“the how, when, where, why and what for the first 3 months of newborn sleep”
I can’t help but cringe when I hear a new parent claim that their newborn child is a great sleeper at the ripe old age of 4 days. In fairness to them, they probably think that their baby’s sleep patterns are already ingrained in them – that they’re born either a “good sleeper” or a “bad sleeper” – but the truth of the matter is that newborn sleep needs change so much over the first year – especially the first 6 months. Therefore, it is important to understand what your baby needs from you, what you can try, and what you shouldn’t waste your time with.
Although there are lots of strict routine-based guides out there, I would steer clear of these, especially in the first 3 months. My advice to new mums and dads is to get to know their baby, better understand their behaviour, ensure all their needs are being met, and make decisions based on what feels right for them. There isn’t much consistency at the start, and each day can be quite different from the previous one, but with age and development this will change and you will find the flow that works for your family.
HOW much should your newborn sleep?
How much sleep each child needs varies from baby to baby and a good way to tell if they’re getting enough, is not by watching the clock too closely, but by observing their behaviour. The average amount of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation for a baby between 0 and 12 weeks old is 14–17 hours (some babies will sleep as little as 11 or as much as 19) and it can vary day to day.
WHEN should your newborn sleep?
Newborns should sleep when they’re tired is the simple answer to this. What might not be so simple is identifying when they’re tired. Sometimes babies show clear tired signs (grizzling, yawning, rubbing eyes, glary staring) and other times they will appear quite alert and then they become overtired and hard to settle. How long your baby is able to be awake before getting tired in the beginning can be as little as 30 minutes, extending to as much as 2.5 hours by the time they’re 6 months old. Sleep is party governed by two clever hormones: melatonin and cortisol. Put simply, melatonin helps us sleep and cortisol wakes us up. This process can take a while to establish in newborn babies, which is why they can be awake all night and very sleepy during the day. While it may seem logical to us, it’s not a good idea to keep your newborn awake for long periods in the hope they sleep well at night as this can lead to an overtired baby.
WHERE should your newborn sleep?
The current SIDS guidelines state that room-sharing with a baby has been shown to reduce the risk of SUDI (sudden unexpected death in infancy, including sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, and fatal sleeping accidents).
Red Nose recommends that babies should sleep in their own sleeping place in the same room as an adult caregiver for the first 6–12 months. I recommend giving your baby lots of experience of sleeping in their own sleep space from day one and aiming for at least once a day where they go to sleep unaided (more if they can do it happily). In the early days, especially the first 3 months of your baby’s life, there will be a multitude of places they will take a nap in the day e.g. on the breast, in their cot, on dad’s chest, in the sling with mum, in their pram while out on a walk! Please be extra careful on couches or unsafe surfaces, especially when you’re tired. If you do choose to share your bed with your baby, then please educate yourself to make it as safe as possible.
More info here: https://rednose.com.au/downloads/Safe_Sleeping_Long_Brochure.pdf
WHY it’s important to understand newborn sleep.
When babies are in utero, they pass through the different phases of sleep as they please. They don’t realise that on the outside world, we sleep mostly at night and are awake during the day. Their body clock needs time to adjust and programme itself and this can take a couple of months. When we are exposed to sunlight each morning, we help to maintain our internal clock, and here are a couple of tips that might help your baby adjust:
- make sure the first feed of the day is in a room with light
- give your baby fresh air in the afternoon
- provide only low levels of light and stimulation in the evening
- practise infant massage.
New parents are often surprised when I explain that we all have many arousals from sleep throughout the night, some where we might just pull the blankets up or turn over and then drift back off to sleep, and others when we might feel the need to wake up completely and go the toilet or have a drink, for example.
A baby who might sound like they’re waking up may, if left alone, go back to sleep very quickly without any help. Interestingly, newborns benefit from being light sleepers, and having a low threshold of arousal can even help to protect babies from SIDS.
So, try not to rush in the moment you think your baby has awakened, just pause and see what they do. As I mentioned above, babies experience frequent arousals, but that doesn’t mean they are going to wake up “all the way” every few minutes. Babies often wriggle, fart, or vocalize during partial arousals. If you avoid stimulating them during these moments, they may go back to sleep on their own, and if they don’t then they might like a feed or a cuddle. It’s always good to just see.
WHAT can you do to help your newborn sleep?
Generally speaking, the more overtired your baby is, the harder they will be to settle, and this can turn into a vicious cycle. Dr Harvey Karp has some great suggestions for the fourth trimester to help settle babies and calls it the 5 S’s:
- Suck (feed/dummy) and remember breast milk aids sleep
- Swaddle (loose around their hips)
- Swing (close to your body, gently and safely)
- Shhhh (white noise can work well and prevent you passing out)
- Side-lying (in your arms not in bed).