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What to Expect: Infant Sleep

“Sleep when the baby sleeps.”

If this is the only infant sleep advice you’ve gotten so far, you’ve come to the right place!

  • The #1 topic new parents ask about is infant sleep - when does it happen, how often should the baby sleep, how does a new parent help the baby form good sleep habits, how many sleep regressions are there - the list goes on and on!

  • The key to coping with baby sleep habits is knowing what to expect, and having the correct mindset when approaching an infant sleep situation - if you know the science and the context behind baby sleep, you can set yourself up for less frustration and more success!

  • In this post, we’ll go over what healthy infant sleep looks like, how it differs from adult sleep, and what you need to know to develop the mindset to help you cope with even the most frustrating of sleep scenarios.

Suggested Sleep Environment and Routine

Creating a consistent routine and calm, quiet sleep environment at night can help foster healthy sleep habits from day one, no matter which room the baby is sleeping in at first.

An ideal sleep environment should contain:

  • White noise as loud as a shower

  • Room at a comfortable temperature (around 70-72 degrees)

  • Room as dark as possible (if 1 is bright natural light and 10 is pitch black, room should be an 8)

Establishing a solid bedtime routine with clear sleep associations can also help add structure and predictability for both parent and baby.

Choose a time at night that works for your family as “bedtime.” For example, as soon as sleep cues are noticed after, say, 9pm, begin simple routine such as:

  • Bath

  • Lotion/baby massage

  • PJs

  • Diaper

  • Swaddle

  • Bottle/nursing

  • Short book

  • Sing the same song while rocking a little

  • Lay the baby down drowsy but awake

During the day, the naptime routine should occur as soon as sleep cues are noticed (every 3-4 hours or so), and be an abbreviated version of bedtime routine, such as:

  • Diaper

  • Swaddle

  • (Bottle/nursing, if needed)

  • Sing the same song while rocking a little

  • Lay down drowsy but awake

Suggested Techniques

  • The goal is to create a 3-4 hour cycle during the day of eat-play-sleep, and overnight of eat-sleep (no play overnight - keep it "all business"). Newborn babies sleep fairly randomly, but will begin to form a pattern of daytime napping after about 1-2hrs of awake time, with naps lasting from 45min to 2+hrs. By 3-6m of age, there will usually be 3 distinct naps, with the first 2 being longer and the last one being a shorter "catnap" in the evening.

  • If your baby is consistently hungry before sleep, you can also employ an eat-play-eat-sleep routine, but try to put the feeding part of the nap/bedtime routine far enough away from laying down as possible so as not to create a strong eating to sleep association, which can become a sleep crutch in older babies. Ideally, we'd like your baby to use passive sleep associations to get to sleep, such as their environment, clothing, sound and dark/light, rather than active sleep associations such as eating or rocking.

  • During the early weeks, I highly recommend creating a "gameplan" for bedtime that involves tag teaming between 2 adults in the household, if possible. For example, darken/quiet the house and begin the bedtime routine at the first sign of sleepiness after 9pm. One partner takes the bedtime feeding and goes to bed herself shortly afterwards. Then the other parent takes the first wake up and lets the other sleep. Then the first partner takes the next wake up, letting the other parent sleep, etc. This way, each adult gets about a 4hr chunk of sleep throughout the night. You can also assign alternating naptime routines to each adult so that you both get breaks during the day.

  • Overnight, I recommend swaddling right after the diaper change to maximize swaddled time (to keep baby as sleepy as possible), and sitting less upright with baby after the feeding - more of an incline, and less straight up. Sitting straight up signals to the brain that it's time to be alert and can make it harder for your baby to settle afterwards. Shortening this time by a few minutes may also help - the longer your baby is awake, the less sleepy they may become.

  • A note on daytime sleep: If your baby will not settle for naps after being put down, try the naptime routine again (except the bottle) to "reset" them. If they still won't settle, you can use a baby wrap and a pacifier to wear your baby around the house as they nap and you're hands-free to get things done. Remember, babies this little can't develop "bad habits" yet - you won't "spoil" your baby by wearing or holding them "too much!" In these early days, you "do what you gotta do" to get rest and to get things done! Babywearing also mimics tummytime - the same muscles are employed to help build neck and back strength - so you'd be killing 2 birds with one stone!

  • Simethicone (gas drops) is a good way to minimize gas after a feeding, as is making sure your baby gets a couple solid burps out before being laid down. Sometimes gas bubbles can be trapped until your baby lays down, when they begin to move around, and can cause discomfort and waking.

