You’ve heard the rumors. And now you find yourself face to face with the reality that newborn babies really aren’t great sleepers. But there is a light – or dark, quiet room– at the end of the tunnel for you. Because there are all sorts of ways to establish good sleeping patterns for your newborn baby right from the beginning.
In this handy guide to newborn baby sleep, we’ll give you the down low on everything you need to know as a new parent; from the science of sleep to recognizing sleep signs, sleep training methods to establishing a bedtime routine, and how much sleep your baby should be getting.
So let’s get cracking…
The science of baby sleep
Like gerbils but with cuter faces and less hair, it can seem that newborns favor the nighttime hours. The truth is, at this young stage, babies have zero concept of night and day.
A major factor in why your newborn baby is waking so often – other than being hungry, uncomfortable, needing their nappy changed, etc., is because they have much simpler sleep cycles than us adults. Us fully grown humans have five stages of sleep within a cycle. A baby’s consists of only two stages, active and quiet sleep, with each cycle lasting a period of up to 50 minutes. Because they don’t stay in quiet sleep for long, they’re far more likely to wake up frequently throughout the night.
And the truth is, at this young age it’s exactly what should be expected. In fact, if you hear new parents bragging about how their one-week-old baby sleeps through, then you might want to suggest that they nudge their babe awake occasionally. Newborn babies need to wake regularly to feed. This is so they can pile on the baby fat and gain the strength they need to grow and thrive.
How much sleep does my baby need?
All babies are different. While some are happy to doze away for hours on end, others might find it harder to be soothed, settle and sleep. This is by no means a reflection of your parenting (so you can put that to bed right now, even if your baby’s having none of it). But as a rough guide, and something to look forward to over the coming weeks, here’s an average of the amount of overall sleep, naps and nighttime stretches you can expect from your baby up to the eight-month mark:
Zero to eight weeks:
15-18 hours of sleep a day
3-5 naps of 15 mins to 3 hours long
Longest stretch at night is two to four hours
Two to four months:
14-16 hours sleep a day
3-4 naps of 30 mins to 3 hours length
Longest stretch at night is three to six hours
Four to six months:
12-15 hours sleep a day
3 naps of one-three hours length
Longest stretch at night is four to eight hours
Six to eight months:
11-15 hours sleep a day
2-3 naps of one-three hours length
Longest stretch at night is five to 10 hours
How to know when your baby is sleepy
As you get to know your little person over the coming weeks, they’ll helpfully make you aware of when they’re getting tired by showing you certain signs and signals. Ideally, you’ll want to catch your baby when they’re exhibiting these signs so you can help them nod off somewhere calm and cozy – avoiding the fury that comes when they get overtired.
Alongside some of the usual signs of tiredness that you might expect like yawning, and rubbing their eyes, babies also display some more unusual signals to watch out for; such as pulling their ears, opening and closing their fists, arching their backs and even going cross-eyed.
Getting into good baby sleeping habits
When it comes to helping your newborn sleep for longer, there are all sorts of great habits you can get into right from the start. Here are three to kick you off:
One: Telling day from night.
From the moment your newborn enters your life, you can start helping them differentiate between daytime and night. While it may be too early for a newborn to grasp a bedtime routine, by keeping nights quiet, calm and free of stimulation such as television and lighting, they’ll come to recognize all of night time’s calming qualities. This will help them to sleep better as they get older.
Two: Putting your baby down when they’re drowsy.
While sleep may be the ultimate goal, one of the best habits you can get in to from day one, is to put your baby down when they’re drowsy instead of in full slumber mode. This is because they need a chance to learn the elusive art of self-soothing, so they don’t always have to rely on you or your partner to help them nod off.
If you’re currently getting your baby to sleep by feeding, rocking, or using a pacifier, they’re going to wake up looking for those things later at night. And if they’re not around, you’re going to hear their fury. Man, it’s hard. And we applaud any parent who masters this art.
People often wish that they’d created an ever-so-slightly louder environment around their babies at bedtime so that they wouldn’t have to continue tip-toeing around the house once they’d put them to sleep. Sometimes, it can make sense to keep the door open slightly in order for your baby to get used to some background noise while they snooze. There are all sorts of white noise bears and machines out there that can introduce a set of calming sounds to their nighttime routine.
If you’ve got a dog that barks when someone comes to the door, older children that might go to bed slightly later, or you simply enjoy the occasional headbang to Mötley Crüe, then exposing them to a bit of noise as they drift off might help your baby to ride the waves of sleep through it. White noise is also a great indicator it’s bedtime when they’re a little older and you’re building out the bedtime routine.
Sleep Training Methods
When’s the best time to start sleep training?
Tomato, tomahhto. Potato, potahhto. Cry-it-out, grin-and-bear-it. Sleep training methods could be one of the most contentious parenting subjects out there. But when to start is something that most experts tend to agree on. Most advocate that you shouldn’t start sleep training until your baby is at least four to six months old. From that point onwards, they’re old enough to not need as many feeds per night; and their sleep cycles have become more advanced.
