Welcoming a newborn into your life is a magical and life-changing experience. However, the joy of parenthood often comes with sleepless nights and exhaustion (especially in the beginning). Newborn sleep patterns can be erratic and confusing, leaving you in search of answers.
Understanding Newborn Sleep Patterns
Newborns sleep a lot, but their sleep is quite different from that of older babies. To better understand newborn sleep, it's essential to be aware of the following factors that are driving their sleep habits.
What do newborn sleep cycles look like?
Newborns have shorter sleep cycles than adults, typically lasting 45 minutes to an hour. These cycles consist of active (REM) sleep and quiet (non-REM) sleep. REM sleep is when babies often appear restless, with rapid eye movements and occasional body twitches. Sometimes they can appear to be awake since they are moving so much and may even have periods of eye opening. Don’t be fooled though, your baby may still be sleeping even though he/she has moments of moving and twitching.
How many hours do newborns sleep?
Newborns sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day on average, but this sleep is divided into frequent, short naps instead of consolidated stretches. You yourself may be feeling extra tired due to the around the clock wakeups. Power through the best you can by making safe sleep choices, asking for help when needed and relishing in the fact that this is a short season of your baby’s development.
Why is your newborn awake all night?
A newborn's circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, is not fully developed. This means that newborns do not yet have a clear distinction between day and night, which can lead to erratic sleep patterns. It is not until closer to 16 weeks when sleep hormones are becoming present that their circadian rhythm becomes more regulated.
How often should your newborn eat at night?
Newborns wake up frequently because they have small stomachs and need to feed often. Feeding is a primary reason for sleep disruptions during the early weeks of life and it is important to remember that it is completely normal for a newborn to wake up multiple times during the night to eat. It’s not uncommon for your newborn to be on a 24-hour feed cycle at first. Before you make any changes in your baby’s nighttime eating patterns, contact your pediatrician for advice.
How to Help your Newborn Sleep Longer
While newborn sleep can be challenging, there are strategies to encourage better sleep habits for both your baby and you:
Create a Soothing Environment: Make your baby's sleep space comfortable and safe. A consistent sleep environment can signal to your baby that it's time to rest. Keep their room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature at night-time. During the day, expose your baby to lots of light and noises to assist their circadian rhythm development.
Swaddle Your Baby: Swaddling can help mimic the cozy feeling of the womb, making your baby feel secure by minimizing their startle reflex and promoting better sleep. There are several easy to use swaddle products on the market now such as Velcro and zipper swaddles that are typically easier to use than a blanket.
Practice Safe Sleep: Always put your baby to sleep on their back to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Avoid loose bedding, toys, or crib bumpers in the crib.
Establish a Routine: While newborns don't have a set circadian rhythm, establishing a bedtime routine can help signal to your baby that it's time to sleep. This might include a warm bath, gentle rocking, or reading a book.
Feed on Demand: Newborns need to feed frequently, so be responsive to their hunger cues. Nighttime feedings are expected during the early weeks.
Share the Load: If possible, share nighttime responsibilities with your partner or ask for help from family and friends. Getting some uninterrupted sleep can make a world of difference.
What Time Should a Newborn Go to Bed at Night?
Newborns prefer a late bedtime of 9-10 pm. Anything earlier than that may be treated as a nap or your baby fights sleep altogether. Your baby will want to feed frequently leading up to bedtime which could look like a marathon nursing session or adding additional ounces to that time of day. Your baby is naturally getting themselves full before their longest stretches of sleep.
What does a newborn bedtime routine look like?
Around 8 weeks old, your baby will start to identify the sequences of events leading up to sleep. Keep your routine short but meaningful. A sample bedtime routine may look like:
Reasons Why your Newborn is Fighting Sleep
Colic, Reflux & Gas: If your baby experiences colic, reflux or gas, consult your pediatrician for guidance on soothing techniques and potential dietary changes. Be sure to burp baby after each feeding. Keeping baby upright for a bit of time after each feeding may alleviate regurgitation. There are several over the counter remedies such as Gripe Water and Mylicon. Your healthcare provider is your best friend when it comes to managing your baby’s tummy troubles.
Nighttime Wakings: Around 8 weeks, pending no health concerns, you can typically try to encourage longer stretches of nighttime sleep by reducing stimulation during nighttime feedings and nighttime diaper changes. Feed baby every 2-3 hours during the day in an effort to make sure they are receiving the greatest amount of calories prior to bedtime.
Sleeping on Back: Newborns are not used to sleeping on their backs. You may notice that when placed on their back, your baby fights sleep or they only sleep for a short period of time. This is frustrating, but please be aware of the importance of your baby being placed on their back to sleep. Updated safe sleep guidelines can be found here.
Continue to place your baby on their back and view each time as practice and progress for them to get adjusted. Use crib or bassinet side soothing to help them calm and return to sleep in the desired position.
Research sleep resources for your baby: If you're struggling with persistent newborn sleep issues check out our comprehensive Newborn Sleep Guide. Our guide includes patterns to follow every day to help you and your baby get the rest you need and deserve from 0-3 months old.
What does a sample newborn schedule look like?
Navigating newborn sleep can be challenging, but understanding their sleep patterns and implementing predictable sleep routines can make a significant difference for both you and your baby. By laying the foundations of independent sleep described inside our newborn sleep guide you will learn the intricacies of each day with a newborn and how to optimize sleep, when possible.
Remember that it's okay to ask for help and that, as your baby grows, their sleep patterns will change and become more predictable. It’s also important to note that each baby is different, and you may see big swings in sleep skills when it comes to your different children or even identical twins.
Stellina Ferri is the author of this article. Stellina is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and mom of three.
She supports families through the journey of better sleep as a consultant with Tweet Dreamzz Sleep Consulting. She lives in the Boston, MA area with her family. Find out what solutions she has for you by Booking a free call!