Becoming a new parent is a time of joy, but also uncertainty as you learn how to take care of this new little person. “It wasn’t long after the birth of my first child that I realized the experience of having a baby for the first time was truly impossible to completely prepare for,” says infant sleep expert Natalie Willes. “If you haven’t lived through the reality of bringing home a tiny infant, learning to change them, getting to know them, and learning to feed them, it’s simply impossible to fully appreciate that experience before you have it yourself.” Something you can prepare for beforehand is the sleep patterns your newborn will likely fall into in their first four months of life, and how you can manage things so that each of you are getting as much sleep as possible. We asked Natalie to share her expertise on what new parents can expect in those first four months.
3am Club: What should new parents expect in the earliest newborn phase, from birth to 6 weeks?
Natalie: This is known as the “getting to know you” stage of the newborn period. An overwhelming majority of infants will sleep A LOT in the first 6 weeks of life. It may even be legitimately impossible to wake them up at certain times, even when you try. Baby is likely to sleep through all sorts of loud sounds and families often find that the first 6 weeks of life is in some ways the “easiest” part of the newborn stage, simply because newborns seem to just snooze away wherever they are, no matter what’s going on around them. The best thing you can do to help everyone get the most sleep possible is to prepare baby’s bedroom to be conducive to sleep and working out any issues that come up around feeding baby.
3am Club: What makes a good newborn sleep environment?
Natalie: Make sure you have a safe place for baby to sleep, preferably outside your bed. An empty sidecar-style bassinet is helpful in the early weeks, especially for overnight feeds. Darkness and white noise are key to calming baby and promoting excellent sleep. Getting your swaddling technique down will also help your little one snooze well during the day and night. At this stage, newborns may have an extremely late bedtime, as late as 12am or 1am in some cases. This is normal. In the first 6 weeks, your main focus should just be healing, resting, and getting to know your baby.
Know that while some families experience a period of relative calm in the first 6 weeks of baby’s life, others are dealing with any number of struggles related to feeding, gas, or jaundice. Don’t worry about focusing on anything other than taking care of you and your baby’s most immediate physical needs. As baby grows older, you’ll have more opportunities to focus on helping baby sleep and developing a more predictable routine.
3am Club: So what are weeks 7 to 12 like in the newborn phase?
Natalie: If there is one word that comes to mind to describe the latter half of a child’s newborn stage, it’s “survival.” The frequent night wakings parents have had over the last 6 weeks have caught up with them and the exhaustion can be REAL. While some lucky families will continue to experience relative peace and harmony through their child’s third month of life, many families will notice concerning new patterns emerge with their newborn. Whereas before baby may have slept deeply anywhere and through any sound, many babies seem to “wake up” after week 6, struggling to nap soundly or for long periods of time no matter where they are. They may start to show deep preferences for how they are willing to fall asleep (hello, bouncing on the yoga ball, it’s nice to meet you!). Issues of reflux and other problems related to baby’s digestion tend to reveal themselves after the sixth week of life as well.
3am Club: So what can a new parent do when baby sleep issues start to emerge?
Natalie: While partners, friends, and family members are anxious to provide support right after baby is born, it is actually after week 6 that many parents will find an extra set of hands or a meal most helpful. If you haven’t had a chance to set up a dark space with a loud white noise machine for baby to sleep for both naps and bedtime, this is the time to do it. If you find that sleep issues are becoming a significant source of turmoil in your home, now is also the time you can take action. Try to set a firm “start time” to each day, perhaps around 7am to 9am. Even if baby is struggling to sleep soundly before that time, encourage them to sleep by staying in their dark room and helping them sleep in whatever safe way you choose. Once you begin your day, start off with a feeding where you do everything in your power to keep baby alert during the feed. Even if they fall asleep, focus on baby taking a full feed, then wake baby so they spend at least 45-50 minutes in a wakeful state, preferably in direct sunlight.
3am Club: How do I know when it’s time to put my baby down for a nap?
Natalie: After an hour or less of waking time passes, watch your baby closely for signs that they may be ready for sleep. Note that tired signs may not be as obvious as yawning—it may be that your child’s eyes begin to stare off into the distance, or they seem to become more chatty or vocal. As a tired sign emerges, don’t delay! Get baby to sleep (preferably swaddled in a darkened room with loud white noise, and in a totally empty crib or bassinet) as soon as possible. Allow baby to nap for no more than 2 hours. Yes, that’s right, wake a sleeping baby. Once baby is up from their nap, feed them and restart the cycle.
3am Club: What is a good newborn bedtime, and how long will they sleep?
Natalie: Keep going with your eat, wake, sleep cycle until you hit “bedtime,” which should be about 12 hours after baby started their day. If baby doesn’t nap for long, it’s okay to feed them again even if it’s only been 2 or so hours since their last feed. In fact, more frequent (but full) feeds on this eat, wake, sleep cycle will encourage baby to have long stretches of sleep overnight since they’ve tanked up on calories during the day. Using the strategies outlined above may encourage some newborns to sleep as long as 6-8 hours overnight, so check in with your pediatrician that it’s safe to allow your baby to go that long without a feeding overnight. Remember that diaper changes should be avoided overnight unless baby has leaked or has a soiled diaper. If it is necessary to change baby, do so before a feed (if possible) and in as little light as possible. Try very, very hard not to expose baby to any form of light from bedtime through the morning, relying on light from outside the bedroom or very low-level light within the bedroom if needed for feeding and other caretaking activities. This will encourage baby to remain in the sleepy stage overnight.
3am Club: What’s your advice for parents who are struggling with sleep in the newborn phase?
Natalie: Sometimes, you will do everything “right” and your newborn will still have a hard time sleeping. Once you are confident that you’re doing everything you can to encourage and promote healthy sleep habits in your newborn, the only thing left for you to do is wait. As baby grows older, especially after the fourth month of life, you’ll have more options available to address any remaining sleep issues. Until then, ask for help, find resources to help you cope with sleep deprivation, and try to enjoy this relatively short period of what will otherwise be a beautiful and happy childhood spent with your baby as they grow older.