Newborns, by their very nature, are nocturnal. In a 24-hour period, they are likely to sleep anywhere between 10-18 hours. They sleep during the day and have wakeful periods at night. Sometimes they're happy to be awake but often times they're not. You, however, are not pleased to be awake and pacing at 4am. What's a new parent to do?
First of all, know that this too shall pass. While your wakeful nights seem long, it's temporary. Your baby will outgrow this sleep pattern and their circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) will align with yours.
Secondly, it's important to understand how babies sleep so that we can have realistic expectations of what they are capable of. Elizabeth Pantley, author of "the no-cry sleep solution" explains:
A baby is not born with an adult circadian rhythm. A newborn baby's sleep-wake cycles are spread throughout the day and night...
A baby's biological clock begins maturing at about six to nine weeks of age and does not work smoothly until about four or five months.
Adults' and babies' sleep cycles are just not in sync with each other. Pantley goes on to say:
Babies move through the same sleep cycles as adults do, but their cycles are shorter and more numerous. Babies also spend much more time in light sleep than adults do and they have many more of those in-between stages of brief awakenings.
Infant sleep behavior is critical for two reasons: development and basic survival. Most brain and physical growth occurs during sleep. An infant's rate of growth is extraordinary during the first two years and their sleep pattern reflects this.
Light sleeping allows for babies to awaken in case of dangerous or uncomfortable situations. If they are hungry, in pain, wet or frightened, they can cry to get their needs met and stay alive.
"Attaining sleep maturity is a biological process," says Pantley. Sleeping through the night, for a baby, means five consecutive hours. Trying to rush or impose adult sleep patterns on an infant is likely to backfire and make you all miserable.
But there are things you can do to help create healthy sleep practices for you and your baby. Here are the top five. Before you begin, make sure baby has a safe sleeping area. Learn what that looks like and how to reduce the risk of SIDS here.
1. Start early and create an enjoyable nighttime ritual.
An hour and half before you'd like to put your baby down to sleep, choose 3-4 things that you will do each evening to signal to your baby that the day is winding down. Some ideas are:
- bedtime story or poem
- sing or listen to soft lullabies
- dim the lights
- speak softly
- shut all blue lights and other light emanating from screens, computers and phones
- slow down; don't rush
3. Turn on "pink-hued" white noise.
According to Pantley, pink-hued white noise has a deeper, fuller tone than traditional white noise. Think heartbeat, a fan, rainfall or humidifier versus a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer. Pink-hued white noise is gentler on baby's ears and more aligned with a nighttime environment. Regular white noise is helpful in blocking out sharp house noises but it has a higher, more intense pitch. Whichever you use, take care not to have it too close to baby's ears or the volume on too high.
4. Put baby in crib when drowsy, not already asleep.*
Learn your baby's sleepiness cues. Each baby is different so be on the look out for fussiness, rubbing eyes, turning away from you (and the stimulation of seeing your face) or outright crying. Try to put your baby down in their crib when they are calm, just-fed and drowsy. This will encourage sleep. *Sometimes this is not possible, especially during the early weeks. Often, babies in the "fourth trimester" will feel safe and comforted enough to sleep only when held. This is ok! You cannot create unbreakable habits at this stage. Hold your baby as much as they want.
5. Manage your expectations.
Knowing what is developmentally appropriate for your baby will set you up for success. Take the time to get to know your little one; to know their preferences; to understand their cues; to learn the patterns of their growth; to differentiate between their happy coos and their "help me" cries. When you can give them what they need at each stage of their development, you'll all be able to rest easier.