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.
To best understand newborn sleep, first, we need to be on the same page about a few sleep facts, in general. Many of us think of sleep as an on/off situation in that either you’re asleep or you’re not. However, this isn’t the case! Sleep actually has a number of different parts (referred to as sleep stages) which make up each “sleep cycle” that we go through several times per night and during naps, too.
As newborns, our little bundles 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.
Sleep Down the Road
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. With so many families asking questions about the 4-6 months ago, maybe I’ll write a post on that for next month! But for now, let’s hop back to the newborns.
Expectations for Newborn Sleep
It is important for you to have realistic expectations about sleep for your newborn so that you aren’t disappointed in the progress you make!
Remember that your baby is very new, and everything is fluid. Early on (for the first 6 weeks, at least), forget the schedule. Your focus during your first months at home with a baby is to provide safety, nutrition, love, and rest. The first few weeks at home are SIMPLE (we don’t need a ton of activities, visitors, or gadgets) but that does not make them EASY! In general, the less you schedule and the more you can spend a calm and relaxing time together, the better!
Newborn babies are VERY easily overstimulated and VERY quickly overtired. When we have a group of people over to visit or keep baby up too long, the risk of passing the point of exhaustion is high. For this reason alone, preserve some quiet time for you and baby, even if you have guests!
Understanding Newborn Wake Windows
In order to prevent overtiredness, it is recommended 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 babe is sleepy.
Understanding the Skill of Sleep
It is important for us to remember that independent sleep is a learned skill that can be taught! Independent sleep is a person’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 awesome skills you can help them learn. Understanding newborn sleep is amongst the most important for overall well-being and growth.
Newborns Eat… Often!
Depending on the advice from your pediatrician, most babies need to eat about every 2-3 hours during the day to get enough daytime 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 feeds 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 babe because they are relaxed and not upset.
Creating a Safe Sleep Space for Newborns
Safety is paramount for all sleepers, but especially during the first year of life. It is recommended that you take a few minutes to familiarize yourself 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 I love because of the easy diaper access and Velcro!
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, can you place baby in a diaper and dress in a short-sleeved onesie if you are using a swaddle, too!
Practice Makes Progress
When you are starting to lay the foundation for safe and healthy sleep, remember that this is a brand new skill that will take time for you and your newborn. The greatest part about starting during the newborn phase is that babies sleep often which means we have lots of opportunities for practice!
Gives yourself some grace as you walk the path towards teaching sleep. And be sure that no matter how much you practice great sleep habits that you are getting plenty of cuddles in!
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.