Baby Not Sleeping? Understand the Science of Newborn Sleep
By Brittney Stefanic
New Parent Overwhelm
Having a new baby at home is incredibly joyous and super exciting! At the same time, most of us are met with a new sense of overload and fear of the unknown. There are SO MANY CHOICES that can send even the most rational person into a tailspin – crib mattresses, breastfeeding, swaddles, pacifiers, and the list goes on!
And for many families, the most daunting task of all is understanding newborn sleep. Before the baby arrives, we are all warned of the “restless nights” and the sheer exhaustion, and with so much concern about sleep, I wonder why the heck we don’t talk more about the science of newborn sleep and how we can all be getting more sleep as new parents.
Understanding Why Your Baby Is Not Sleeping
Having a new baby at home is incredibly joyous and super exciting! At the same time, most of us are faced with a new sense of stress and fear of the unknown, especially towards things that are so new and unfamiliar, like in the case of a baby’s sleep. The sleep cycle of a baby is a very important element for your little one’s health. Understanding it is essential for new parents. Before the baby arrives, we are all warned of the “restless nights” and the sheer exhaustion. With so much concern about sleep, why don’t we talk more about the science of newborn sleep and how we can all be getting more (well-deserved) sleep as new parents?
If Your Baby Is Not Sleeping, Learning More About the Sleep Stages Could Help
To best understand newborn sleep, first, we need to be on the same page about a few sleep facts. Many of us think of sleep as an on/off situation where either you’re asleep or you’re not. However, this isn’t the case! Sleep actually has a number of different phases (referred to as sleep stages) which make up each “sleep cycle” that we go through several times per night and during naps as well.
As newborns, our little ones have 2 stages/parts of sleep, and they tend to spend about half their sleep in each stage to make up their full sleep cycle. Newborn sleep is relatively deep, which allows us to easily hold our babies until they are sleeping and then gently transfer them into a bassinet, crib, stroller, or swing.
If this is the case in your house, give yourself a pat on the back! There is nothing wrong with holding your newborn until they fall asleep.
However, as these little babes grow up, their sleep cycles change and this “transfer”, once they are asleep, can become a little more tricky.
If you’ve heard about the 4-month sleep regression, this is what results once sleep cycles biologically change.
There is nothing wrong with holding your newborn until they fall asleep.
The Importance of the Environment When Your Baby Is Not Sleeping
Newborn babies are very easily overstimulated and can quickly become over-exhausted. When we have a group of people over to visit, this increases the risk of keeping the baby up too long to the point of exhaustion. For this reason alone, preserve some quiet time for you and baby, even if you have guests!
The overstimulation issue needs to be addressed differently based on how old your baby is.
Early on (for at least the first 6 weeks), forget the schedule. During your first months at home with the baby, you should focus on how to provide safety, nutrition, love, and rest. The first few weeks at home are simple (we don’t have a ton of activities, visitors, or gadgets) but that does not make this process easy! In general, the less busy your schedule, the more you can spend a calm and relaxing time together with your newborn!
For babies between their 6 months and 1 year of life, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to:
- Keep your baby calm and quiet as much as possible when you feed or change them during the night.
- Put your baby to bed when drowsy but still awake.
- Wait a few minutes before responding to your child’s fussing.
As babies get older, the approach changes and, in the case of toddlers, the risk of overstimulation is even higher when they reach around 1 year of life.
For 1 year and older, regarding the issue of overstimulation, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to:
- Set up a quiet routine before bedtime to help your child understand that it will soon be time to go to sleep.
- Be consistent. Make bedtime the same time every night.
- Allow your child to take a favorite thing to bed each night.
- Do not return to your child’s room every time he complains or calls out.
At the same time, it is important for you to have realistic expectations when it comes to sleep for your newborn so that you aren’t disappointed in the progress you make!
Understanding Newborn Wake Windows
In order to prevent overtiredness, the experts recommend that we pay attention to the amount of time that a baby is up between sleep periods. Developmentally, most newborns (0 to 12 weeks) are able to stay awake between 45 and 90 minutes. The lower end of this range is primarily used before 6 weeks and the length of time awake stretches with each of the following weeks.
