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What to Expect: Infant Sleep

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

“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.

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.

  • During the early weeks, I highly recommend creating a "gameplan" for bedtime that involves tag teaming between 2 adults in the household, if possible. You can also assign alternating naptime routines to each adult so that you both get breaks during the day.

  • Overnight, I recommend 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.

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.

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.

  • 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).

  • 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. Use social cues, sound, and lighting to promote healthy circadian rhythms.

  • 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 will not sleep, wake, eat, etc. at the exact same time every day. Watching your baby, not the clock, will help ease frustrations and create more realistic expectations for how your day/night may go.

  • 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.

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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