The phrase “sleep like a baby” is a punchline to the parents of newborns. After all, you’re probably up around the clock to accommodate your baby’s on and off sleep schedule. Although Baby’s sleep may seem erratic, it’s actually probably pretty normal. Let’s take a deeper dive into understanding how a newborn sleeps. Having realistic and fluid expectations of newborn sleep will go a long way in helping you feel more calm and confident about the situation.
What is Sleep Onset?
Sleep onset is the process of falling asleep. For babies, sleep onset may take longer than for adults, as they need to learn how to fall asleep on their own. There are many things parents can do to help their baby fall asleep, such as putting them in a dark and quiet room, reading to them, and singing lullabies.
If you have an Owlet Dream Sock and are asking yourself, “What does sleep onset mean on Owlet?”, it simply refers to how long it took your child to fall asleep after being placed in their crib.
So, now that you know the definition of sleep onset, what else should you know about newborn sleep?
General Characteristics of Newborn Sleep
Here are some general characteristics of newborn sleep:
- Newborns sleep a lot, but not for long. The total average is 16.5 hours of sleep per day. But the normal range is anywhere from 12-19 hours. The normal range for each sleep period is between 30 minutes to 4 hours. Believe it or not, two hours for a newborn is considered a long stretch. And “sleeping through the night” for a baby actually means 4-5 hours of continuous sleep. So rather than be exasperated when Baby wakes up again during the nighttime, plan on it happening.
- Newborns sleep at all times, divided pretty evenly between night and day. Newborns haven’t started drumming to the circadian rhythm of night and day yet. This process won’t even begin until Baby is roughly 2-4 months old. Know the difference between deep sleep vs. light sleep? Newborns actually sleep backwards. The adult brain ends a sleep cycle with REM sleep which is both light (wakes easily) and active (dreaming). Newborns begin their sleep cycle in this light state. It usually lasts at least 25 minutes or longer and then they move into deep sleep for the remainder of their short sleep cycles.
- Newborns are light sleepers. Babies spend twice as much time in the light, active stage of sleep compared to adults, and newborns spend most of their sleep in this state. One study suggests that they spend as much as 75% of their sleep in this light, active state. (Poblano et al 2007; Sadeh et al 1996).
- Newborn sleep is not peaceful. They are noisy (sigh, grunt, gurgle, breathe fast, breathe slow) and move around a lot (dramatic jerks and twitches). Newborns haven’t fully developed the neurological barrier that prevents arms and legs from acting out dreams (http://healthysleep.med.harvar...).
- Newborns are social sleepers, which means they love it when Mom or Dad is nearbyBecause their brains aren’t fully mature, they don’t regulate their biological functions smoothly yet. All kinds of new research is showing how parents fill this gap with just their presence. Your body helps regulate Baby’s, just by being near. Newborns sleep better when held because their whole bodies function better: breathing, body temperature, stress hormones, calorie absorption, and immune function.
Two Important Factors Related to Newborn Sleep
Now that you know what to generally expect, keep in mind two important factors when applying it to your newborn:
Don’t forget that due date quite yet! There is a huge difference in a brand new baby born at 37 weeks and one born at 42 weeks. The baby born at 42 weeks has 5 additional weeks of brain development. Because sleep is controlled by the brain and the brain develops like clockwork, remember that if your baby was early, her newborn phase will likely last a few weeks longer.
Your baby’s cocktail of genes is totally unique, as is their personality and temperament. Understanding and respecting your baby’s temperament can help give you insight into their actions and coping mechanisms. Always remember your baby has their own normal.
For example, if your baby was born a few weeks late , they might only need 12 hours of sleep total per day. Trying to get them to sleep longer than that can be frustrating and counterintuitive.
How to Help Your Baby Sleep During Their Newborn Stage
So how do you help your baby sleep during this newborn stage?
- Know when your baby is ready. This might take some time to figure out initially, but sometime during your baby’s wakeful state, they’ll shift from a “quiet alert” state to being “done” with their environment. Other “I’m done!” signs include twisting and squirming, movements becoming more jerky, or hands on faces or ears. Catching their first cues and acting on them can keep them from resorting to fussing and crying, although some babies go from “quiet alert” to “I’m done!” with lightning speed.
- Even when they’re ready to sleep, newborns often need a little help. Some even need help to stay asleep, especially during that light, active stage. Here are some things to try:
- Keep baby close. We all sleep better when we are more comfortable, and newborns are biologically more comfortable when close to a parent. During the day, holding or even wearing your baby in a sling is another way to do this. At night, keep a bassinet in your room so the two of you can be in the same room. In fact the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends room-sharing with infants until six months of age.
- Learn to swaddle. Keeping baby from waking herself up with her twitches and jerks—especially at the beginning when she’s in that light active sleep—is key.
- Learn the “baby bounce.” Many cultures have some version of rhythmically coaxing their babies into sleep. Scandinavian parents very firmly pat their baby’s bums until the baby is in a deep slumber. Whether Baby is on your knee or in your arms, that rhythmic bounce seems to simulate the rhythmic movements and sound of the very noisy womb. Swings also work for some newborns.
- Provide a soothing environment. This is highly personal for your baby, but a soothing environment includes temperature, sights, and sounds. White noise is extremely effective for a lot of babies. Other babies are extremely sensitive to clothing, temperature, or being wet. It all depends on your baby’s unique needs and preferences.
- Let them suck. You’ll find various opinions on letting your baby soothe to sleep with a pacifier, bottle, or breast in their mouth. Sucking is incredibly soothing and even pain-reducing for a baby. And it works.
- Know Your Baby. What works for some moms is a disaster for others. If constantly holding your baby works, go for it. But, don’t feel like you have to keep your baby right next to you at all times if your baby’s loud sleeping noises keep you anxious and on edge all night. Although your doctor knows about the general health of babies, you know your baby individually. So listen to the advice, but listen to your baby more.
Remember that the newborn stage is unique and comparatively short. Every day, your newborn is growing so much. And every day, your knowledge of your baby and your soothing skills grow too. At the end of this stage, you’ll be just as amazed at the growth of your baby as you are at the development of your savvy soothing skills.