Science Backed Tips To Maximize Newborn Sleep

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As any parent of a newborn knows, there are three top topics to discuss: is the baby eating enough? Is the baby pooping enough? And last, but definitely not least, is the baby sleeping enough? Sleep is a hot topic among new parents, particularly if you aren’t getting any. Newborns doze at all hours of the day and have absolutely no concept of night vs. day. On top of this erratic and seemingly unpredictable sleep schedule, they awaken frequently. Talk about a recipe for exhaustion and sleep deprivation! 

Before we dive into the wonderful (and complex!) world of newborn sleep I want to share with you the secret to successful parenting: Self Care. Newborns are entirely dependent on their parents for their every need; as they grow, the needs and physical and emotional demands change and adjust, however you will always be their parent. If you aren’t taking care of your own needs, you are not going to be able to provide and care for your child in the way that you wish you could. Conversations about postpartum depression and anxiety are becoming much more common, people are speaking up more about their experiences. If you feel like you might be struggling, please reach out for support – you are not alone. Use your partner, parents, friends and neighbours, or even a postpartum doula to help you. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure you create a self-care plan to make sure your tank is full! 

Whoever invented the phrase, “Sleep like a baby,” obviously never had children. There are many books, articles, and resources out there giving you advice on how to have your baby sleeping through the night, how to teach “self soothing,” the importance of “drowsy but awake,” and many other claims to sleep success. The thing that all of the authors forget to mention is, newborns sleep like newborns for a reason (and no, its not to drive you crazy!). We are hoping that this article will shed some light on what to realistically expect from your newborn and give you some tips and tricks to help you maximize sleep for your family.

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What does Normal Infant Sleep Look Like? 

Newborns sleep A LOT – up to 16-18 hours a day! They cycle through 25 minutes of active sleep where your baby may twitch, flail, grunt, and even cry out and then transition into 25 minutes of what is known as quiet sleep. These two phases of sleep are similar to what we know as REM (active sleep) and non-REM (quiet sleep) in adults. 

One of the most common scenarios I see in my work with newborn families is parents who interpret the active sleep behaviours as signs that their baby is waking up, so they charge in with the intention to preserve or extend the nap and, as a result of their “help,” actually wake their baby up. If you hear your baby squawk, give it a second to see if it is actually crying indicating that they are awake and need you, or if its just a random sleep noise your baby is making to remind you of their presence (as if you could forget!). 

What are realistic sleep expectations for newborns? 

Every baby is different, just as every family is unique. Just because your sisters, best friends, cousins wife’s baby is sleeping through the night doesn’t mean that yours is going to. Comparison truly is the ruler of all evil. 

Newborns have tiny tummies that need filling often. They are going to wake every 2 to 3 hours to eat, go through growth spurts (around 2, 4 and 6 weeks) where they eat more frequently and need your help in falling asleep. It is biologically and developmentally normal for your baby to only sleep for 1-3 hour stretches because they are not able to consume enough food to go for longer. Remember, this isn’t going to last forever! 

Circadian rhythm is the body function that tells us when we should be awake and when we should be asleep. Babies are born with an undeveloped biological clock, therefore a common newborn sleep challenge is day / night confusion. This would mean that your baby is sleeping for longer stretches during the day and is significantly more alert during the night. 

Newborns need A LOT of sleep. This means that they are likely only going to be awake long enough to eat and have a diaper change and then they will be ready to go back to sleep. It is completely normal for your newborn to have frequent, short cat naps interspersed with longer stretches here and there. 

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Why do Babies wake so frequently?

Other than having tiny tummies that need filling regularly, babies are hardwired to wake frequently. This is actually a survival mechanism; encouraging babies to sleep too deeply, too soon can put them at risk for SIDS. Babies are programmed to sleep lightly and wake frequently; this is developmentally normal behaviour. Your newborn will take a few months to figure out how to link sleep cycles together and then things will start to improve on the sleep front. 

Strategies for Newborn Sleep Success:

Have realistic expectations. If you have concerns that your baby is doing anything out of the norm, check in with your doctor or local health nurse, otherwise go back through the reasonable expectations section and comfort yourself with the knowledge that this will not last forever. 

Routines have been shown to benefit infants as young as 6 weeks and will prove to be beneficial for years to come. Don’t mistake our use of the word routine for a schedule. A routine is based on a sequence of events whereas a schedule is centered around the clock. You can create routines around bedtime, nighttime wakings, feeding, naps, etc. The key is to do the same activities in the same order to ensure your little one knows what is coming next. 

Encourage sleep flexibility. Babies want to be close to us, it’s another survival mechanism. They literally rely on us for their every need so it makes sense for them to want to be closest to the people who make them feel safe and secure. If your baby wants to be held or nursed to sleep, that is completely fine! We would just encourage you to explore other ways to put your baby to sleep as well. Having 3-4 options prevents your baby from becoming dependent on any one method. This will help you in the long run. 

Get to know your baby! Just like no two people are the same, no two babies are! Even if this is your second, third or even fourth baby, it is unlikely that this little one is anything like their siblings. This means that you need to get to know their personality and temperament in order to accurately respond to them. 

Surround yourself with like-minded parents. People love to provide unsolicited advice about sleep and what your baby should be doing. Learn to filter out the misinformation that you receive which will likely only lead you to believe you have a sleep problem, when in fact, your sleep situation is perfectly normal. 

Create a support system. Have family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or a postpartum doula come and support you in the early weeks and months. There’s a reason the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is referenced so much. Accept help where it is offered and don’t be too proud to ask for it. 

If you need more support or are seeking more in-depth information on Newborn sleep and how to set your family up for sleep success, check out our Start Out Right webinar – it will provide you with all of the tools and information necessary to get the most sleep, right from the start.