Who among us doesn’t treasure a great night’s sleep? And how many new or expectant parents have heard the horror stories of newborn sleep skills (or lack thereof!) and their parents who can’t recall the last time they woke up in the morning feeling refreshed? There’s no denying that finding a way to get some good rest is a challenge in the early months of new parenthood, so let’s talk about it!
Babies Sleep, Just Not the Way We’d Like!
First, let’s explore what to expect from your baby at night, and why they do what they do. The first three months of an infant’s life are commonly referred to as the “Fourth Trimester”. During this time their physical and emotional development that began in the womb are completed. Their brains begin the process of learning by association and are busy sorting out the world. Their bodies are learning to eat and sleep with purpose, and they need their parents’ help to develop patterns which will help their systems regulate.
With their tiny tummies, newborns need to eat every three to four hours at night. Parents might wish for a great night’s sleep, the health and survival of their baby is likely to demand otherwise for a while. Day and night are still meaningless to them, and their circadian rhythm has yet to develop, so their bodies aren’t giving them cues to sleep just because night has come.
If you’ve done any research or talked to other parents, you have seen and heard lots of advice on how to get your baby to sleep, some of which directly contradicts other recommendations. You may be left confused and anxious. And wondering how you are supposed to know the best way to get it right from the beginning. While the task at hand can seem monumental and overwhelming, some simple steps can get you and your babies on the right track for excellent rest.
Basics of Safe, Comfortable Newborn Sleep
Start with the basics – a safe sleep surface such as a crib or bassinet with no additional blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, bumpers, or cushions. Next, decide where in the home baby will be sleeping. Will you be rooming in for a few weeks, or starting from day 1 in the nursery? Both have their pros and cons, and only you can make the choice about what will get your family the best rest possible! Some families find having baby close at hand makes responding to their needs at night quicker and less overall distracting from peaceful sleep. Others find they hear every little noise, and thus need the distance of a wall between them and baby so they can actually fall asleep in between feeding and soothing sessions.
Sleep Associations – use them!
Next, let’s talk about comfort and routine. Building healthy sleep associations from day 1 can actually help mitigate the need for intense sleep training months later. All babies are born with a biological need to feel safe, secure, and soothed whether it’s day or night. How do we meet those needs while we rest?
- Womb Service. During the day, babies are often happy to sleep anywhere, through any amount of noise and light. But when it comes to nighttime sleep, it really helps to think about recreating the environment your baby just left. What about it can be translated into a safe and soothing aid for sleeping in your home? Baby’s room should be dark (think black out curtains!). Set a comfortable temperature without drafts (68-72 degrees, though cooler is better than warmer for babies). Lastly, add ambient white noise to muffle the minor disruptions from the rest of the household.
- Swaddle. Babies sleep better when swaddled in their first weeks! Why? They’ve been swaddled their whole lives in the cushy, cozy environment of the womb before birth. The trick is getting a snug, secure swaddle that baby can’t easily wriggle out of. Hell hath no fury like a baby who got their arm out of a swaddle before they were really ready to wake up! Velcro and snap swaddle pods are appealing, but if your newborn is particularly tiny, they often don’t get tight enough. Stick to the tried and true large, muslin swaddle blankets and a good old fashioned baby-burrito-wrap. Check out the video demo on our YouTube channel, or let us teach you in person. Our postpartum doulas are often deemed magical when we show parents how we swaddle during a night shift!
- Soothe. Babies are born with a biological need to suck for comfort and as a prevention from SIDS. Sucking actually helps them regulate their breathing! If you don’t want to or can’t nurse an infant 24/7, they’re going to have to fulfill this need elsewhere. Pacifiers are an indispensable tool in healthy newborn sleep in this regard! A well-fed infant who is steadily gaining weight can safely be offered a pacifier for sleep soothing without concern it will impact their feeding relationship.
Don’t Try to Keep Them Up!
While at first it might seem counterintuitive, sleep begets sleep. Set a consistent nap routine as soon as you are able during the day. Overtired infants are actually harder to get to sleep. Newborns should generally not stay awake between naps more than 45 minutes to 1 hour (for more on periods of wakefulness as baby ages, see Precious Little Sleep). Watching for signs and signals your newborn is ready for rest is just as key as setting the right tone for their sleep environment. Avoiding meltdowns from exhaustion means noticing your baby’s sleep cues. Do they start to rub their eyes, ears, neck, or head? Do they give you a ‘thousand yard stare’ with half-drooping eyelids? Are they yawning repeatedly? Don’t wait for your baby to start crying to get them ready for sleep. Instead, pay attention to the signs and jump right into their sleep routine.
Sleep When Baby Sleeps??
While the old adage ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ still rings true to a point, often it’s easier said than done. Sometimes your brain just isn’t wired for rest when your baby lies down. To the best of your ability, at least practice periods of quiet when your baby naps during the day. If you can’t actually sleep, definitely don’t take that precious naptime as an opportunity to catch up on every household chore you’ve been missing. Lie down, read a book, or watch a show. On another day go sit outside in the sunshine for a bit. Take a shower. And always make sure to grab something nutritious to snack on and rehydrate. Even small periods of wakeful rest can do wonders for your outlook when a tiny baby has your schedule out of whack.
Prioritize Nighttime Sleep
When it comes to night sleep, getting your own rest becomes even more important than during the day. Your postpartum recovery and mental health depend on getting adequate rest. Even the most well-adjusted babies wake multiple times a night with needs to be met. Prioritize the help of a partner swapping off changing duties if you’re the primary feeding parent, if possible. Doulas of Baltimore can step in to give expert and compassionate care to your newborn while you sleep the night away, and without interrupting your feeding relationship or bonding experience. A professional postpartum doula or Newborn Care Specialist is there to make sure that you wake feeling as rested and refreshed as possible.
Keep the faith! Long winter nights eventually give way to sunny spring mornings. And your tiny, sleepless offspring develop into a more mature and settled creature who can tell night from day. Like the countless families who came before you and will follow in your footsteps, you will become a rested, confident parent who will grow to treasure your nighttime time with your child, whether it’s a bath, an evening stroll around the neighborhood, or the 900th reading of Goodnight Moon.