  • Swings may be a good tool to use during the day for induced naps when you need a break, but non-wrap naps should preferably move into the bassinet/nursery around 8-10 weeks of age once your baby grows out of the "I can sleep anywhere" stage.

Baby Sleep Science

Keeping the following sleep facts in mind will help build a healthy mindset as to why your baby is waking and/or eating so much - frustrations largely come from having unrealistic expectations of newborn sleep based on what we know from our own (adult) sleep habits. This mindset, along with specific techniques and support plans in place, will help everyone remain calm and get as much rest as is possible during these early days. I promise it gets easier - and sooner than you'd think! These are the "longest, shortest days."

Fun Facts to Remember for a Healthy Sleep Mindset:

  • Every baby goes through a "witching hour" right around dinner time most nights. This is usually a result of a build up of stimuli from the busy day - they've just had enough! - and can also be attributed to any growth spurts or mental leaps taking place, and can also combine with cluster feeding - all normal newborn behavior (and yes, formula fed babies also cluster feed, it just may look a bit different than breastfeeding babies - it's all just to do with growth!)

  • The major physical growth spurts take place around 7-10 days, 2-3 weeks, 4-6 weeks, 3 months, 4 months, 6 months and 9 months (more or less). Mental leaps may take place around these same times, or in-between (search for “Wonder Weeks” for more information on this subject).

  • Birthing parents have hormones in their brains that are literally creating new pathways so that they sleep lighter and are more aware of babies' sounds than someone who has not given birth. This is why fathers or adoptive parents sometimes cannot hear their baby at night - however, with experience and practice, they too will develop these same neural pathways. This is why new parents often experience "baby brain" and are more forgetful, but also become better at multitasking and tuning into baby's needs (source: Newborn Mothers by Julia Jones). Keeping this in mind will help you to give yourself and your partner grace during this time of mental growth and learning.

  • Babies are not born with their own solid circadian rhythm - they are used to relying on mom's sleep hormones and movement in the womb. They need help developing their own rhythm and sleep hormones (cortisol and melatonin), which will be in full-swing by 12-16 weeks of age.

  • 2 ways to encourage circadian rhythm development in newborns:

  • Social Cues: during daytime awake time, involve baby in your routine. Tell her what you are doing, show her things, talk to her, and otherwise demonstrate "active" time.

  • Lighting: use natural light to make it bright during awake times, and dim/dark during wind down and sleep times.

  • With consistency, by 6 weeks of age most babies will develop distinct sleep patterns (ie, "learn day from night") but it will usually not be instant or at 100% until around 12 weeks.

  • Newborns need 16-22 hours of sleep in a 24-hr day. Overtired babies are harder to settle than those who are getting these long hours of sleep, which is why it's best to begin nap/bedtime at the first sign of sleepiness rather than trying to "keep baby up" in hopes of longer nighttime sleep. Babies this age cannot "sleep too much" - they're learning and growing at an amazing rate and need the sleep to renew their energy.

  • Babies this age will not sleep, wake, eat, etc. at the exact same time every day. Like us, they get hungry for a meal, or a snack, or thirsty for a drink at different times for different reasons. They may be tired from extra stimulation in any given day, or be more awake sometimes. They also go through many mental and physical growth spurts that affect their sleep and create some unpredictability in their sleeping habits. The idea in these early days is to follow your baby's lead: they will show you when they need to eat or sleep, and it will be roughly around the same time each day, but it will change as they grow - watching your baby, not the clock, will help ease frustrations and create more realistic expectations for how your day/night may go. Create a loose routine, not a rigid schedule.

  • Babies' sleep cycles are not as long as our own adult ones - they do not begin "sleeping like an adult" until around 4 months old. Babies sleep in 45min cycles, consisting mostly of lighter REM sleep, whereas we sleep in 2hr cycles consisting mostly of deeper, non-REM. This is why babies sometimes seem to wake up every 45min - they are not very good at moving seamlessly from one cycle to the next as adults do. Also, their stomachs are very small and digest their milk within about 45min, which leads to their wake times coinciding with when they next need to eat.


In conclusion...

A realistic mindset, knowledge of baby sleep science, and a solid routine can take a lot of stress out of sleep expectations with a new baby in the home. Understanding that a baby’s brain differs from ours in regards to sleep can allow a new parent the patience and context to cope with even the most frustrating sleep situations. Take each day in stride, and before you know it you’ll be sleeping through the night again - I promise!


Share Your Sleep Tips

What is the most useful tip you’ve gotten in regards to infant sleep, or what helped you the most as a new parent? Comment below!



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