Rachel Mitchell is sharing what to expect from your newborn’s sleep habits and how to help them get the best sleep possible.
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There is nothing quite like bringing your new baby home for the first time and bonding as a family unit. The newborn stage is full of new and exciting milestones for both you and your baby. But it is also full of adjustments as your baby discovers life outside of the womb, and you adjust to caring for your little one while simultaneously trying to care for yourself.
Because parenting doesn’t necessarily come with a manual, a lot of things you are probably figuring out as you go (with a little help from Google), which can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when it comes to newborn sleep habits.
In the newborn stage, sleep is not yet established or organized, and babies are not yet able to tell the difference between day and night (as you have likely realized). This is one of the reasons that parents may experience a whole new level of sleep deprivation as they tend to their babies when they wake in the middle of the night. And as a new parent it is hard to know whether what your baby is experiencing is “normal” and what (if anything) you should be doing to help your baby sleep better.
While sleep training in the newborn stage is not possible or recommended, thankfully there are many things that you can do to help set your baby up with healthy sleep habits from the start and ensure that they have a solid sleep foundation in the newborn stage and beyond.
Here are the key areas of your newborn’s sleep that you can start focusing on now, to help instill healthy habits.
Feeding and Nutrition
Feeding and sleep go hand in hand, especially in the newborn stage. When your baby is fed well during the day, they are more likely to give you longer stretches of sleep at night, so my recommendation is to focus on full feeds (approx. 4-6 ounces) every three hours once your baby is four weeks or older. Prior to four weeks you can feed on demand as you establish the feeding relationship. If you are noticing that naps interfere with a feed (i.e. their long nap causes them to miss a feed), this is a situation that I actually advise you wake your baby up once they reach the 3-3.5 hour mark since they were last fed in order to keep on track with feeds throughout the day.
I often see that when babies miss a feed during the day, they will try to make it up at night, which ends up being a cycle that can be difficult to break (and is hard on parents). To prevent this from happening, you can also offer your baby a feed before their nap if it has been two hours since they last ate so that you aren’t having to wake them from a nap.
If you are not currently following awake windows you will quickly learn that this is a game changer! Awake windows are essentially just as they sound, the time your baby is awake in between naps and before bed. In the newborn stage your baby’s awake windows are between 60-90 minutes, which means they might be napping up to five times per day. When babies miss their awake windows they can easily become overtired and overstimulated which can cause them to reject sleep and become overly fussy, so it is really important to pay close attention to awake windows.
Watching your child’s sleepy cues is also equally important. Some babies show really obvious sleepy cues such as yawning and becoming fussy, while others might show more subtle signs like moving their head from side to side or having a glazed over look. Both awake windows and sleepy cues will help you determine when it is time for your child to sleep and will make a huge difference in their quality of naps and night sleep.
While following a schedule is not realistic in the newborn stage, following a routine is! You can start following a nap and bedtime routine from day one, which will help all of you have a bit more structure in your day. When setting up a naptime routine, it can be as simple as five steps and approximately 15-25 minutes. Some of the steps in your naptime routine may include: swaddling, feeding, rocking, turning on white noise, singing/shushing, and then laying your baby down in the crib once they are asleep. Nighttime will look similar with the addition of a bath and a couple books.
Swaddles are not all created equal! Be sure to pay attention to TOG, material, and any specialty features when picking out a swaddle for your newborn. The Zen Swaddle and Zen One are wonderful sleepwear options for the newborn stage. They are made from high quality materials and are gently weighted to help your newborn fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer - which are big wins as a new parent!
Despite what you may have heard, putting your baby in the crib completely asleep is fine in the newborn stage. Newborns are not yet able to learn the skill of falling asleep independently, so while you can practice putting your baby down awake, it is not something you need to do regularly.
Similarly, many parents worry that feeding or rocking their babies to sleep will create a “negative” habit, but this is actually a completely normal and encouraged practice in the newborn stage. While you don’t want to feed your baby to sleep for every nap, nightly routine, and for every night waking, it is fine to feed to sleep occasionally and when needed in the newborn stage.
The place where we sleep has a huge impact on our quality of sleep, so making sure that your baby’s sleep environment is consistent and promotes sleep is key in this stage. The safest space for your baby to sleep is in a crib or bassinet for all naps and night sleep. And while a few held naps are ok in this stage, you want to ensure that your baby is primarily sleeping in their crib/bassinet.
You also want the room where your baby sleeps to be dark and free of distractions, so no bright colors or lights, or mobiles hanging over the crib that could overstimulate your baby. White noise is also recommended for both naps and night sleep in order to help replicate the sounds your baby heard in the womb. Additionally, you want to make sure there is nothing in your baby’s crib or bassinet, so there should be no blankets, stuffed animals, pillows, or anything else in your baby’s crib until they reach age one.
It is ok and recommended to have your baby in a swaddle such as the Zen Swaddle that helps your baby fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and rest more peacefully. This creates a positive sleep association that will send a message to your baby that it is time to sleep!
Practice not perfection!
When setting up healthy sleep habits with your baby, you want to remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Your newborn is not a robot and is not going to follow all of these suggestions perfectly so just do your best! I recommend that parents follow the 80/20 rule, which means 80% of the time you are prioritizing sleep and 20% of the time you are a bit more flexible.
It is still important to live your life and it is healthy for you to get out of the house and enjoy time with friends and family, travel, and get outside, which sometimes means a car or stroller nap needs to happen, and that is ok! As long as you are practicing safe sleep, on-the-go naps are often inevitable sometimes and nothing to stress about.
Teaching your baby healthy sleep habits doesn’t have to start when they have reached a certain age or milestone, you can start right now! By introducing healthy sleep hygiene from the start and following these tips, you are setting your baby up to ensure long-term sleep health and establish a strong foundation for sleep. Take it slow, give yourself grace, and allow yourself to have human moments because this stage can be tough, but you are doing a great job!
Common questions from new parents
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