6 Tips for Managing Sleep with a Newborn
If you’re expecting to welcome a new baby into your home soon or are a parent in the throes of the newborn stage, there’s probably an important thing on your mind: sleep. Babies are known for not sleeping through the night in the early months, and the literal overnight transition to a life of disrupted sleep can be tough on new parents.
When it comes to infant sleep, we have both good news and bad news. The good news is that you will sleep again. The bad news? It’ll take a while before that happens.
Here’s what you should know about newborn sleep, along with some tips for getting through this tough period of irregular and unpredictable sleep.
Newborn Sleep: What’s Normal?
Expect that the first three months of sleep with a new baby will be fairly erratic.
“What we tell parents is that they should decrease their expectations of getting into a really good routine because babies are growing so quickly in those first three months of life,” says Neela Sethi, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician based in Los Angeles, California.
Young babies are still developing sleep patterns and habits, and really don’t have the capacity for regular sleep—or even sleep that only occurs at night—just yet, says William Sears, M.D., a pediatrician of more than 50 years, author of The Baby Book and researcher on infant sleep.
In the early days, your baby will likely be sleeping 16 or more hours per day, which may seem like a lot, but they’ll likely be waking often. Sethi says that, to fuel their growth and development, most newborns will need to wake to eat every two to three hours, through day and night. And even that timeline can vary quite a bit, especially in the first two weeks. Some babies will wake every hour on the hour, while others may go a full two- or three-hour stretch.
But there is hope. After the first two weeks of their life, a baby’s frequent feedings may stretch out a bit and go from every hour and a half all the way to once every three hours, says Sethi. Babies will continue to feed about every two to three hours around the clock until they’re about 4 months old. Then, you can expect longer stretches of sleep, sometimes as long as five hours. Sometime around six months, many babies can sleep “through the night,” which means six to eight hours, or longer, Sethi says
Of course, all babies are different, and some lucky parents may end up with a baby who is naturally inclined to sleep more at night. Still, the bottom line is that you should expect your baby to wake to feed every two to three hours around the clock in those first few months, Sethi says.
Sleep Training Won’t Work for Newborns
While you may be tempted to turn to sleep training to try to catch some more zzz's, Sethi cautions parents against trying it in the early months.
She says that it’s a misconception that babies can stay on a tight schedule in the early days. And in fact, there are different aspects of the newborn period that make sleep schedules near impossible to keep. For instance, your baby will be growing so quickly that their sleep and feeding patterns will change periodically. Things your baby needs, like burping or diaper changes, could also affect the timing of when your baby wakes or can fall asleep.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, sleep training should wait until the baby is at least 4 months old, when their sleep cycles become more mature.
How to Foster Good Infant Sleep Habits
What you can do now is start to develop healthy sleep habits for your baby by establishing some consistency.
“Develop a sleep routine that works for you and feels right to you,” says Sears. “Personalize it in a way that works for you and your baby.” As the baby grows and develops, it will be easier for most babies to fall into a sleep routine.
For instance, you can establish sleep cues such as putting on white noise or other background noise, giving your baby a consistent sleeping location, and setting a bedtime routine schedule such as a bath, baby massage, feeding, then putting the baby in their crib. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends putting your baby down to sleep when they’re drowsy but not yet asleep, which may help them learn to fall asleep on their own over time.
“A sleep routine doesn't work overnight. It establishes a baseline for the baby, so that, as the baby grows and feels more and more comfortable, that translates to longer stretches of sleep,” Sethi explains. “But the sooner you can implement consistency for the baby, and the sooner you can establish a basic routine and stay with that routine, the better the baby will do in the long run and the longer stretches of sleep you will get.”
It’s important to follow safe sleep practices. Always put your baby on their back to sleep, in a crib that’s free from loose blankets and any other items. Swaddling can be helpful in the early days, but stop swaddling when your baby starts to show the ability to roll around. For many infants, this happens when they’re around 2 months old.
Sears also notes that parents should adjust the routine as the baby grows to suit what works best for the child and the family. However, talk to your baby’s pediatrician if the baby is having trouble falling into a routine, isn’t gaining weight steadily, isn’t feeding well, or isn’t wetting at least four diapers or having at least three normal bowel movements each day. Some challenges with establishing a routine are related to babies not getting enough to eat, according to the AAP.
How to Cope When You’re Sleep-Deprived
While you and your baby may not be sleeping for long stretches during those early months, there are some steps you can take to make this time of broken sleep a bit easier for you.
The age-old advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” can really help you avoid feeling too sleep-deprived. If at all possible, Sethi encourages parents of newborns to take a bit of time away from the baby to calm their own bodies and ease their nerves. If you have a support system available to you, ask someone in it to watch your baby. Even one afternoon nap can be the refresher you need to keep going.
Stay Consistent Through the Return to Work
Sethi notes that one of the hardest adjustments will be if you or your co-parent have to return to work, adding that the transition when you’re already sleep-deprived can be extremely difficult. She stresses that it’s important to maintain any sleep routine you’ve already started. Staying consistent can help both you and your baby through the adjustment period.
Remember: This Is Temporary
Sethi says that she believes it's important for parents to show themselves grace and to remind themselves that this too shall pass. The sleep deprivation and night feeding might seem like they’re going to last forever, but they won’t. “Just remember in the moment that your baby will sleep through the night at some point,” she says.
Seek Help from a Professional
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it, says Sethi. You can ask your baby’s pediatrician for specific sleep advice for your family. You may also look into hiring a night doula to help out. If your mental health is affected, then talking with a therapist or counselor is important, too. And after four months, you might consider enlisting sleep training help from a professional infant sleep expert.
Talk About It
Speaking of seeking help, it’s also perfectly healthy and sometimes necessary to share your experiences with sleep deprivation as a new parent with others you know will support you. Sethi notes that one of the most important things that parents can do is to talk about it and not hold it all in. Reach out to friends, join a local new parent support group, or connect with others in the pregnancy community who’ve been through it and are available to listen.
“There are just times that you do feel very isolated as a new parent,” says Sethi. “The more that you can belong to a community and express your emotion, the more that you can calm your nerves and feel that you're supported and that you're not alone.”
Team Up, If You Can
Sethi points out that if you have a partner, you can work together to try to make night wakings a bit easier on each other. She recommends creating a plan for sleepless nights before the baby arrives (or at least before night falls), if you can, so you can avoid trying to figure it out in the middle of sleep deprivation.
Discussing what each partner wants and how they can pitch in—for example, who wants to be involved with feeding or who can be the designated diaper changer—and to establish shifts, if possible, can also help, suggests Sethi, so you can take turns getting at least one stretch of sleep in.
Every couple is different, so communicating your needs is key. Sears also encourages, if one parent is breastfeeding or chestfeeding, their partner to still feel empowered to take the lead at night to comfort their baby. His go-to move is what he dubs the “neck nestle,” which is holding your baby up near your neck (just make sure the baby’s face isn’t pressed against your neck, so their breathing isn’t obstructed) and humming, so the vibrations can soothe them back to sleep. When both parents play a role in nighttime soothing, the baby gets used to other ways of going back to sleep besides feeding, he says.
Sleep will be an ever-evolving factor in your life as a parent. While there’s not a whole lot you can do to guarantee sleep for yourself in the first few months of your baby’s life, you can do your best to establish consistent sleep cues and hope that that will encourage more restful nights for your family in the future.
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