Newborn Sleep vs Adult Sleep
Newborn sleep is not like our adult sleep. They do not have a developed Circadian Rhythm (aka our biological sleep clock) and instead, their systems run on what we call the Homeostatic System (the drive to sleep influenced by the duration of wakefulness).
Newborns spend about 50% of their sleep in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and 50% in Non-REM sleep (Iglowstein et al 2002) while adults circle between 4 sleep stages and only spend about 25% of their sleep in REM sleep. Newborn sleep tends to be noisy and active (baby will likely move, twitch, squirm, grunt, and may even open their eyes!). As such, many parents mistake a baby in REM sleep as either waking up or even completely awake when in fact they are in REM sleep or connecting to the next sleep cycle. Newborn sleep can be noisy and filled with action.
Newborn Sleep - What is Normal?
There are no “rules” or “bad habits” or “schedules” - just do what feels right for you and your baby.
Newborns need a lot of sleep! Between 0-8 weeks of age they need an average of 14-18 hours of sleep per day - but it is hugely variable!
Their average awake windows are 45 min-1 hour for the first 8 weeks. This will likely stretch to 1.5 hours at the 3 month mark.
Baby may need support to fall asleep and staying asleep.
Sleep is largely dictated by hunger in the early weeks.
Sleep duration may vary from 15 minutes - 4 hour stretches and will likely get harder throughout the day and may end in a fussy period in the evening hours.
Newborns are noisy sleepers! They grunt, snore, squirm, etc. The early morning, especially can be a super difficult time of day for sleep. Naturally, baby has less of a pull to sleep in the early hours of the morning as they have slept longer stretches at night. It is also likely that newborns are getting a bit gassy as their digestive system develops and have been laying flat for most of the night. Generally this is all very normal and there is not much to do. It is a phase that will pass as their digestive system develops.
Newborn Sleep Patterns & Schedules
Circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle which is governed by light and dark. This sleep cycle is not present in newborns, which explains their erratic sleep patterns. These erratic sleep patterns mean that it can be hard to follow a schedule in the early weeks. Circadian rhythms begin to develop around 3 months.
Sleep in the early weeks is erratic and occurs around the clock and their sleep wake cycle interacts with their needs to be fed and nurtured. Newborns sleep 14-18 hours of 24 and a sleep period may be a few minutes to a few hours (Iglowstein et al, 2002). Babies sleep in short bouts of 30 mins to 4 hours and rarely more than that. It is common for them to be awake 45-60 minutes before needing more sleep; this is called their wake window. Their sleep also tends to be very active with lots of noise and body movements .
Help baby learn the difference between night and day
Newborns have only experienced life in a dark womb, so it takes some time for them to adjust to the differences between day and night. Imagine if you had only experienced life in darkness, you would not be sleeping all night too!
Studies show that babies’ internal clocks sync up more quickly when parents provide them with the right environmental cues by exposing baby to sunlight during the day, allowing baby to nap in day-light, involving baby in stimulation of your daytime routine, keeping nighttime as dimly-lit, quiet and calm as possible, and avoiding nighttime use of electronic screens (Custodio et al, 2007; Lohr et al, 1999; Tsai et al, 2012; Chonchaiya et al, 2017).
Many adjust naturally around the 6-8 week mark but you can help them adjust earlier by :
letting baby nap in ambient noise and natural daylight throughout the day (don’t tiptoe around your sleeping baby)
keeping interactions calm with low-to-no light during night wakings.
White, blue and yellow light will decrease your baby’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin. It is recommended to use red light when you need light at night which doesn't disrupt melatonin being produced.
Try to avoid going on your phone or watching TV for these wake-ups as the blue light decreases Melatonin production for both baby and you.
Try and Avoid an Over-Tired Baby
In the early days it can be hard to get a baby to sleep if they become over-tired. While some babies will simply doze in and out of sleep on their own, many will need assistance and this is absolutely natural, normal and completely okay.
Babies have optimal times in which they will fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer. If you happen to miss this window you will likely see more resistance getting to sleep and/or sleep for a shorter stretch. This is because when babies are awake longer than their bodies are meant to be, they start to produce the stress hormone cortisol and in turn, adrenaline in order to keep their body functioning. This makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Don't worry, it's ok when this happens and you will get baby down when you can.
Sleep will likely get more challenging throughout the day and the more over-tired a baby is the more likely a “witching hour” period in the evenings will be. Watching the clock for appropriate awake windows as well as getting to know your baby’s sleepy cues is a great way to avoid an over-tired baby!
Newborn Awake Windows
Birth to 1 month: Your baby can likely only stay awake about 45-60 minutes between sleep. This is likely only enough time for a feed, burp and diaper change, but don't worry, this stage with babies, is short lived!
2 months: A baby's wakeful window increases to closer to the 60 minute mark between sleep. This means that at the 50 minute mark, based on your baby's cues, start winding things down and helping your baby get to sleep.
