The World of Newborn Sleep - a word from Marina Midenjak The Mama Coach

Newborn sleep schedule

The world of newborn sleep can seem very strange - if you are feeling perplexed or confused we want to reassure you - you are not the only one! Newborns tend to sleep a lot, especially during the first couple of weeks. They average about 16 – 18 hours of sleep per day, with frequent wakings, and rarely sleep longer than three hours at a time. Many babies will also have their days and nights confused, making things that much more complicated. Understanding the science of newborn sleep can help you cope and help you initiate healthy sleep habits fright rom the start.
During pregnancy, the fetus follows their mothers’ physiological cues about day and night, as well as following their internal clock. Maternal melatonin, our sleep hormone, crosses the placenta and may directly affect the fetus’ internal clock. When your baby is born, however, they lose this hormonal connection with mum and become responsible for their own circadian rhythm - this takes time to develop. On average a baby will take the first 12 - 16 weeks to truly develop day and night circadian rhythms. This means that prior to at least 12 weeks your baby will likely sleep without a detectable pattern. Newborns sleep anywhere from 20 minutes and up to three to four hours at a time, around the clock. This is VERY normal.
Baby swaddled in Tula Fly Away Baby Blanket

Here are some strategies to help your little one develop their circadian rhythm:

• Ensure you are feeding your baby frequently throughout the day. The textbook says babies in the newborn stage should be feeding at least every three to four hours, however, you can try feeding every two hours throughout the day. Having more wakeful periods during the day can be helpful to bring more consolidated sleep overnight.  

• When you start your day, open the blinds to ensure natural light enters your baby's eyes - this signals to the brain that is it day time. Get outside for a short walk or meet up with a friend on a patio to get some sunshine. Have your baby be part of your day time routines; interactions, visits, and time outdoors can all be extremely helpful in establishing your baby's rhythm.

• Reduce stimulation and light (especially blue/green spectrum light from electronics) in the evenings. Around 8 pm each evening close the blinds, dim the lights, and keep activity to a minimum. During the night, try to keep feeding quiet with minimal interactions i.e. no long conversations about the deeper meaning of life with your baby! We also suggest using a dim light with a yellow, orange or red hue. This routine will help your baby learn that night time is for sleeping versus playing.

Mums feeding their babies

Not only do newborns have undeveloped circadian rhythms, but they also sleep differently than older babies or adults.

When adults sleep, they pass through cycles of sleep moving from light to deep and then into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep - this is when the dreaming happens. Adults also lose muscle tone during this stage and enter a state of slight paralysis - this is to ensure you don't "act out" everything happening in your dreams! On the other hand, babies DO NOT lose muscle tone during REM sleep, and actually become incredibly active and loud during this stage.

Mum babyweaing a sleeping child

Babies begin their sleep cycle in REM sleep, and they may thrash, twitch, kick or even cry. It might seem like they are actually awake and/or restless. This can be very tricky for new parents as we don't know if we need to respond or not, but rest assured this is very normal sleep for a newborn.

Babies also spend a much larger proportion of their sleep cycle in REM compared to adults - up to 50%. A typical sleep cycle for a newborn isabout 50 – 55 minutes, and during this time about 30 minutes of this will be in active sleep (REM), while about 20 minutes will be spent in quiet sleep. During quiet sleep babies have rhythmic breathing and appear restful. This stage can be quiet for parents as well when we are used to them making so much noise!. 

Babies swaddled in Tula blankets

Now you can see why many parents, maybe yourselves included, feel like their babies are often light and erratic sleepers. Often parents may mistake REM restlessness for a full wake up and attempt to interact with or soothe their baby during this time. Unfortunately, you might be accidentally waking them up. Understanding that babies move through these active stages of sleep can help us avoid jumping in to quickly when we aren't needed. If we watch and wait to see if your baby can settle without intervention, they may just return to sleep on their own. This also helps develop beautiful self soothing skills as they age.

How long should my newborn be awake?

One surprising thing that many parents aren’t aware of, is that newborn babies should only be awake for short periods of time. Some babies have temperaments where they won’t just drift off to sleep when feeling sleepy, and if we miss their sweet spot they can become overtired.

When a baby stays awake longer than they should, their body will start to produce adrenaline and cortisol -- our fight. flight or freeze hormones. A rise in these hormones cause babies to resist falling asleep. Once they do fall asleep, your baby is more likely to stay in REM (active) sleep, possibly waking themselves up more frequently.

This is a guide – always watch your infant for sleepy signs:

  • 0-12 weeks:     45-60 minutes
  • 3 months:       1-1.5 hours
  • 4 months:       1.5-2 hours
  • 5-7 months:    2-3 hours
  • 8-14 months:  3-4 hours

It is always important to watch your baby for sleep cues.

If your baby is rubbing their eyes, getting red around the eyes, becoming fussy, yawning, pulling at their ears, and/or rubbing their face into your shoulder - this may be a good time to put them down for sleep. If you push your baby past their natural sleepy time, you may find them perk up and get a “second wind”. Once their fight, flight or freeze hormones rise, it makes it extremely challenging to put them down.

The timing of bedtime is so important for a newborn baby.

More often than not, we are attempting a bedtime that's too early for a baby under 12 weeks old. Remember, your baby's melatonin and circadian rhythms are not fully developed yet, and as such, they are not ready for bed by 6 - 8 pm. It is very common for a newborn to take their last nap around 7 - 8 pm and then try a bedtime of between 9 - 10 pm. You will want to aim for 60 minutes, from the last nap to bedtime, which will include the bedtime routine (around 20 minutes).

Naturally bedtime will move earlier as your child ages. You can help facilitate this transition by closing the blinds in the evening, using soft light in the house (yellow, orange, red hues), and ensuring your sweet babe is exposed to lots of natural light in the early morning. This helps set that internal clock and melatonin levels. You will likely notice that your baby is ready for an earlier bedtime once they start napping for extended periods in the early evening!

If your baby is really fussy in the evening, spend the first 30 minutes of awake time feeding or in a carrier with lots of contact and then start the bedtime routine afterwards.

    The photo and logo of Marina The Mam Coach

    About our guest blogger: 

    Marina who wrote this insightful article is a registered nurse, newborn expert and sleep coach based in Manchester UK. She offers qualified support based on specific parenting goals, helping families solve their sleep challenges. 

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