If you are pregnant, you have probably already had someone give you unsolicited comments about how little sleep you are going to get, “so you better get it in now!” We know, bless their heart. They don’t know what they are doing is unwelcome and unoriginal.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need information! Your baby is a remarkable human and is designed to survive. Their sleeping and eating needs are proof of that. We’d love to lift the veil on newborn sleep to help you have realistic expectations of what is normal and what is possible for you in early weeks with your newborn.
Your Baby’s Design
Your baby is designed to sleep differently than you. So differently, in fact, that when compared to your routine schedule, it makes adapting feel like torture. The difference comes because of different sleep cycles.
An adult sleep cycle lasts between 90-120 minutes, and when charted, it looks like a lazy “W” with one or two periods where a person may wake up. Adults also have four stages of sleep they travel through in this cycle, ranging from awareness of being drowse to full REM.
Your baby cycles through sleep much more frequently and in less time, on average, about every 50 minutes. And until about 4-months of age only have two stages of sleep. Take a look at this helpful chart created by The Nested Bean:
Your newborn’s needs are tied to their survival. They need to eat often, be changed and kept comfortable, and have tending that ensures their body temperature is in a safe range. With more frequent sleep cycles, your baby travels into “light sleep” or awareness more often, so any of the needs that are not met will trigger them to wake up and cry out for care. It is genius!
Often your newborn is relatively easy to put back to sleep once their needs are met because they only have those two stages of sleep. It feels painful and is difficult for you the adult, because we still have to work through ALL FOUR STAGES to get back to sleep ourselves, and by that time, your baby is close to being back in the light sleep stage of the sleep cycle again.
Things that can help keep your baby from waking if all their needs are met, for example, they are getting enough nutrition, are a safe temperature, and do not have a soiled diaper:
- Being swaddled or placing your hand on their chest can help soothe the feeling of separateness. Being alone is not a feeling that an awake baby finds reassuring.
- Using a white noise machine
- Having a fan to move air through the room
- Sleeping in the same room to have the comfort of closeness
Things that can help parents during this challenging time:
- Some two-parent households find taking care shifts to be helpful. For instance, wakeups from 8 pm to 1 am are handled by one parent, while the other sleeps in a separate space. And wakeups from 1 am to 6 am are the responsibility of the other parent. Feeding can happen still at the breast or with bottles, but diapers, burping, and soothing are exchanged.
- Some parents find that pacifiers are helpful comfort for babies who are recently fed, and need help drifting back to deep sleep. Sucking is a natural soothing activity that can happen at the breast but can also be done with this tool, for those open to their use.
- Some parents find that the “night” of sleep needs to be prolonged later in the day. Meaning, if a person gets typically 8 hours of sleep each night, the parent would stay in bed, going back to sleep until the combined bit of sleep eventually add up to their required 8 hours.
- And of course, some parents can have the overnight help of postpartum doulas to help everyone in the family get the rest and care they need, while also giving peace of mind.