14 June, 2022
“Sleep like a baby”. Whoever said that hasn’t battled a baby to sleep, only for them to wake up 5 minutes later.
You’d love to “sleep when baby sleeps” but your baby catnaps for big chunks of the day and night — and only on you. Is it normal or is it troubling? What can you do?
What’s Normal Newborn Sleep?
Newborns’ sleep is driven by hungry. The day-night circadian cycle doesn't start to form until 6 weeks of age. It's not until 3-6 months old that most babies have a regular day-night pattern.
When babies are hungry, they’ll wake up for a feed. Of course they can also wake for other reasons like being uncomfortable or startled.
Newborns exhibit two sleep phases. Firstly is active sleep - you’ll see them jump and flail their arms and legs about. There will be cute smiles, twitching and sucking. You might mistaken them for being awake. The second state is quiet sleep, where they look like peaceful angels. Babies spend about 50-50 of their sleep in active and quiet sleep states.
In the coming months, these will develop into the mature REM and non-REM sleep states like adults.
Babies will cycle through active and quiet sleep which each cycle lasting around 20-50 minutes. It’s normal, even for adults, to briefly wake up between sleep cycles.
These early days are known as the fourth trimester - it's the big adjustment from being cuddled up inside for nine-ish months to the cold, bright, wide world. It's very common that babies will only settle when held. Contact napping can be exhausting for parents and sometimes concerns them that they are creating bad habits. At this age, your baby is too young to form habits. You might, but your baby isn't quite that advanced yet. Using prams, carriers, family / friends / doula's support and sidecar basinet to survive these tough initially stages. I won't sugar coat it, these days are can be long & rough but it goes very quickly. This is also a time that it's vitally important to look after yourself too.
The most predictable thing about newborns is how unpredictable they can be.
Sleep, Feed, Play
It’s frequently recommended to follow a ‘sleep, feed, play’ routine. This can work for some babies and not others. Frequently the reality is more like feed, sleep, feed, play, feed, sleep, feed.
You may choose to loosely follow the sleep, feed, play routine but be flexible and responsive to your baby’s cues. Look for their hunger and tired cues as well as signs they are overstimulated from too much socialisation or play.
Newborn Sleep Schedule
After a few weeks, you might start to see a pattern to baby's sleep. Or maybe not. Follow your baby's cues as much as possible.
For those babies who do have a longer sleep in the day, try to limit it to 3.5 hours to avoid impacting their night sleep. Since their tummies are so small, newborns feed frequently during the day to build up a little reserve for night time. If they sleep too long, they won't feed as frequently during the day.
It's very common that newborns will only go down for the night late at night - generally around 9pm but sometimes later. After a few weeks, this might become easier to nap earlier in the evening. Ideally we aim for a 7pm bedtime as the sun goes down.
Awake Windows for Newborns
For newborns, everything is new and stimulating. Think how you feel after a long day at a seminar or work. As such, they can’t tolerate being awake for too long. Usually a newborn will be awake for 30-75 minutes at a time. This may be just long enough for a feed and nappy change. Newborns are unpredictable and can be awake for a matter of minutes and other times hours.
With newborns, awake times are short and you’ll likely not notice the time too much. This becomes more relevant for older babies but may get talked about so useful to know a little about them.
What is an awake window?
When your baby wakes up to the time they go back to sleep again is their awake window. Awake windows can change throughout the course of the day, frequently getting progressively longer as the day goes on. This builds up more ‘sleep pressure’ of an evening to have a longer stretch of sleep overnight.
As newborns have very little routine, awake windows are very variable and may change daily. When babies are older, their awake window starts from when they come out of the cot / bed. If they can stay lying in bed calmly but are awake after their sleep, this is still counted as their rest time.
How much sleep does my newborn need?
Some babies need more or less sleep than the averages and recommendation. There’s huge variations in the sleep needs of babies, just as there is for adults. Take the pressure off yourself and just focus on getting your tired child to sleep rather than counting the minutes and hours they’ve been asleep or awake.
