If you are expecting a baby soon, or if you are already in the thick of parenting a tiny human, sleeplessness is always a relevant topic among new parents! So, whether you are getting ahead on your research, or you just need a lifeline to get you through the next half-hour, I will try and pack as much newborn sleep info (0-3 months old) into this post so you can get started on your way to at least a wink or two of sleep…
So, let’s get started with one of the most common newborn sleep questions I hear…
Why does my newborn only want to sleep on me?
In the first year of life, babies attach to their caregivers through the senses. You may have heard about the benefits of skin-to-skin care for your newborn (I talk about mother/baby bonding more in my blogpost here). The benefits of skin-to-skin time with your baby are numerous. Some of these benefits include bonding, thermo-regulation, stabilized breathing, improved breastfeeding outcomes, and reduction in crying. Well, the benefits of being close to a caregiver do not end at the delivery room and continue far beyond the early weeks and months of your baby’s transition into the world. All things considered; we realize that our babies thrive when they are in sensory proximity to us.
Our evolutionary background further confirms that we are a species that thrives on proximity. Nested animals such as birds do not cry out when left alone, it is a safety issue for a chick to stand-out when the mother is away. Carrier Species who stay close to their young however (ex. primates) have offspring that cry out when left alone. Proximity to the parent increases the primate’s chance of survival. Humans are a “carried species”, they cry out when left alone. Ages of evolution and natural instincts have conditioned your baby to know that staying close equals comfort, survival, and security. Ages of evolution and natural instincts have also conditioned your newborn to know he can rest safely when in sensory proximity to you, or another capable caregiver. Infants rely on sensory proximity to their caregiver in order to validate this much-needed security as they transition to life outside the womb.
Sleep is a vulnerable event. When we fall asleep, we are trusting that the environment around us is safe. Babies feel safe when they are near their caregiver. So, it is no wonder that they always want to be near you when they drift off into sleep.
How do I practice safe sleep when my child thrives on proximity?
Where your child sleeps is a matter for serious thought. In the height of exhaustion, parents must understand the various risks their baby might be exposed to when sleeping. Our current culture speaks very firmly towards placing babies on separate sleeping surfaces, on their backs, and without any objects in the sleep space (loveys, blankets, etc…).
Studies show that the majority of nursing mothers bed-share at some point in the night. As a result, I feel it is important to educate families on safe bed-sharing practices as well. An easy-to-follow resource for safe and evidence-based bed-sharing practices can be found here. If you find yourself either choosing to bed-share for relational reasons, or bed-sharing for survival’s sake, then it is imperative that you educate yourself on the proper precautions you must take for your baby’s safety. I find it important to highlight that sleeping parents who use recliners or sofas while holding their baby put their child at significant risk. For this reason, I love recommending this SleepBelt which can protect babies from slipping into a position that could compromise his/her airway when snuggling with a parent.
If your family does not bed-share, then a side-car crib or pack n’ play nearby is a great solution that provides a separate sleep surface while also offering your child sensory proximity to you. Parents may also want to sleep with their child’s crib sheet for a couple of nights, and then place this on the crib, offering sensory proximity to their baby through the scent of the caregiver. During the daytime, I also highly recommend kangaroo care by babywearing with a sling, structured carrier, or wrap. This practice allows you to keep your baby close, while still maintaining your hands for any daily tasks. Newborns especially love contact and motion naps, because it mimics the familiar experience of the womb.
What is an ideal sleep environment for my baby?
As mentioned above, any environment that is close to you is ideal for baby. But, let’s be realistic, having a baby sleeping on you 24/7 isn’t always practical. It is necessary to find a balance of being available to your child, while also maintaining a sense of self as well. At this age, it is important to begin thinking of your long-term sleep goals.
If your goal is to have your child eventually sleeping in their own nursery, in a standard crib, then it would be good to provide opportunity for your baby to practice this whenever you feel able. What do I mean by practice? Well, newborns have normal nap lengths lasting anywhere from 20 minutes up to 2+ hours. So, when your newborn is getting sleepy (which will be often) then consider where you want your baby to initiate sleep. If you feel up to the task, you can try offering a crib nap. During the newborn stage, any time spent napping in the crib independently can be considered a win!! If the timing is not right or you are anxious, that’s okay. You can try again another time. You have lots of opportunity to practice over your baby’s early months. If your baby naps for less than an hour in any location, then you can briefly try to encourage a longer nap by getting him back to sleep however possible (rocking, feeding, transferring to a carrier, etc..). Don’t agonize over getting long, independent naps too much at this age. Sleep is a biological function and we simply can’t force a child to sleep. Naps should start developing more predictability and length around 6 months, so it’s totally NORMAL if they are a bit choppy throughout the day.
When your newborn is just days old, she does not have a developed circadian rhythm. This is the body’s biological clock that helps our bodies separate day and night. At around 9-12 weeks old your baby should start to produce melatonin (sleepy hormone) and will be better able to distinguish night from day. Until then, you can encourage your baby to distinguish her days sooner by offering naps in the daylight, reinforcing that days are for alert time and nights are for consolidated sleep. Around 6 PM you could start dimming the lights in your home and shutting the blinds to reinforce that nighttime is arriving. This practice will encourage the production of nighttime melatonin. Once your child has reached 12 weeks old, then you will want to offer naps and nighttime sleep in the dark. As your child becomes more alert, removing visual stimuli from the room will help him settle into sleep faster. A good rule of thumb is that the room should be so dark that you cannot see your hand, if it is held in front of your face. There are many great ways to darken a room, but my all-time favorite and thrifty option is to invest in black cardstock or aluminum foil to block out light that seeps into the windows during the day.
