Hey mama, Brittney the Sleep Consultant here to fill you in on all things newborn sleep. Believe it or not, there is a science behind newborn sleep and baby sleep problems, and once you “crack the code” things should start to get a little easier for you and your little one.
When is Night?
Let’s start at the very beginning… During the in-utero growth and development as your precious bundle was baking. Before coming to Earth-side, babies are lulled and rocked to sleep by the movement and motions that we go through during the day, and then at night, once we kick up our feet and relax, they are moving and shaking!
This often results in a bit of “day/night confusion” because their schedules are opposite of the ones we have. Prior to about 6 weeks, it is common for newborns to have more active nights because that is what they were used to before birth. These kinds of "baby sleep problems" are completely normal. The best way to combat this flip-flopped schedule is to make sure the baby is getting plenty of natural light exposure during the day and that the nighttime sleep environment is clear from light (including blue light from screens). If your baby can't sleep at night, this should be one of the first things you cut out.
Babies are lulled and rocked to sleep by the movement and motions that we go through during the day, and then at night, once we kick up our feet and relax, they are moving and shaking!
The Basics of Baby Sleep Problems
It is important to know that newborn sleep cycles include two parts, deep sleep, and REM. Because of this split, we can be pretty successful (most of the time) at getting an itty bitty baby to sleep in your arms and then transferring to a new sleep space. These successful moves are typically taking place during the deep sleep portion of their cycle.
The phase of REM sleep is the reason behind newborns being noisy and active sleepers. I’ll never forget how dang loud our son was, even when he was snoozing away. They flail, wiggle, moan, and groan like it is their job. Combine the active sleep with their very uncontrolled startle reflex and it is likely that your little one would be sleeping better in a swaddle. Baby sleepwear products like the brand new Zippy Swaddle by Sleeping Baby are designed to keep baby snuggly and warm while preventing their wild reflexes from accidentally waking them up! I’ve gotta note here that I love the easy-open bottom to make the middle of the night diaper changes as quick and easy as possible.
Startle Reflex and Swaddling
Startle or Moro reflex can be a big reason behind many baby sleep problems. This reflex is a completely natural reaction that all newborn babies experience due to sudden and unexpected changes in their environment. As your little one is much more sensitive during their first months, even a subtle movement, noise, or change in lighting can lead to startling, causing your baby to wake up suddenly, often crying. A great solution to this baby sleep problem is to use swaddles, and later on, swaddle transition products when your baby outgrows the traditional swaddling blanket.
You can find all necessary details about Moro reflex and how to prevent it with swaddle transition products in our blog ‘Moro Reflex: How to Stop it so that your Baby can get a Good Night’s Sleep’.
Risk of Overstimulation
In the business of infant sleep, the term “wake window” is often used. A wake widow is the amount of a time a baby is awake from the end of one sleep period to the start of the next. The wake window typically includes feeding, burping, changing, and some sort of activity. The BIGGEST REASON that newborns experience baby sleep problems is that they have missed their ideal wake window and have hit the point of overtiredness and/or overstimulation. Your best strategies for how to get your baby to sleep at this stage are almost futile.
When a newborn stays up too long, they actually wear their overtiredness as physical discomfort. This typically looks like lots of thrashing their head from side to side (might be confused with rooting) or curling their legs up to their chest (might be confused with gas pains). Overall, an overtired newborn is a fussy baby with lots of protests.
The BIGGEST REASON that newborns have a tough time sleeping is that they have missed their ideal wake window and have hit the point of overtiredness and/or overstimulation.
The best way to prevent this is to pay close attention to their wake windows. From birth to 6 weeks it is typical that little ones are unable to stay awake much beyond a feeding session so their wake windows often overlap with feeds. Around 6 weeks, their awake threshold is right around 45 minutes, which still goes by quite quickly! I often recommend that parents start to pay attention to wake windows by setting a timer to cue when the next nap should be offered. The wake window increases by about 15 minutes every 2 weeks through the newborn stage. This leaves us at 1 hour and 30 minutes of awake time between naps by about 12 weeks.
Baby Sleep Problems: Understanding Sleep Debt
Baby sleep problems in the form of missed nap times, nighttime waking, or shorter than needed sleep schedule can eventually lead to making your little one chronically overtired. The best way to think about this is by associating sleep debt as “charging” lost sleep to a “sleep card” every day, but never paying the bill (allowing your little one to catch up on the missed sleep time). A chronically overtired child will have a tough time falling asleep, staying asleep, may experience multiple night-wakings, and may potentially become a chronic early riser.
Mastering the Nap Schedule
Each individual baby is different both in terms of their nighttime sleep schedule as well as daytime napping preferences. On top of that, your little one’s nap times and schedules will change substantially over their first year.
At first, newborn babies may sleep up to 20 hours per day, but this pattern quickly changes as your baby reaches their 3-month milestone - from this point their sleep schedule often becomes unpredictable. Most babies at this age start napping several times a day for a few hours at a time. The nap time gets gradually reduced as they grow towards their 12-month mark.
The best nap schedule is a flexible one - it should always adjust itself to the current needs and patterns of your child's development. Having the right amount of naps will help to reduce their sleep debt, and support their ability to sleep properly at night.
Newborn babies may sleep up to 20 hours per day, but this pattern quickly changes as your baby reaches their 3-month milestone - from this point their sleep schedule often becomes unpredictable.
Newborn Sleep Rules
The only "sleep rule" for the newborn age is to make sure that your baby is sleeping in a safe sleep environment flat on their back without added items in their crib or bassinet. If ever in question, remember the ABCs of safe sleep: Alone, on their Backs in an empty Crib or bassinet! Since blankets are a big no go, even in the winter, the Zippy Swaddle is a great way to add an extra layer of warmth.
If you want to know more about the ideal crib layout that will help you reduce baby sleep problems, we dove deep into this topic in our blog ‘Reduce Baby Startling: How to Create the Perfect Bedroom Atmosphere!’.
The only "sleep rule" for the newborn age is to make sure that your baby is sleeping in a safe sleep environment flat on their back without added items in their crib or bassinet. If ever in question, remember the ABCs of safe sleep: Alone, on their Backs in an empty Crib or bassinet!
If you are interested in teaching your baby the skill of independent sleep during the newborn phase and how to overcome troublesome baby sleep problems, you absolutely can! In fact, this is my personal favorite time to teach healthy and safe sleep because it allows families to be proactive rather than needing to “fix” baby sleep problems later on. The most common sleep props that newborns get dependent on are needing feeding and movement to fall asleep. If your little one is dependent on any one thing every.single.time, it is likely that this is their prop.
The best way to remove these props during the newborn phase is slowly and gradually. Start by attempting one sleep per day without the prop, and once success is found, start adding other prop-free experiences to your day! If your baby can't sleep without the prop at first, give it time, they should get used to this new reality with some gentle nudging.
You’ve Got This
Remember that sleep is a skill, so just like all the other things you are going to teach your babe as they grow up, you can certainly teach them to sleep! In the newborn phase, we aim for safe sleep and stress-free sleep teaching so that everyone can be set up for success and easily resolve baby sleep problems!
You’ve got this mama, now go forth and conquer!
Brittney Stefanic is a whole-family certified sleep consultant and founder of the Sleeper Teachers. She is a safe sleep advocate and believes in the power of educating families around sleep from the early newborn stage. Brittney and her team love helping families exceed their sleep goals through her customized sleep plans and “you’ve got us in your back pocket” support. You can follow the Sleeper Teachers on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook @brittneystefanicsleep for access to her free sleep tips and tricks and opportunities for sleep QA sessions.
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