If you do go down the tracking rabbit-hole, then according to Australian research newborns sleep 10-18.5 hours over a 24 hour period (Price et al. 2013). Since there are massive variations in sleep, it’s best to aim for a happy baby. And yes, I did obsessively track my kids sleep.
Tired Signs in a Newborn
- Red eyebrows
- Jerky movements
- Blankly staring into space
By the time your baby is crying, they are likely overtired.
Hiccups may be from trapped gas needing to be burped but can also be a hidden sleep cue.
Your baby may show all or only some cues. For example, my first would get red eyebrows and that was his sweet spot to put him to sleep. With my second, he’d yawn and ten minutes later would be his sweet spot. When I say sweet spot, I mean when I could get them to sleep with the least fuss and resistance.
Playtime for Newborns
Tire babies out during play time so that they are exhausted for sleep time.
Remember that everything is new to your baby. What you see as mundane is exciting and stimulating for them. Having cuddles with adoring visitors can be exhausting. They each have a different smell, touch and voices. In excess, these experiences can be overwhelming for some babies. Each room you walk into might have different subtle sounds like the dishwasher humming away or the ticking of a clock.
Newborn Playtime Ideas
- Staring into each other’s eyes
- Tummy time
- Side lying play
- Visual stimulation such as contrasting pictures or walking around the house looking at the dark couch against the white wall.
- Reading — it can be anything that interests you rather than baby books
- Verbalising what you are doing. For example, I’m walking into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
- Use rattle and noisey or visually contrasting toys to encourage head and eye movements
- Carry in different positions: over your shoulder, cuddled on your chest facing outwards or towards you, lying on their belly across your arm
Create a safe sleeping environment for your baby. Your child's basinet or cot should be set up away from hanging cords and blinds. Nothing should be placed in the basinet / cot.
Almost half of Aussie parents will bed share in the first two months, with only half of these intending to do so (Cunningham et al. 2018). Whether you plan to bed share or not, we recommend knowing how to safely do it and prepare your own sleep space just in case it happens. It's a lovely experience and can bring you more sleep.
To avoid overheating or fire danger, clear away any heaters and dress appropriate for the weather.
Babies should be placed on their backs when asleep. You may get your baby to sleep in any position but then roll them on to their back once asleep.
Day night confusion
Since babies’ sleep is driven by hunger and satisfaction, rather than light and dark, they can get confused about day and night. This can be common.
In the morning, open the blinds fairly quickly after waking up for the day - remember that the awake window isn’t long in a newborn so can’t dilly dally too much on opening the blinds.
Go outside during the day and expose to sunlight. Walks and getting fresh air can also be amazing for your mental health.
Know that you are the best parent for your child. Ask them in a few years time and they’ll tell you that.
It does get easier.
About the Author
Dr Cassie Atkinson-Quinton - Chiropractor, Sleep Coach, Postpartum Doula (in-training), Perinatal Yoga & Pilates Instructor
There's a lot of change that happens for both parents and babies in the first few months after birth. There's tremendous growth and development for the bubba. Parents need to learn new (or remember and relearn with subsequent kids) how to look after a child. Mother's bodies are healing from pregnancy & birth and the new challenges of breastfeeding.
This is a passion area for Cassie. She helps support her clients through this transition with Chiropractic, Yoga & Pilates, Sleep Coaching and Doula support services.
Similar articles you'll enjoy:
- Cunningham HM, Vally H, Bugeja L. Bed-sharing in the first 8 weeks of life: An Australian study. Maternal and Child Health Journal. 2018 Apr;22(4):556-64.
- Price AM, Brown JE, Bittman M, Wake M, Quach J, Hiscock H. Children's sleep patterns from 0 to 9 years: Australian population longitudinal study. Arch Dis Child. 2014;99(2):119-125. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2013-304150