It is important to also consider room temperature. I would always err on the side of having a cooler room, to prevent overheating. A room temperature between 65-70 degrees is ideal. Consider the material and weight of the pajamas your baby is offered. When layering, I recommend a light layer first. During the winter a top layer of fleece may be appropriate, or in the summer a lightweight cotton may be sufficient. You can test your baby’s temperature by touching his/her chest to feel if he is either cool or warm to the touch.
And finally, consider what your baby hears when falling asleep. White noise is incredibly soothing to newborns as it mimics that sounds of the womb. Using white noise however does not mean you have to tip-toe around your baby. You can certainly avoid “peak” noises that might startle your newborn, however you are laying the groundwork for your child’s sleep expectations now and so having a few murmurs or conversations in the background may help your child integrate these noises into his sleep environment and adapt to sleeping in a variety of environments (quiet and moderately loud). What I am suggesting is that walking on egg-shells around your sleeping baby in the early months could set a pattern that he/she may only sleep when it is perfectly quiet, further reinforcing the need for you to tip-toe everywhere for the next few years when your baby sleeps.
What sleep schedule should I follow for my newborn?
Can you do me a favor? Will you promise not to scour the internet for newborn sleep schedules?! Maybe if your child was a robot, he/she would follow one of these sample schedules. I honestly don’t know why any sleep consultant bothers to write one, because not a single newborn, ever, has followed a written schedule. But, that’s not to say that you can attempt to create a rhythm in your home. Here are some of the strategies for helping promote a healthy sleep routine in your household…
It’s time to become the expert on your baby’s “awake windows”. At birth, your baby should not be awake much longer than 45 minutes at a time. Newborn feedings generally take 30 minutes. So taking this into consideration, this gives you enough time to change a diaper, feed, and burp your baby and then it’s time to offer the next nap if your baby didn’t just fall back to sleep while eating. Babies need very little stimulation at this age, so don’t feel like you must plan out activities for this awake time. Something as simple as talking to your baby, smiling, taking a walk around the living room, etc…can be just enough to engage your baby without sending them spiraling into hyper-arousal. If you learn one thing from this post, please let it be that an overtired or overstimulated baby is significantly harder to get to sleep. About every 3 weeks your baby’s awake time window will increase by 15 minutes. So, about a month into your child’s sweet life you can expect an hour-ish of awake time. Every baby is unique, so simply use those awake times above as a guide. To assist you with discovering your unique baby, here are some cues your baby will use to communicate that a nap is necessary.
- If your baby is quiet and has a blank stare, red-rimmed eyes, or is shifting his/her gaze away from stimulation, it’s time to offer a nap. This “blank stare” is the prime window for your baby to self-settle and fall asleep without large heroics on your part. Try laying your baby down awake, and know it is okay for your baby to quietly look around the room at this time. If it helps, you can fold a load of laundry, scroll social media, or do another small task that will help ease any anxiety you may feel when hovering as your baby tries to get to sleep. If your baby gets fussy, then please feel free to soothe!
- If your baby is yawning, tugging ears, or rubbing eyes….stop everything and offer a nap. This is an urgent sleep cue and waiting much longer will almost guarantee fussiness and agitation for your baby.
How can feedings impact newborn sleep?
I cannot have a conversation about newborn sleep without also highlighting newborn eating patterns. I always encourage my clients to feed on demand. If your baby is acting hungry, please use your intuition and offer a feed. Some newborn babies can sleep longer daytime stretches. And this is where I might lose some of you…you might have to wake your baby up. During the day, if it has been longer than 3 hours since your newborn’s last feeding, then wake him/her up to offer a feed. Why wake a sleeping baby? Well, newborns need to get 8-12 nursing sessions a day. If you don’t wake them to feed during the daytime, then they will be waking YOU more at night to play catchup for those missed daytime feeds. I would rather you wake up a sleeping baby during the day, in hopes that you can all get longer chunks of consolidated sleep at night.
And finally, it is important for new parents to understand that their baby’s sleep needs are very different from their own. For your child’s first year of life, your child will (on average) need about 12 hours of day (with naps) and 12 hours of night. An average bedtime for a newborn would be somewhere between 7-8 PM. Although, there are always a few babies who march to the beat of their own drum and need a later bedtime. Try offering an early bedtime and once your baby is asleep for the night, keep lights dim and interactions mellow to reinforce nighttime patterns when your child wakes for feedings.
And don’t forget…
You are the expert on your child! It takes time to fit into this role of parenting, so give yourself grace. Know that it is normal for your new baby to wake frequently and seek out your comfort and presence. But, let’s not deny that it is exhausting! Until then, call for reinforcement. Seek out a village to help support your family!! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Rely on your partner, a postpartum doula, family, and friends. And in the event you need a listening ear to help you troubleshoot, or reassure you that you really are THE BEST PARENT for your baby, then give me a call. I would love to chat!
Callie Hamilton is a Baby-Led Sleep and Well Being Specialist located in Boise, Idaho. She is the owner of Slumber and Swoon Sleep Consulting which operates under a mission to help infants and young children get better rest without the practice of sleep training. Using a developmental approach which emphasizes responsiveness and attachment, Callie seeks to empower parents to trust their instincts by helping children fall asleep from a place of love and connection.