The weeks following the birth of your new baby are completely exhilarating—but restful? Not so much. Newborns have very different sleep needs than older babies, so it’s important that you understand your baby’s developing sleep patterns. This knowledge will help you establish reasonable expectations for the shut-eye you will (and won’t) be getting.
- Beware of bad advice. Arm yourself with knowledge from books, magazines, classes and support groups to know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Everyone from your mother-in-law to your next door neighbor has an opinion about how you should handle sleep issues with your new baby. These tidbits of misguided advice—no matter how well-intentioned—can have a negative effect on your parenting skills and, by extension, your baby’s development…if you aren’t aware of the facts. The more knowledge you have to build out a parenting plan, the more confident you’ll feel responding to those well-wishers offering contrary or incorrect advice.
- Baby biology. Avoid trying to plan your baby’s sleep schedule for him. During the early months of your baby's life, he sleeps when he’s tired—it’s that simple. You can’t force a newborn to drift off to dreamland, and conversely, you can do little to wake him up when he’s sleeping soundly. Your newborn’s tiny tummy, rapid growth and quick digestion of their liquid diet mean that he needs to be fed every two to four hours—and sometimes more. As much as you wish it weren’t so, your baby will likely be a year old (or two) until he’s able to settle into an all-night, every night sleep pattern.
- Falling asleep at the breast or bottle. It’s natural for a newborn to lull himself to sleep while nursing, drinking a bottle, or sucking on a pacifier, but over time this sleep conditioning will lead to a little one needing something to suck on before he can catch some z’s. To avoid establishing this powerful association, it’s essential that you sometimes let your infant suck until he’s tired, but not totally asleep. When you can, remove the breast, bottle, or pacifier from his mouth, and let him finish falling asleep without it. If you do this often enough, he’ll learn how to fall asleep without sucking.
- Night feedings. No matter what you do, your baby will wake up during the night—the key is to learn when you should pick her up for a feeding and when you can let her go back to sleep on her own. Your little sleeper can make many sleeping sounds, from grunts to whimpers to outright cries, and these noises don’t always signal awakening. Learn to differentiate between these sleeping noises and sounds that signal she’s awake. If she’s up and hungry, feed her as quickly as possible so she’ll go back to sleep easily. But if she’s asleep—let her sleep!
- Distinguishing day from night. Put your baby down for daytime naps in a lit room where he can hear the noises of the day, and make nighttime sleep dark and quiet, except for white noise—such as radio static or nature sounds. A bedtime routine with a nightly bath, pajama change and story can also help signal the difference between the two. A newborn sleeps a whopping sixteen to eighteen hours per day, and this shut-eye is distributed evenly over six to seven sleep periods. By helping your baby distinguish between night sleep and daytime snoozes, you’ll teach him to sleep longer periods at night.
- Sleepy signals. Get familiar with signs that your baby is ready for shut-eye, and put him down to sleep as soon as he seems tired—otherwise, you’ll have a fussy, sleep-deprived child on your hands. Common sleepy signals include quieting down, losing interest in toys, whimpering, fidgeting and rubbing his eyes. If he doesn’t get to bed when he’s ready, this pattern can develop into sleep deprivation over time and will complicate his developing sleep maturity.
- Make yourself comfortable. With a newborn in the house, you’re not going to be sleeping through the night regardless of how many sheep you count, so you may as well make yourself as comfortable as possible. Create a calming nighttime nook in a comfortable area of the house, complete with pillows, books, blankets and soft toys. Relax about night wakings right now—being frustrated about having to get up won’t change the behavior, and will just sour you and your baby’s moods. Take advantage of the extra bonding time you have to learn as much as possible about your newest arrival. The situation will improve day by day; and before you know it, your newborn won’t be so little anymore—he’ll be walking and talking and getting into everything in sight…during the day, and sleeping peacefully all night long.
The first few months with a new baby can turn any super mom into a zombie mama, so don’t get down on yourself. Instead, know what to expect and try to make the most out of an exhausting situation, and you’ll find that with knowledge and a positive attitude, you’ll come out of the experience happy, healthy and ready to embrace the next chapter of your little one’s life.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series, and the international bestseller, "The No-Cry Sleep Solution".