Sleep and everything that goes with it is one of the most puzzling topics for new parents.
~ How can I get my newborn to sleep? ~ How much sleep should they get? ~ Can I let them sleep too much?
All valid questions that keep parents of newborns up at night when their bubba is playing up yet again.
We teamed up with Mama Matters Founder, Fiona Weaver to help us compile the ultimate sleep guide for new parents to give you the answers to the many questions coming up in the first few months with a newborn.
Fiona is an expert in attachment-centred parenting and helps responsive parents and their renegade bubbas with honest sleep support.
Fiona, let’s start with the biggest question... What’s ‘normal’ sleep behaviour for newborns?
Let’s begin with the fact that every baby is different. And every family is different.
But generally in the first six months and beyond it is totally normal for your baby to:
Wake frequently to feed, seek comfort or a change to environment such as warmth, or a nappy change
Want to be held or sleep in close proximity to you
Sleep more one day and less the next without predictability
Cluster-feed (feeding for hours in the early evening), have periods of increased breastfeeding or breastfeed to sleep
Need help to get to sleep and stay asleep
Take shorter naps of around one sleep cycle
Prefer sleeping ‘on the run’ such as in a carrier or in the pram
Sleep up to 10 hours less over a 24-hour period than your neighbour’s baby of the same age
Have a late bedtime
Are there certain things parents of newborns can do to support their bubba to establish sound sleep patterns?
A general rule of thumb is that it pays off to be flexible and kind to yourself as you get to try to navigate this new reality.
Get to know your baby. Dial back the visitors in those early weeks, slow down and get to know your baby’s cues. If you spend time watching their face, talking with them and finding ways to settle them, you will realise that they’re pretty clever at telling you what they need.
Use lightto align your circadian clocks. Wake up with your baby, draw all the blinds in the morning and let sunshine pour in. Get out and about during the day, focusing on enjoying your days. Then set the mood for bedtime later in the day, and keep things dim and quiet during those overnight feeds. Lots of cuddles and floor time in the day will also help them to settle for sleep at night.
Userhythms and rituals. There will be little to no predictability or routine in the early days. This is hard, but normal. If you use light and darkness as well as little rituals around bedtime (i.e. change nappy, dim lights, sing a song, feed, sleep) to your advantage, then your baby and you will fall into somewhat of a day/night pattern over time.
Let go of the schedule. Babies are not made to stick to generic schedules for sleep and feeding. Breastfeeding on a schedule can tank your supply and make for a pretty unsettled baby. Tune into your baby, slow down and get to know them. Respond to their cues sensitively and in a timely manner. Your responsiveness is literally wiring their brain to feel safe and secure in this new world. It’s a helluva job.
Develop a menu of ways to soothe your baby. Add lots of sleep associations such as music, smells, sleeping bags or white noise. Mix it up. Have lots of snuggles on the couch. Have some naps in the carrier, some in the pram, and some in the cot or bassinet. You don’t have to do it the same time, every time.
Swaddling can help them feel snug and secure. But you don’t need to swaddle your baby. And not all babies love it. If you do choose to swaddle, make sure that their hips are free to move and give them plenty of opportunity to explore their bodies. I actually don’t recommend swaddling everything for sleep because we need to be mindful of making babies sleep too deep, too soon. Their bodies should be available to them for soothing. There is some evidence to support that the longer you swaddle a newborn, the longer it takes for them to integrate their moro reflex - which is the startle reflex they’re born with.For safety reasons, make sure they’re out of their swaddle around the time they may start to roll.
Babies attach through their senses. In the first 12 months, their ultimate sensory environment is on you. They will likely prefer to sleep on you - with movement. It is normal for your bub to protest separation from you and cry to have you pick them back up again. For them, it hasn’t quite sunk in that they’re separate from you yet. They actually think they’re still a part of you. If your babe is sleeping away from you, consider how they are able to attach through their senses. Can they see you? Hear you? Smell you? Can you put some breast milk on or wear or sleep in their cot sheets? Can you talk to them, touch them, wear them?
What are some of the sleep milestones babies go through?
During the first month When your baby is born, she has a ‘stimulus barrier’ to protect her senses from becoming overwhelmed in this bright, noisy and sometimes chaotic world. You might find that your baby can sleep through vacuuming, visitors, and being moved between arms and bed. Your baby will likely sleep sporadically and inconsistently until her circadian rhythm is established.
Your baby may only want to sleep in your arms. It may feel like she feeds all day and/or all night, cluster feeds for hours in the early evenings, and may not want to go into her cot or her bassinet (that you spent a small fortune on). She may be woken by her hands, wake up for a play in the middle of the night and need to be rocked, bounced or fed to sleep.
Newborns sleep for anything between 9 and 20 hours over a 24 hour period - and all is within the range of ‘normal’. So don’t compare your baby to your friend’s baby! Your bubba is either born a high sleep needs or low sleep needs baby. Or anything in between.
Months 2-3 Your baby may experience more fussiness when their stimulus barrier starts to disappear. She may sleep most of the day and may start sleeping longer periods at night. Or she may not!
Around 6 weeks is the peak time of crying and fussiness. You may notice it to start tapering off from here. Some babies cry more than others, and remember that crying ‘in arms’ is very different to crying alone. She may go through a growth spurt at 3 months and eat, eat, eat.
