Having a baby can be life changing (particularly if it is your first baby) and many parents tell me that they feel quite nervous, unsure, or even overwhelmed by it all. But please don’t panic, all of these feelings are entirely normal. Being a new parent is an exciting experience but it is a role that you’ve never done before, so of course you are apprehensive!
People often delight in telling you that when the baby comes along your nights of lovely sleep will be over and that you will never sleep again. Whilst the first few weeks and months are certainly challenging, you will find it much easier if you understand more about new babies sleep and what to expect.
Understanding Newborn Sleep
1) The first few days – During your baby’s first few days of life, she will sleep a lot. This often lulls people into a false sense of security, they smile to each other ‘Huh, this is easy!’ But this time is actually mother nature’s way of giving Mum a rest after the challenges of labour.
Make sure that you all take the opportunity to rest, recover and bond with your new baby. It can be really tempting to whizz around doing everything and welcoming everyone to see your precious new bundle, but this is your time to be kind to yourself and your baby, and let your new family rest and recover. After the first few days things will change and there will be new challenges to look forward to!
2) Your new-born WILL wake during the night – It is perfectly normal and healthy for new-born babies to wake frequently during the night. Make sure that you have understood that and remember it. You may hear of some babies that are quickly able to sleep for longer stretches at night, but most babies will wake to feed every 3-4 hours during the night, sometimes more if they are in the middle of a developmental leap or a growth spurt.
Think about how you can manage the frequent night wakes, perhaps taking shifts between set times, allowing both parents to have a block of sleep.
3) Babies can’t tell night from day – As adults, our bodies are programmed to know when it is time to wake up and when it is time to sleep, thanks to our own internal body clock known as our circadian rhythm.
New-born babies are not born with this circadian rhythm and can’t initially tell the difference between night and day. They won’t fully produce their sleep hormone, Melatonin, until they are at least 9 to 12 weeks old when their pineal gland matures. After about 12 weeks of age, they begin to develop their own circadian rhythm but it won’t be fully developed until they are around 6 to 8 months old.
Until then, you can help your baby by exposing him to as much light (natural daylight if possible) and normal noise and activity for 12 daytime hours, followed by 12 hours of darkness or dim lighting and relative quiet. Although your baby won’t be able to maintain wake or sleep for very long during these periods, it will help them to distinguish the difference and develop their own circadian rhythm.
4) They need to feed around the clock – Newborn babies have very, very small stomachs and they cannot hold much milk at all. It is not until about 4 weeks old that your baby’s stomach will reach the size of an egg, and she will be able to eat between 2.5 to 5 ounces in one go.
Newborn’s will feed little and often, throughout the day and the night, and that is perfectly normal. Be prepared to breastfeed or bottle feed regularly around the clock, regardless of whether you would normally be asleep. Think about ways to be prepared to make the night feeds easier on you and make sure that Mum is eating and drinking healthily on a regular basis.
5) Wakes are not all about feeds – Babies won’t just wake up to feed either. Babies have ‘touch’ reserves that need to be filled too. Your baby may wake up because he is craving close contact with you and just needs to fill up on snuggles.
6) Babies can’t do it alone – Before your baby was born, he was held and rocked to sleep in the womb and he was used to the sound of your voice and heartbeat. He is definitely not used to lying flat in a cot or Moses basket and getting himself to sleep alone. He is reliant on you to do that for him until he’s old enough to learn this skill, which usually happens between 4 and 6 months. Don’t expect him to fall asleep beautifully in his crib all alone from very early on.
7) Create a Sleep Sanctuary for your baby – Babies, and particularly newborns, sleep best in conditions that mimic the womb. Try to replicate the darkness, comfort and noise that they are used to. Black out blinds or curtains and a white noise machine can be helpful in encouraging your baby to settle.
8) You can’t spoil a Newborn – I often hear from new mothers worrying about whether they are storing up problems for the future, or in some way spoiling their baby by giving them lots of love and cuddles in the first weeks and months. In fact, the reverse is true. You can’t spoil a newborn with love. No irreversible ‘bad’ habits can be created in these first few months. Responding and attending to your child will increase her confidence and your bond with your baby. So go ahead, get snuggling and cuddling your newborn as much as you like!
9) Do what works – If you find that you need to rock or cuddle you baby to sleep, that is absolutely fine. Don’t’ worry or beat yourself up about it! Do what works for you and your baby now, so that you can bond, rest, feed, sleep and enjoy this precious time together.
10) Don’t compare – All babies are completely different because they have different genetics, personality, temperament, birth story, health, and a whole host of other factors. Unless you are comparing two absolute identical babies – don’t. Their sleep will be different and it doesn’t make them or you any better or worse. Comparisons will only lead to anxiety, which you simply don’t need.
11) Sleep Coaching won’t work! Wait, what? That’s right sleep coaching will not work for your newborn – at least not at first anyway. Your baby’s sleep is very different to the sleep of a 4 to 6-month-old and as a newborn, your baby is still figuring out the difference between night and day, and has not yet developed the ability to put herself to sleep.
When your baby is around 18 – 24 weeks of age you can start to introduce gentle sleep shaping methods that will help her to sleep more soundly.
Above all, keep in mind that night wakings are completely normal and necessary for babies. They will wake at night for a variety of reasons including feeding, comfort, calming, developmental milestones, the need to feel close to you and many, many others. Because babies are unable to self soothe, they will need your help falling back to sleep, and all of this is completely normal.
Now that you know more about newborn sleep, you will find it easier to tackle the early days with improved understanding and awareness. Make sure that you always follow Safe Sleep advice to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) which can be found here.
Being a parent is an important and tiring job – and one that you don’t get to finish at 5pm. But you can and you will get through this tricky first phase. Be kind to yourself and your family. Take time to enjoy it and support each other. It’s not going to be long before your baby is sleeping longer stretches, taking regular naps, and you will start to feel more at ease.
Rachael, The Sleep Sanctuary
The Sleep Sanctuary is a Children’s Sleep Consultancy supporting tired parents to help their children sleep soundly and live healthier, happier lives.
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