During the first 3 months, your baby is growing at a rapid rate. Their vision is getting clearer, their cries begin to change when they want different things, their stomach expands and feeding becomes more routine. Soon enough, by about month five, they will have nearly doubled their birth weight!
Until they reach an age when you can begin sleep training—if you choose to—this time should be about setting up safe, healthy sleep habits and working towards long-term goals.
A Quick Breakdown of Newborn Sleep Cycles
When you lay your head down at night to sleep, your body naturally passes through several sleep stages, before you hit deep sleep. This is where the (maybe, somewhat) familiar REM cycle begins. It’s the sleep stage we associate with dreaming and being fully relaxed, or, “out like a light.”
You may also be familiar with something called the circadian rhythm, your body’s natural ability to respond to changes in light and dark. Meaning, when the sun goes down, you know it’s time for bed and you begin to feel tired, and when the sun rises in the morning, you know it’s time to be up and at it. We also experience a change in cortisol levels throughout the day that assists these processes.
Babies, on the other hand, don’t know how to differentiate between day and night yet. Not only this, but they only have two sleep stages: active (when baby is still a little wiggly, maybe making sounds) and quiet (their version of deep sleep). These stages last somewhere between 40 and 55 minutes, though it can vary widely from one baby to another.
How Much Sleep Does Your Baby Need?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns need 14 to 17 hours of overall sleep, including daytime naps. This seems like a lot, but keep in mind that they tend to sleep in shorter stretches. Meaning your little one will wake up for a feeding, diaper change, or something else, every 2-3 hours.
Which ultimately means you’ll be getting shorter stretches of sleep at night than you might be used to. The good news, though? Your baby will begin to find a pattern and sleep longer as they continue to grow (and their sleep cycles will be similar to an adults’ around month 3).
If your baby isn’t consistently hitting at least 14 hours of sleep a day, you should talk with their pediatrician. Sometimes, issues like GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), a lip/tongue-tie preventing latching while feeding, or others could be making it difficult for your little one to get the rest they need.
Newborn Sleep Cues, Wake Windows, and Nap Lengths
Have you ever felt so tired, that it almost made you restless, and so you fought to sleep? Or, on the other hand, have you ever felt like you were too awake to fall asleep, and you tossed and turned all night? Well, babies can do the same thing if they are over or under-tired.
Paying attention to their sleep cues will help you determine the best wake windows and nap lengths. Babies will give off subtle signals that they are starting to feel tired. You’ll want to look for big yawns, wiping their face near the eyes, staring or zoning out, and pulling or grabbing at their face, among others.
In the first 0-12 weeks of life, your baby won’t be able to stay awake for very long periods of time. So, their wake windows (how long they stay up between naps) will probably range from 45 to 90 minutes and their nap times will be between 1 to 2.5 hours. It’s different for each baby, so try to pay close attention to the signs your little one is giving you!
Establish a Routine Early On
Because your baby can’t tell when it’s time for sleep on their own, they will rely on you for the signals that it’s time to sleep and wake for the day. That’s why Expectful pediatric sleep consultant, Julie Connelly, suggests starting a bedtime routine as soon as you can.
This could include a nice towel bath, reading together, a lotion massage, or a combination of things. Repeat them consistently, around the same time each day and night, so your baby will begin to recognize your sleep cues. Oh, and you’ll want to have a routine for naps too! Try rocking, swinging, or something that feels easy for you to include in your day-to-day.
Pro-tip: scope out some newborn sleep courses before your baby arrives (or after, if you’re reading this while your baby is currently sleeping). The better you plan and prepare, the more chances of success for you and your family to get back to better sleep!
The Secret to Newborn Sleep? The 5 S’s
The 5 S’s were coined by pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp as 5 ways to soothe a baby to sleep. Many of these suggestions mimic sounds and experiences your baby felt while in the womb, so they find them comforting.
- Swaddle: swaddling helps to recreate the cozy tightness and security of your womb. It also decreases the startle reflex, where babies’ accidentally wack their face and wake themselves up.
- Side Position: Babies are safest sleeping on their backs, but if they are fussy, you can turn them on their side and rub their backs to calm them until they drift to sleep. Then you can position on their backs.
- Shush: Babies are used to mom’s blood whooshing around them in the womb, so total silence is often not comforting to them like it might be for you. It may be helpful for you to invest in a sound machine that you can continue to use as your child grows. You’ll want something static, like white noise sounds at 50-55 decibels to best mimic what baby is used to. This can help them to feel more calm.
- Sway/Swing: Over the last nine months, your baby got used to being swung and swayed while in your belly. Remember how calm they were when you were moving around and how active and awake they were when you were still? A mechanical swing, or just your arms, can help to soothe them if they’ve woken up from sleeping too.
- Suck: Baby’s enjoy the motion of sucking, even if they aren’t feeding. If you aren’t breastfeeding, or if you have a well-established latch, try offering your baby a bottle, pacifier, or even a lovey if they begin to fuss while sleeping.
Release Expectations — You’re Doing Great, Mama!
Many parents hope their baby will sleep through the night soon after being born, but realistically, this just isn’t the case. It’s nobody’s fault, and your baby is adjusting to the big new world!
The good news is, sleepless nights will cease soon, mama! Just try to be patient and know that your best is exactly enough. It’s okay to lean on support systems during this time, and asking for help is not only necessary, but encouraged.
Establishing a newborn sleep routine, understanding your baby’s sleep cues, and implementing soothing techniques can all help you and your baby sleep better. If your baby hasn’t arrived yet, give yourself a leg up by taking the Expectful Newborn Sleep Course, and come back later to refresh your sleep-knowledge with every new growth period.
Until you get to a point where your baby is ready for sleep training, you may benefit from working with a pediatric sleep consultant. A pediatric sleep consultant can help you learn your baby’s cries, figure out why they might be resisting naps, help build a routine, and so much more!