Around 3 months: Your baby will likely be able to stay awake a whole 1-1.5 hours between sleep. Typically, the shortest amount of time a baby can stay awake is from morning wake up until the first nap, whereas the longest is from the end of last nap until bedtime. At around 3 months you will likely see about 1 hour of wake time from morning wake up until first nap and about 90 minutes between naps and from end of last nap until bedtime. Most babies need to eat about every 2-3 hours at this age. But, this really depends on the baby and how you are feeding them.
Keep in mind, these are average ranges and these windows may vary slightly for your baby. You will soon discover your baby's unique sleep windows and tired cues as you get to know each other!
Establishing a solid sleep foundation:
*This can vary based on the family’s unique sleep goals and current challenges.
The months before the 4-month sleep leap are an optimal time to set baby up with a healthy sleep foundation. This can help baby slowly learn to be comfortable and confident in their sleep space, learn to fall asleep independently (if this is something you are interested in) and ensure that baby doesn't become chronically over-tired.
Nap at optimal times and avoid an over-tired baby!
Develop a consistent nap and nighttime routine
Think long term and try to avoid unsustainable sleep cues that are not working for the parent.
Create an optimal sleep environment (safe, sleep conducive, consistent)
Focus on good eating habits
Goes hand in hand with sleep
Fill baby’s tummy during the day
Cluster feed in the evening to “tank up”
Common Newborn Sleep Questions - Answered!
“Baby spits out the pacifier! Should I replace it?”
In short, no. Pacifiers are for soothing so if baby is soothed, you don't need to use it, replace it or offer it if baby is asleep or awake. They can be hugely helpful for soothing some babies as it helps activate their sucking reflex but not all babies need them or want them. Many babies will spit out the pacifier before they fully fall asleep, which is ideal - no need to replace it. If baby doesn't like the pacifier, don't push it! Pacifiers are completely optional.
"Baby is waking up 10 minutes after they fall asleep? We are watching awake windows and sleepy signs. How do we help lengthen naps?"
Naps at this age are highly variable -- anywhere between 20 minutes to 2 hours. If baby wakes soon after going to sleep, consider whether they were a bit tired when they fell asleep and you can try to coax them back to sleep and see if you can stretch for another 15-20 minutes additional sleep at that time. If it’s not happening within 10-15 minutes then call it quits and start the new “window”. Don't stress about it though! This is still the early days, baby is still young and naps will organically lengthen as they grow and develop. Many babies sleep better with movement during the early months. If this is your baby, it’s totally fine and encouraged to go for walks with your baby in the carrier or stroller to get some longer stretches of sleep. Also, it’s great for both of you to get some fresh air.
"How can we move longer stretches of sleep to nighttime? Baby is taking 4-hour daytime naps but up every hour at night!"
It's very normal for this rhythm in the newborn period, but you can start working on transferring those longer stretches to the night rather than the day.
Make sure you are feeding frequently throughout the day. The more feeding time we get in the daytime is potentially less need for it at night.
Try to avoid naps over 2 hours.
Expose your baby to plenty of natural light during the day letting them nap in ambient light and sound can also help foster circadian rhythm.
“When can I stop waking baby to feed at night?”
Once your baby is back at their birth weight (usually around day 14) they can sleep as long as they want to as long as:
Baby gets at least 8-12 feeds/24 hours
Minimum 6 wet diapers/24 hours
Continues to gain weight appropriately
“Baby only sleeps for 15-30 minutes. Is that OK?”
Yes, this is very normal! Generally a mix of short naps and 1+ hour long naps is common throughout the newborn phase. Around 12 weeks of age, baby’s sleep cycles change and this can often result in serial cat-nappers as they spend more time in a lighter sleep state. Aiming for at least 1 nap of over an hour (even if in a carrier, your arms or a stroller) to help baby get the sleep they need at this time can be helpful.
"Baby only sleeps on me and wakes as soon as I put them down!"
This is absolutely natural, normal, and SO common! Sleeping on their backs on a firm mattress may be the safest way to sleep but it is not a position that comes naturally for baby to sleep. You can help your baby adjust to their sleep space by placing them in their bed awake a few times per day so they get used to it. Sometimes the actual transition is the problem so helping baby fall asleep or transition baby to their sleep space with the “side to sleep technique” can be hugely helpful during this time. Swaddling helps to mimic the snug feel of the womb and can help baby feel secure on the mattress. Focus on the first nap each day and night sleep as these will likely be the easiest to help baby adjust to their own sleep space.
"Is it ok that my baby mostly falls asleep while nursing at bedtime?"
Nursing at bedtime is completely okay as long as it works for you. At some point when they are older (and when you are ready for a change) if you want to change night wakings and/or bedtime, we can help hem learn to fall asleep differently, without nursing. When you are ready to change the routine, try to separate nursing from falling asleep at bedtime. Try unlatching them once they switch to "comfort nursing." You can then cuddle/hold/rock them to sleep. Over time you can gradually lay them in bed more awake and do less to help them fall asleep next to you. Once they are better at falling asleep without nursing, you can help them go back to sleep the same way when they wake up and it's not time for them to feed.