“Sleep while you can!”
There might be a law that you are not allowed to get through a pregnancy without hearing this advice at least once.
While not particularly helpful, its ubiquity reflects the reality that for the vast majority of parents, the early days with a new baby involve some level of sleep deprivation. The degree of sleep deprivation will depend on many factors, only some of which you can control. The most important (and uncontrollable) factor is your baby. The truth is, some babies are just better sleepers than others. This part is luck of the draw. However, whatever your baby’s sleep disposition, learning more about newborn sleep can help you ready yourself for what’s to come.
Read on for newborn sleep 101: what you need to know about infant sleep patterns, signs of sleep readiness, how to help your baby sleep, and what you can do to keep your baby safe while they sleep.
General Sleep Patterns
All humans need sleep, but our sleep patterns change throughout our lives. The sleep patterns of adults and newborns, in particular, offer a study in contrasts. Learning about what to expect from your newborn’s sleep can help you feel more prepared to handle its idiosyncrasies and be compassionate with yourself about why, if you’re like most parents, sleep might be a particular pain point in the early days of your child’s life.
If you’re like the average adult, you probably sleep somewhere around seven hours per day. However, if your baby is like the average newborn, they will sleep more than double that for a whopping 16 hours over the course of a day!
Similarly, while adults generally stay awake all day and get all their sleeping in at night, your baby won’t follow this pattern off the bat. Newborns are happy to sleep — or not sleep — any time of day. As a result, those 16 hours are distributed fairly evenly between day and night“Infant Sleep,” Stanford Children’s Health..
Adult and infant sleep differ in other ways, too. For example, while adult sleep cycles last 90-120 minutes, the average infant sleep cycle is just 47 minutes“Promoting and Protecting Infant Sleep,” by Allen, Kimberly A., Adv Neonatal Care. 2012 Oct; 12(5): 288–291.. This is probably why, during the fourth trimester, when your baby has not learned to connect their sleep cycles yet, many new parents feel like life is a blur of diapering, feeding, sleeping, diapering, feeding, sleeping, diapering, feeding, sleeping, and so on.
Signs of Sleep Readiness
New babies sleep a lot, but the trick is getting them to sleep when you want them to. One of the keys to helping get into a good sleep pattern is learning the signs of sleep readiness in your baby. Your baby may have some particular tells you learn over time, but many infants will show that they are tired by rubbing their eyes, yawning, looking away, and fussing“Infant Sleep,” Stanford Children’s Health.. When you notice these signs, which come quite frequently in the early days, it’s time to help your baby sleep. If you ignore these signs, you risk your infant getting overtired, and it can be much harder to help an overtired baby calm enough to fall to sleep.
How To Help Your Baby Sleep
When you catch the signs of sleep readiness, your next step should be to place your newborn in their sleep space on their back. For some newborns, that’s enough. For others, you may need to engage in some soothing before you set them down to sleep.
Dr. Harvey Karp, author of the bestselling book The Happiest Baby on The Block* popularized the five s’s of infant soothing: swaddle, stomach or side, sush, swing, and suck“The 5 S’s for Soothing Babies” by Dr. Harvey Karp, Happiest Baby.. These five tricks can help calm a crying newborn and also help coax your newborn from waking to sleep.
Wrapping your baby in a tight swaddle using a receiving blanket or specialized swaddle can help your newborn feel safe, snug, and ready to sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics says swaddling is safe to continue once your child is asleep as well.
Stomach or Side.
While you should never set your child on their stomach or side to sleep (due to the risk of SIDS), when you are holding your infant, positioning them on their stomach or side in your arms can help them feel calm.
Saying shhh loudly or using a white noise machine can mimic the sounds that lulled your newborn to sleep inside your womb, encouraging relaxation.
Swinging motions of all kinds can help your baby feel calm. You will learn quickly what your baby likes. Some like little jiggling motions while others like larger back-and-forth movement. Just be sure never to shake your baby in anger. (Note: If you do feel angry when you’re with your baby, know that feeling is normal and will pass. Just set your baby down in a safe space and go into a different room to calm yourself down so you’re ready to calm your little one.)
Sucking is supremely relaxing for a newborn. If you are nursing, you can offer the breast to help calm them. Once breastfeeding is established (usually about 2-3 weeks), you can also try to introduce a pacifier. If you’re bottle feeding exclusively, you don’t need to wait any amount of time before offering a pacifier. Pacifiers are very personal — you and your baby will probably both have opinions. If you want your baby to take a pacifier, know that it may take a few tries to find which one they like.
Safer Sleep Practices
Sudden, sleep-related deaths are rare, but do happen to about 3,500 babies every year in the United States. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics issues evidence-based recommendations for safe infant sleep“How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained,” by Rachel Y. Moon, MD, FAAP, last updated on June 1, 2021, HealthyChildren.org., so you can help your newborn be safe while they sleep. These are the three biggest recommendations as of this writing.
Back to sleep.
Your parents may have been told the opposite, that is, that babies sleep better on their stomachs. However, in the 1990s, the recommendations changed with the “Back to Sleep” campaign after researchers realized that the apparent deeper sleep of stomach-sleeping infants is associated with a higher risk suffocation death and of SIDS“SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment,” Moon, Rachel Y., MD, et. al., Pediatrics (2016) 138 (5): e20162938.. Now the recommendation is clear: Place your infant on their back to sleep, including all naps and nighttime sleep, until at least their first birthday.
Use a firm, flat, bare sleep surface.
Many baby things are soft and squishy, but your newborn’s sleep space shouldn’t be. It can be surprising to encounter a crib mattress for the first time, press into it, and find it to be rather hard. Don’t worry! This is exactly as it should be. Your baby will be able to sleep well — and safely — on a firm surface. If your baby falls asleep on a nursing pillow, couch, recliner, carseat, or anywhere else that isn’t firm and flat, just gently pick them up and move them to an appropriate sleep space.
Their sleep space should also have a tight-fitting sheet and nothing else. Stuffed animals, pillows, blankies, and bumpers are all super cute, but they all can increase the risk of suffocation, strangulation, entrapment, and SIDS. If your baby is cold, you can add another layer of clothing or place them inside a sleep sack. And save the stuffies for tummy time!
Room share, but don’t bed share.
Co-sleeping refers to the practice of keeping your baby near you when they sleep. The degree of nearness varies and the term can be used to refer to two different practices with different associated risks: Room sharing and bed sharing. Room sharing means keeping your newborn in your bedroom at night, but placing your baby in their own sleeping space, such as a crib or bassinet, rather than in your bed. In contrast, bed sharing means allowing your infant to sleep in your bed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room sharing because it can decrease the risk of SIDS by 50%, but warns against bed sharing because it can increase the risk of SIDS“How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained,” by Rachel Y. Moon, MD, FAAP, last updated on June 1, 2021, HealthyChildren.org..
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|↑1, ↑3||“Infant Sleep,” Stanford Children’s Health.|
|↑2||“Promoting and Protecting Infant Sleep,” by Allen, Kimberly A., Adv Neonatal Care. 2012 Oct; 12(5): 288–291.|
|↑4||“The 5 S’s for Soothing Babies” by Dr. Harvey Karp, Happiest Baby.|
|↑5, ↑7||“How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained,” by Rachel Y. Moon, MD, FAAP, last updated on June 1, 2021, HealthyChildren.org.|
|↑6||“SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment,” Moon, Rachel Y., MD, et. al., Pediatrics (2016) 138 (5): e20162938.|