View from an expert: Newborn Sleep and the first few months.
So you’ve got a baby (congratulations), you’ve brought them home - now what should you expect from their, and your, sleep? This is often a really confusing time as babies develop so much in this 4th trimester.
It’s really vital to know that this stage is all about nurturing your baby and never about sleep training. The key elements are just to arm yourself with the best knowledge to be able to face and recognise any hurdles you come across.
The first thing to explain is all about sleep cycles. A sleep cycle is the journey that babies, children and adults go through every time they nap or sleep. The length of them varies by age but a newborn sleep cycle is only around 35 minutes. At the end of each sleep cycle they wake up really briefly and go back to sleep again, in fact it’s not really even a conscious action. Their sleep cycle will extend at 4 months to around 45 mins and then stay that length roughly till adulthood. This change from 35-45 minutes is what causes the 4 month regression.
If you can understand sleep cycles then it helps to understand the importance of self settling, as if a child is able to settle themselves to sleep then they are more likely to be able to link the sleep cycles together. HOWEVER for newborns this isn’t really the case as they are super sleepy to begin with. I would only start concerning yourself with this at around the 8 week mark and only then if you felt your child was struggling to sleep for a longer time. I would suggest that you encourage this via a really gentle technique like pick up put down and be super responsive to them.
The second thing to explain is that before 6-8 weeks they won’t really understand the difference between night and day. They will probably feed lots and sleep lots (up to 20hrs each day) and at this stage I think you should just go with it, don’t worry about the routine and enjoy the newborn cuddles! To help them understand more about night and day you can spend lots of time in the sunlight and fresh air which helps regulate their body clock, although for naps if you are at home do them in a dark environment.
After 6-8 weeks you’ll notice that they might need a bit more routine in their life, this could be that they are showing you that they can handle a bit more time awake in the day so maybe awake for even 1 hr before needing sleep again. Their daytime sleep needs will probably go down to around 5.5hrs as well. They probably will be showing you that they can do longer stretches at night and wanting to go to sleep earlier so getting closer to a 7pm or early evening bedtime.
Up till about 4 months this development continues with them potentially lengthening the amount of time they can stay awake in the day to about 1.5hrs (so still not that long) and with a bit of help (through identifying their sleep cues) they’ll settle down into a 12 hrs of daytime (with around 4 naps totaling around 4hrs) and 12 hrs of night (more than likely with 1-2 or more wake ups)
So to the fundamentals. Here are my simple thoughts on how to handle the first 4 months:
- No baby is the same, it’s your journey with your child’s sleep so try not to compare with other parents.
- At this age, it’s great to encourage them to try and settle a little indpendantly but if they fall asleep feeding or on you/someone/somewhere else that’s fine. If you feel this might need changing then think about using a very gentle strategy like pick up put down.
- Avoid overtiredness like the plague! It’s one of the most common causes of upset and fussy babies - remember they can only stay awake for 45mins - 1.5 hrs and that varies by age. It is much harder to settle an overtired baby.
- Fed is best, so don’t limit your child’s feeding habits to improve sleep at this age, go with their cues and be realistic about what they need.
- Don’t worry about the 4 month regression, sometimes it just doesn’t even happen. The best advice is to try and get into a reasonable routine and with good sleep habits you’ll be in the best place to deal with it.
I hope that helps to give you an understanding of what to expect in the first few months, there is so much to take in and so much to enjoy. Sleep doesn’t have to be a nightmare but you might find a few bumps in the road, but if you can get into great habits in the early days it makes sleep so much easier to understand and hopefully it means that everyone can sleep for longer.
I'd like to give a HUGE thanks to sleep coach Kate Cohen for the brilliant advice, and if you are looking for a more in depth guide to Newborn sleepand advice about getting in the best place for sleep then you can download her Sleep Time Baby guide & very kindly use the code ‘etta’ for a 20% discount https://thesleepacademy.thinkific.com/