Newborn Babies and Sleep

Congratulations on the birth of your new baby.

This is a glorious time in your life – and a sleepless time too. Newborns have very different sleep needs than older babies. This article will help you understand your baby’s developing sleep patterns, and will help you have reasonable expectations for sleep.

Read, Learn, and Beware of Bad Advice

Absolutely everyone has an opinion about how you should handle sleep issues with your new baby. The danger to a new parent is that these tidbits of misguided advice (no matter how well-intentioned) can truly have a negative effect on our parenting skills and, by extension, our babies’ development…if we are not aware of the facts. The more knowledge you have the less likely that other people will make you doubt your parenting decisions.

When you have your facts straight, and when you have a parenting plan, you will be able to respond with confidence to those who are well-meaning but offering contrary or incorrect advice. So, your first step is to get smart! Know what you are doing, and know why you are doing it. Read books and magazines, attend classes or support groups – it all helps.

The Biology of Newborn Sleep

During the early months of your baby’s life, he sleeps when he is tired, it’s that simple. You can do little to force a new baby to sleep when he doesn’t want to sleep, and conversely, you can do little to wake him up when he is sleeping soundly.

Newborn babies have very tiny tummies. They grow rapidly, their diet is liquid, and it digests quickly. Although it would be nice to lay your little bundle down at bedtime and not hear from him until morning, this is not a realistic goal for a tiny baby. Newborns need to be fed every two to four hours — and sometimes more.

Sleeping “through the night”

You may believe that babies should start “sleeping through the night” soon after birth. For a new baby, a five-hour stretch is a full night. Many (but not all) babies can sleep uninterrupted from midnight to 5 a.m. (Not that they always do.) This may be a far cry from what you may have thought “sleeping through the night” meant!

What’s more, some sleep-through-the-nighters will suddenly begin waking more frequently, and it’s often a full year or even two until your baby will settle into an all-night, every night sleep pattern.

Falling Asleep at the Breast or Bottle

It is natural for a newborn to fall asleep while sucking at the breast, a bottle, or a pacifier. When a baby always falls asleep this way, he learns to associate sucking with falling asleep; over time, he cannot fall asleep any other way. This is probably the most natural, pleasant sleep association a baby can have. However, a large percentage of parents who are struggling with older babies who cannot fall asleep or stay asleep are fighting this powerful association.

Therefore, if you want your baby to be able to fall asleep without your help, it is essential that you sometimes let your newborn baby suck until he is sleepy, but not totally asleep. When you can, remove the breast, bottle, or pacifier from his mouth, and let him finish falling asleep without it. If you do this often enough, he will learn how to fall asleep without sucking.

Waking for Night Feedings

Many pediatricians recommend that parents shouldn’t let a newborn sleep longer than four hours without feeding, and the majority of babies wake far more frequently than that. No matter what, your baby will wake up during the night. The key is to learn when you should pick her up for a feeding and when you can let her go back to sleep on her own.

    Here’s a tip that is important for you to know. Babies make many sleeping sounds, from grunts to whimpers to outright cries, and these noises don’t always signal awakening. These are what I call sleeping noises, and your baby is asleep during these episodes.

    Learn to differentiate between sleeping sounds and awake sounds. If she is awake and hungry, you’ll want to feed her as quickly as possible so she’ll go back to sleep easily. But if she’s asleep – let her sleep!

Help Your Baby Distinguish Day from Night

A newborn sleeps sixteen to eighteen hours per day, and this sleep is distributed evenly over six to seven sleep periods. You can help your baby distinguish between night sleep and day sleep, and thus help him sleep longer periods at night.

Have your baby take his daytime naps in a lit room where he can hear the noises of the day. Make nighttime sleep dark and quiet, except for white noise (a background hum). You can also help your baby differentiate day from night by using a nightly bath and a change into pajamas to signal the difference between the two.

Watch for Signs of Tiredness

Get familiar with your baby’s sleepy signals and put her down to sleep as soon as she seems tired. A baby who is encouraged to stay awake when her body is craving sleep is an unhappy baby. Over time, this pattern develops into sleep deprivation, which complicates developing sleep maturity. Learn to read your baby’s sleepy signs — such as quieting down, losing interest in people and toys, and fussing — and put her to bed when that window of opportunity presents itself.

