newborn sleep on his back, not his side or tummy
- Always have your newborn sleep on a firm surface with a tight-fitting sheet under him
- Never use blankets, pillows, crib bumpers or stuffed animals in baby’s crib
- Always use a fan to circulate air in the room where baby is sleeping
- Have baby sleep in your room for the first several months of life
- Never smoke in or near baby’s room
- Avoid co-sleeping with newborn babies; instead use a co-sleeper.
It can be frustrating when baby refuses to sleep, because sleep is so not overrated. First, take a deep breath, remember to take care of yourself when you can, and know that it’s okay to ask for help! The early days, weeks and even months with a newborn are incredibly tough, so give yourself a break. After you do that, give baby a break—tiny babies are simply not wired to sleep for long periods at a time.
That said, to keep baby from getting overtired, you do need baby to sleep! We’ve put together a list of tips that you can try if your newborn won’t sleep.
- Imitate the womb. Babies are used to feeling cozy, warm and well, cramped. It’s tight in there, and it’s dark. To re-create this in our fast and frenzied world and help your newborn sleep, make sure baby is fed and changed, then swaddle her tightly, take her into a quiet, darkened room and rock, gently bounce or swing her until she becomes drowsy. Then, gently lay her down.
- Don’t jump the gun. Newborns have not yet gained control of their reflexes, and this causes them to make all sorts of noises and movements in their sleep. It’s not uncommon for babies to cry out while sleeping, but don’t rush in too soon—this doesn’t always mean baby is awake. By picking baby up at every movement or noise, you will interfere with the natural sleep rhythms.
- Avoid overstimulation during the day. You’re always exhausted after a long, hectic day, so why wouldn’t baby be the same way? Ahh, if it were that easy. Young babies can easily become overstimulated, which causes them to become overtired, and trust us—this is not a place you want to be! Of course, there will be times when this will happen—after all, every relative on the face of the earth wants to stop by and hold baby when you first come home from the hospital. But it’s wise to establish a routine early on and say no to visitors if they begin to interfere with baby getting shut-eye during the day.
- Limit caffeine if you’re breastfeeding. Your newborn won’t sleep at night, and you’re so tired that blinking feels like sweet relief, so you reach for a huge cup of coffee at 4:30 p.m. Quite a cycle you’re in! As difficult as it is, skip that cup of joe in the afternoon if you’re breastfeeding. Caffeine can make baby alert in the exact same way it does for you.
- Consult your doctor if baby is inconsolable. If you’re dealing with a baby that’s screaming constantly, you may have a case of colic or acid reflux on your hands. Schedule a visit with your pediatrician to ensure that baby is as healthy and comfortable as possible. The doctor can prescribe Zantac for babies with reflux, and you can purchase a sleep wedge. If baby’s colicky, rest assured that while extremely difficult, this phase is relatively short-lived, and a happy, smiley baby is just around the corner.
Just as baffling as the baby who won’t sleep is the baby who seemingly sleeps all day. If your newborn sleeps all day, you may find yourself unsure of whether to wake him for a feeding. In general, babies tend to “wake up” during their third week of life and begin to move out of that “sleeping all the time” phase. If baby is 3 weeks or older and still skipping feedings in favor of sleep, here’s what you need to know about decreasing newborn sleep time:
- Make sure baby is healthy. Check to make sure baby isn’t running a fever. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommends that you “call your baby’s doctor immediately if your baby is younger than 3 months old and has a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher.”
- Make sure baby is gaining weight. It’s important to attend those well checks when you have a newborn, even though it seems like you’re schlepping to the doctor every single week. At these visits, your pediatrician is keeping a close eye on baby’s weight gain. As long as baby is gaining weight and has several wet and dirty diapers each day, then it’s okay if your newborn sleeps all day! You may just have a good sleeper on your hands.
If baby is healthy but needs to ramp up the feedings to stay on track with growth charts, try these tips to encourage a bit of wakefulness during the day:
- Unswaddle baby. Swaddling babies makes them feel warm and snug, which naturally encourages drowsiness. Try unswaddling or even undressing baby to rouse her from her sleepy state.
- Change baby’s diaper. Along the same lines, a diaper change can drive away the sleepies long enough to get in a good feeding.
- Sleep/wake/eat cycle. One likely reason for baby’s oversleeping may just be that he hasn’t yet established his circadian rhythm. The good news is, you can help! Structure baby’s day as a series of three- to four-hour cycles that include sleep time, followed by wake time, then a nursing session or a bottle as baby gets drowsy again. Try these activities to keep even the youngest baby up during wake times:
- Take a walk outside
- Sing a song or read a simple book
- Set baby in a bouncy seat with hanging toys
- Hold baby facing outward
Admittedly, the term “newborn sleep schedule” is a bit of an oxymoron, because babies this young simply aren’t ready for much of a schedule. Their undeveloped reflexes, lack of an established circadian rhythm and extraordinary brain development all lead to a mixed-up sleep situation that leaves you in an exhausted haze. But regardless of how tired you are, these early weeks pass by quickly, so it’s never too soon to establish good sleeping habits. We’ve found the sleep/wake/eat cycle to be a great place to start. In order to implement this, figure out how much should a newborn sleep using the chart above, then parse the number of recommended hours into sleep cycles based on baby’s age. Try these newborn sleep tips from the beginning to ensure baby becomes a good sleeper, even if there are some bumps in the road along the way.
- Follow the sleep/wake/eat cycle
- Don’t rock or nurse baby until she’s sound asleep; only drowsy
- Keep things dark at night and light during the day
- Keep nighttime interactions to a minimum