So which do you choose, if any at all? Here’s a brief guide to four of the most popular and effective sleep training methods:
The Ferber Method
Otherwise known as controlled crying, which is a gentler approach to the full on ‘cry-it-out’ method. Essentially this means putting your baby down and then checking back in on them at regular intervals, starting at one minute, increasing to three minutes and gradually up to the 15-minute mark, so that they’re aware you’re nearby. The Ferber Method advocates not picking up or feeding your baby, as the aim here is to teach them to fall asleep on their own.
The Fading Sleep Method (FIO)
Possibly one of the most gentle sleep training methods around. The FIO champions rocking, feeding or soothing your baby to sleep, but over time, doing it less and less, so your baby has to work harder themselves to sleep. Since this is a really gentle sleep training method, you could even start this from around the six to the eight-week mark.
The Cry it Out Method (CIO)
Does pretty much exactly what you expect it to do, and while some parents swear by it, the Cry It Out approach remains one of the most controversial sleep training methods around. Why? Because when your baby cries and isn’t comforted, stress hormones are released in their brain which have been associated by neurological specialists with anti-social behavior and abandonment issues later in life. Experts often suggest laying foundations with other sleep strategies before you consider this.
The Chair Sleep Training Method
While there will be some tears involved with this one, you’ll never actually be leaving your baby alone to cry. Again, the name gives it away, essentially you sit by your baby’s crib until they doze off, not actively soothing them, but reassuring them with your presence. Gradually, the aim is to move your chair further away from them. So at some point, you’ll be out of the room entirely.
How to establish a good bedtime routine
You may have been doing some 3 am research in the hope of finding some sleep-based wisdom. If so, then you’ll have read all about the benefits of a bedtime routine. And if you’re anything like us, at six months probably panicked that you started too late. But worry not.
Even though it’s a little harder to get your baby used to a routine the older they get, it’s by no means impossible. In fact, some experts agree that nine months is an optimum time for getting your baby locked down to a bedtime routine. This is because they no longer need feeding through the night. Plus they’re able to grasp, understand and feel secure with a regular pre-sleep pattern.
So why should you bother with a bedtime routine? The reasons are manifold. Not least because recent studies suggest that children with erratic bedtimes can have more difficulty with development; including language, motor skills, social interactions and potentially even experience hindered performance at school, eek.
Having a predictable bedtime routine often leads to less night waking, less early risings, less resistance at bedtime, more precious one-on-one time with you, and hurrah, quality evening time for the parents – pass the wine! To be frank, we couldn’t recommend starting a bedtime routine highly enough.
You can choose how you want to approach your own baby’s bedtime routine. The aim is to do the same thing again and again, so your little one associates each of the elements with sleep.
Here’s a quick glance baby bedtime routine that you could start from around three months:
- Create a calming space. Think soft, think warm, think cozy.
- Bath time. A nice warm bath followed by a snuggly towel – dreamy.
- Milk/ feed. Whether you’re breast or bottle feeding, it’s a good idea to do this before the end of your routine so your baby doesn’t associate it with sleep.
- Brush their teeth. If they don’t have any yet, you can gently brush your baby’s gums to get them used to it.
- Pajamas. You can’t go wrong with a 100% cotton onesie in our opinion.
- Dim the lights. Soothing lighting for story time, followed by complete darkness is best.
- Cuddle time. Snuggling your baby is important in helping build strong emotional bonds and releasing happy hormones in their brain; but you probably don’t need any more excuses…
- Put them down. Lay your baby comfortably in their crib or bassinet.
- Storytime. Read them a favorite story to help lull them into sleep.
- Turn on the white noise machine (if you choose to have one).
- Lights out.
We recommend starting your bedtime routine around the 6 pm mark, aiming to have your babe asleep by 7 pm. But one of the main points of a baby bedtime routine is doing what works for you and your baby. So try it, and see…
And last but not least: sleep regression
Sorry, we should have left it on a positive note. But we’re parents, we have to be realistic.
If you haven’t heard the term before, brace yourself. After mastering a routine, and eventually getting some much-needed shut-eye, your baby can surprise you by, you guessed it, frequently waking in the night again. The first rule: don’t panic. It’s totally normal at different stages of your baby’s development to experience sleep regressions. The most common time frames for sleep regression are at four months, eight months, and 18 months of age. Although you might be lucky and miss one or all of these. Ultimately these happen as your baby’s brain develops, and they go through cognitive advancements.
The four-month sleep regression happens when your baby’s sleeping cycle switches. And their brains are coping with the change from light to deep sleep. The nine-month sleep regression has to do with your little one figuring out all manner of physical tricks, such as sitting, rolling and pulling themselves up which they’ll want to practice in their crib.
While it may seem difficult, your baby’s sleep regression will only last a matter of weeks; anywhere from two to six. This is not a permanent change, we repeat, this is NOT a permanent change – phew. The best way to cope is to continue what you were doing with a soothing bedtime routine. But, be aware that you’ll probably have to be more flexible with naps and bedtime as your little one adjusts.