Make Yourself Comfortable

It’s a fact that your baby will be waking you up, so you may as well make yourself as comfortable as possible. Relax about night wakings right now. Being frustrated about having to get up won’t change a thing. The situation will improve day by day; and before you know it, your newborn won’t be so little anymore — she’ll be walking and talking and getting into everything in sight…during the day, and sleeping peacefully all night long.

    This article is an excerpt from The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

    Elizabeth Pantley is a mother, author, and parenting educator. Her books and parenting advice are frequently featured in magazines such as Parents, Parenting, American Baby, and Good Housekeeping. The following books are authored or co-authored by Elizabeth and recommended by A Mother’s Boutique: The No-Cry Discipline Solution, The No-Cry Sleep Solution, The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers, The No-Cry Potty Training Solution, Gentle Baby Care, Hidden Messages, Perfect Parenting, Kid Cooperation, and The Successful Child.

6 comments to Newborn Babies and Sleep

  • Christin

    My daughters 4 months old today and still doesn’t sleep through the night. She is breasfed with 2 formula supplements spaced out appx 12 hrs apart. She was the type that actually slept better when she was younger and now seems to be settling into a routine of waking 1-2 times a night to feed.
    In the hospital they had me wake every 3 hrs to nurse her. Once we got home I tried letting her determine when she wanted to eat but never let her go more then 5 hrs without. I felt bad waking her in the middle of the night if she was sleeping and I saw it as an opportunity to get some extra zzz’s. So her first dr appt came about a week after being released from the hospital and come to find out she lost about 7 oz and hadn’t gained any of it back. Being concerned, they had me meet with a lactation specialist who put me back on a strict feeding schedule of every 2.5-3hrs, even at night. So I stuck with it..setting my alarm etc., stumbling around totally delerious and she was able to regain her birth weight within a week. Then I started pumping and also supplementing with formula and she began sleeping 5-7hr stretches at night for a few weeks, but then as she started hitting her “growth spurts” she started waking more often again…started eating more and now if she goes 4 hours at night its alot! Maybe that will change once she gets cereal. Sometimes she just wakes to be held by me as well because she wakes scared or disorientated and that’s ok too. The sleep deprived delerium I’m in is my normal state of being that your body actually somewhat adjusts to after awhile (with the help of espresso! lol)and for now I’ve accepted that SHE’S my boss and I do as she says! I have absolutely NO RIGHT to get mad or frustrated at her for needing the basics of security or food, and I just feel blessed to not only be able to provide them but that she chose ME to do it! :) If you take the time to understand that even at 4 or 6 months old, let alone a week or 2, our little ones are still so very new to this place and without being able to see 20/20 until close to a 9 months old and trying to adjust to this big life on the outside of you…everything MUST be very overwhelming to their little brains. The whole “cry it out or they will get spoiled” mentality is very dated and might I say ignorant considering all we know now about infants and just how aware they are.
    Not to offend anyone but you can sleep when you die! So for now…ENJOY your timeless and precious moments with your baby and be there for them when they cry, because they change and grow tooo fast to take any moment for granted! :)

  • Denise

    Great advice- I read Elizabeth Pantley’s book and liked it a lot. I have two under two so you can bet I am tired. When my older child was a baby I thought she would NEVER sleep through the night and it was so hard! Now she’s such a great sleeper that she slept right through her brother being born in the next room. :) I know in time my little one will sleep too, and it’s totally normal and natural for him to want to nurse a lot at night…. he’s attached to mommy :)

  • Ruth N.

    I just saw this article/excerpt. I had no idea that book (the No-Cry Sleep Solution) was such a good book.:-) Very sound advice, and unlike so much “junk” I’ve read in other books and on the internet. It took me a few kids to finally understand, but as a parent, I need to tune in to my children and their needs, and then meet those needs the best that I can. That’s what parenting is about. It’s not about meeting other people’s expectations or making our children “fit” into our life for our convenience.
    I need to read this book so that I can recommend it to new moms.

  • Great article. We are in the process of adopting and I look for books to prepare us for when we are placed with a baby. These are great recommendations and something we will definitely try. I am going to look into getting this book and reading more on this. Thanks for the advise and recommendations..

  • I also wanted to thank you for the great giveaway of the burp cloths on Two of a Kind Working on a Full House’s blog. These are very cute, I also love your slings!! Thanks for offering the chance to win!

  • [...] asleep longer than if she just takes a nibble and falls back to sleep. There is a great article on babies and sleeping which you can read [...]

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