Due to underdeveloped fine and gross motor skills, newborn babies cannot easily show us when they are tired, so sleepy cues are often not present or show up long after the baby is sleepy.
Developing the Skills Needed When Your Baby Is Not Sleeping
It is important for us to remember that independent sleep is a learned skill that can be taught! Independent sleep is someone’s “ability to fall asleep and return to sleep during naturally occurring sleep cycles, without the assistance of another human being” .
Like learning to roll over, learning to walk and learning to read, someone needs to gently and lovingly guide babies as they learn the skill of independent sleep. As much as we want to assist our children from birth and through growth, there are many things they will need to do for themselves, and learning how to sleep is one of the first skills you can help them achieve.
Independent sleeping is conditional on several factors. For your baby, the environment is not just the crib where they are sleeping or the room’s temperature: the clothes play a very important role as well. Keeping the baby warm without the overheating effect and creating a womb-like environment are essential for the baby. Sleeping Baby’s Zipadee-Zip provides those "edges" or womb-like environments while giving them the freedom to roll and use their arms and hands safely, providing to the baby the right environment for independent sleep.
Check Out Our Zipadee-Zip Swaddle Collection!
Learning how to sleep is one of the first awesome skills you can help your baby to achieve.
If the Baby Is Not Sleeping Maybe They Are Hungry!
Depending on the advice from your pediatrician, most babies need to eat every 2-3 hours during the day to get enough calories. This means that if a nap is lasting longer than a few hours, we will want to cap these daytime sleep periods in order to save the longer sleep stretches for nighttime and get that daytime feed in! Each time your baby wakes up, it is recommended that you feed them. From a sleep perspective, recognizing the “quiet alert” phase can be a great time to feed the baby because they are relaxed and not upset.
Creating a Safe Sleep Space for Newborns
Safety is paramount for all children, but especially during the first year of life. There are also some specific rules to apply for the first 12 months of our little ones’ life. We invite you to take a few minutes to familiarize with the safe sleep recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The brief overview is this:
- Use a firm mattress in a crib, bassinet or Pack and Play
- Place nothing in the crib or bassinet (leave out all bumpers, stuffed animals, blankets, toys)
- Offer the pacifier at sleep onset
- Put your baby down on his or her back
- The ideal room temperature should ideally be 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit
Swaddling is a great thing for your baby for the first few months (through about 12 weeks) or until your baby is showing signs of rolling over. During the newborn phase, swaddling will help your baby feel snug, and swaddles decrease the flailing that results while the Moro Reflex is still at play. The Zippy Swaddle is an option that we love because of the easy diaper access and super easy Velcro closure!
When fitting a swaddle, be sure to provide enough room for your baby to move his legs so the hip joints can develop normally. Also, remember to keep your baby at the right temperature and don’t overdress. If it is warm out, you can place the baby in a diaper and dress it in a short-sleeved onesie.
Can’t Go Wrong with Our Safe and Adorable Zipadee-Zip
Practice Makes Progress
The good news is that your baby will need to spend most of their time sleeping. This means that even if your baby is not napping regularly during the day, you will still have a lot of chances to practice what you have learned and improve over time the quality of your baby’s sleep.
Give yourself some credit as you walk a sometimes hard path towards learning about your little one’s best sleep. And be sure that you are giving plenty of cuddles along the way.
If your baby is not sleeping as expected, don’t feel frustrated: the path to find a way to help them sleep will make your bond even stronger.
Brittney Stefanic is a certified whole-family certified sleep consultant and founder of Sleeper Teachers®. She gets that with a new bundle of joy at home, you are likely just starting to gear up on sleep knowledge. As an educator, she believes in the power of teaching and loves to support families in meeting their sleep goals through her customized sleep plans. You can follow the teachers on Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook @sleeperteachers for access to free sleep tips and tricks and other opportunities for sleep Q&A sessions.
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