A baby’s circadian rhythm doesn’t really settle into place until about 12 weeks of age. To help them to learn day and night, get outside in the morning sun for naps in the carrier, pram or bassinet out amongst the chaos. Then bedtime follows in the dark. Sometimes getting out in the evening as the sun goes down can help too.
Month 4 Around 4 months of age, your baby will go through a sleep progression. Yes, I said progression because your baby is developing, not regressing! Your baby will start to sleep more like a little human rather than a newborn baby. Your baby may start to wake every couple of hours at night and struggle to go to sleep with the usual sleep-inducing strategies. She might have developmental milestones that affect night sleep and lead to long periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night. She may catnap during the day, which may be all she needs to take the edge off until bedtime. Her stimulus barrier now has likely completely disappeared. That means she may need some more help to wind down and her conditions for sleep may be a little more particular.
Months 5-7 Your baby may still require feeds during the night for nutrition and for comfort. She may still be taking short naps,but they may start to lengthen. She may also be a serial catnapper, and this is okay too. Your baby may fight bedtime, begin to wake early and need more cuddles during the day and at sleep time. She may start to experience separation anxiety while her feeds can be more distracted during the day. And that means she may make up for it during the night.
Months 8-12 You may begin to have some bedtime battles with a previously good sleeper. She may no longer catnap. Separation anxiety can peak around this time, and she may need more parental support to feel secure at sleep time. She may have one or two long wakes in the middle of the night.
We know that many newborn parents struggle to the cues when bubba needs to be put down for a nap. Do you have any tips for managing this guessing game?
A great starting point is working out the right wake window for your baby.
Wake windows are the optimal amount of time your baby is awake before needing to go for another nap or go to bed for the night. Your baby will almost always have the smallest wake time between waking in the morning and going down for the first nap. But every baby is completely different so it’s important that you’re watching for their tired cues.
Some common cues are changing facial expressions (from relaxed to grimacing), looking away and staring into space, rigid or jerky motions, clenched fists, rubbing eyes and ears, and yawning.
Once a baby is crying, fussing and unsettled, they may need a lot more parenting to sleep. But never fear! It’s an excuse for a cuddle in the carrier, a walk in the pram or a co-nap.
Remember, this is used as a guide. There are vast differences between babies when it comes to sleep needs in a 24 hour period.
As always, let your unique little bubba be your guide.
Fiona, you work with countless newborn parents within your capacity as a sleep consultant. What are some of the tips you can give parents to cope with the challenges of a non-sleeping baby?
Slow down. If you were previously a Type A productive powerhouse then it can be really hard to be stuck under a newborn baby on the couch for much of your time with a to-do list that looks somewhat different for now. Come up with a ‘real’ list and write down 3 everyday things you want to achieve. I’m talking ‘have a shower’, ‘eat breakfast’, ‘text my bestie’. Anything else you manage to tick off is a bonus.
Focus on enjoying your days. You don’t need to be sitting in a dark room in the middle of the day to get your baby to sleep. Have the curtains open, go out for lots of walks, or sit in the yard. Get some sunshine on your face and move your body every morning.
Ask for help. It’s a common narrative that we as mothers think we need to be it all and do everything ourselves. But eventually we’ll suffer for it. It’s simply not true! Having a baby is a family affair. Communicate with your partner, friends or other family members about how you can all work together. Consider what you might outsource such as cleaning or meal services.
Embrace recharge moments. Short bursts of rest during the day can be just enough to take the edge off until bedtime. Simply place your baby in a safe space near you for their nap (a Cushii Baby Loungeris great for that!) while you sit down to enjoy a quiet cup of tea or simply soak up a moment of nothingness. Resting when baby sleeps can work wonders for your energy levels and mindset.
Call an early bedtime. Consider going to bed when your baby goes to bed so you can get a good chunk of sleep at the start of the night.
Find the path of least resistance. Now isn’t the time to stress about routines and schedules or self-settling. If it’s easy, if it’s safe and respectful, then it’s okay to do what feels right in the moment.
Have your own bedtime rituals. Particularly if you are having trouble settling to sleep. Create your own little ritual to help wind down each night you go to bed. It can be putting on hand cream (or nipple cream!), applying essential oils or listening to a relaxation track.
Night feeds are a part of the game. But you might get creative with how the night feeds look. For example, can your partner get up to get baby, bring her for a feed, then change her and settle her back to sleep so that you can rest between feeds?
Some families find that a bottle of expressed milk for the first night feed can be a good way for one parent or caregiver to get up for the first wake while mum has a good stretch of sleep. If this sounds like you then it’s a good idea to talk to a lactation consultant first or give the Australian Breastfeeding Association a call to hatch a plan. It could impact your supply, but can be a great way to get a few hours of slumber in and a chance for your partner or a support person to take over temporarily. But also get them to clean and sterilise the bottles, otherwise it’s just another job for mum!
Mind your thoughts. Getting stuck in your thoughts about how tired you are or how tired you will be tomorrow during a wakeful night is a trap we can all fall into. Try to hold your thoughts lightly. These feelings come and go and they don’t take hold of us. You can be tiredandenjoy your days with your baby.
Want more of Fiona’s take on newborn parenting?
Grab Fiona’s FREE 14-page deep dive into the dilemma of modern parenthood and the HONEST truth about self-soothing, catnaps (and other lies) here.
Or follow her adventures on Instagram @mamamatters.au
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