Well, she does sleep, not just exactly how I want her to!
I am writing this article as I wear her in the carrier to sleep. How is it that as a sleep consultant, I couldn’t get my daughter to sleep in her crib for her second nap of the day? Because as I was putting her down for a nap, she pooped. Three times! So after three diaper changes in a span of 20 minutes, I had an overtired newborn who was not going to fall asleep in the crib so easily.
This little story pretty much sums up the big truth about newborn sleep: We can buy all the fancy gadgets, all the swaddles, and know exactly what to do to get them to sleep through the night—but unfortunately, there are some things we just can’t control.
Let’s take a look at the science
With newborns, what works one week, might not work the next. When a baby is born, they usually need around 14-17 hours of sleep, but this can come in the form of short naps & irregular patterns.I were to describe sleep for the first 16 weeks with one word, it would be erratic.
A baby is born with a very immature circadian rhythm: their biological clock is not organized, which means that they don’t distinguish between day & night, and they don’t produce their own melatonin (the sleep hormone!). During the first few weeks, a newborn sleeps pretty much anywhere and at any time, waking up to eat and falling back asleep. But as the weeks go by, they start tolerating more awake time, they start interacting more with their environment, and their body clock and sleep cycles start regulating. This happens between months 3 & 4 and at this time, sleep becomes more regular.
What does this mean?
Short naps and night wakings are developmentally normal and up until your baby’s biological clock starts setting in, things can be very unpredictable. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be proactive about our baby’s sleep—there are many things you CAN do to promote safe and healthy sleep habits in the first months—this just means that while newborns absolutely benefit from routines and flexible schedules, there will always be variability in how your newborn sleeps.
Variability and unpredictability are two things we don’t look forward to during postpartum—after all, our body and our life has gone through so many changes, we are craving stability (and sleep!). Understanding what aspects of our baby’s sleep we can’t and cannot control allows us to be proactive about their sleep habits while understanding that it is more about progress, and less about perfection.
What you CAN’T control:
- Their feeding needs: A baby’s only job is to grow, so it is absolutely normal for your baby to need feeds around the clock. Focus on full feeds to slowly decrease the amount they need to drink at night!
- Their health: Reflux, colic, gas and constipation are just some of the things that can make a baby very uncomfortable and harder for them to sleep well. Consult with your pediatrician if you suspect your baby is experiencing discomfort.
- Their sleep maturity: Short naps, long naps, nights with longer stretches than others, an overtired baby, a baby that fell asleep on their own—you will experience it all! Remember that sleep maturity is a milestone just like any other, and that your baby has their own timeline.
What you CAN control:
- When and where they fall asleep: Avoiding overtiredness is key to achieving better sleep with a baby. Keep wake windows 45-75 minutes long during the first 8 weeks, and offer your baby sleep, in a safe sleep space, when you see signs of sleepiness.
- How they fall asleep: While it is absolutely normal that a baby falls asleep while eating, you can help them fall asleep in other ways as they grow, like by rocking them or patting them in their crib/bassinet. Teaching a baby how to fall asleep in their sleep space is beneficial when trying to extend nighttime sleep.
- Their routines: Babies thrive on routine! Establish a bedtime and a short nap time routine in the early weeks to help your baby ease into sleep. A bedtime routine can be as simple as: giving your baby a bath, putting on their pjs, offering a feed, singing a bedtime song, swaddling, and going to sleep!
One last piece of advice you don’t hear often…
The idea behind drowsy but awake is that you help your baby get to a drowsy state and then place them in their crib/bassinet, so they finish falling asleep there.
The problem is, drowsy but awake doesn’t always work! Some babies go back to an alert state as soon as they sense the environment around them is changing, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep on their own.
If your baby is one of these babies, then place them down in the crib awake! Yes, fully awake. It is easier for newborns to fall asleep independently for the first nap of the day and at bedtime, so if you want to practice independent sleep, start there!
Remember, patience and consistency are key!
It does get better, it just takes a lot of trial and error, consistency and getting to know your baby’s temperament around sleep! It is helpful to have goals around your baby’s sleep habits, and knowledge on how to reach them, but remain flexible and patient, as the first four months come with constant change.
Finally, tune out the noise! Just because someone you know has had a lousy experience with their child’s sleep doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you. Don’t compare your babies to other babies or feel bad if your baby isn’t sleeping as well as your friend’s baby. Trust me, I speak with a lot of parents and everyone has their own definition of sleeping through the night. Their baby might not be sleeping as well as you think 😉
Sleep is very important, but it’s also very personal! Focus on your baby’s temperament, their sleep needs, and shape their habits in a way that feels right for you.