Newborn Sleep: Everything You Need to Know
Newborn Sleep: Everything You Need to Know
July 27, 2022

Newborn Sleep: Everything You Need to Know

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Newborn Sleep: Everything You Need to Know

You’re likely not a new parent if you haven’t spent what feels like 23 out of 24 hours a day thinking about, problem-solving or questioning your newborn’s sleep. (Or, lack thereof.)

“Is my baby sleeping too much?”, “Is my baby sleeping too little?” and of course the infamous “WHY won’t my baby sleep?” are just a few of the questions new parents wonder about throughout the first few months of their baby’s life. And it’s no wonder; figuring out newborn sleep is pretty daunting (and pretty confusing), even for seasoned parents.

We’re tackling the most common questions around newborn sleep—and sharing all the answers—with the help of a pediatrician and a sleep expert in the hopes that a little info behind the how and why of baby sleep can help you catch a few extra ZZZs.

Newborn Sleep: What To Expect

How Much Do Newborns Sleep?

Does it feel like your newborn sleeps all the time? (Except at 2 a.m., of course.) You’re not imagining things. Most newborns sleep anywhere from 14 to 17 hours over a 24-hour period.

“For the first month or so, babies are essentially almost always asleep, with on-and-off naps taking around 16 hours of their day,” says Dr. Rebekah Diamond, a hospital pediatrician in New York City and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and the author of “Parent Like a Pediatrician.

Just remember that these stretches of sleep probably won’t occur in predictable chunks, especially during the first eight weeks or so of your baby’s life. While the total hours your newborn is sleeping may consistently total around 16 out of every 24 hours, there probably won’t be much of a schedule and each day may look different than the next.

Why Do Newborns Sleep So Much?

Turns out newborns are wired to sleep a lot during the fourth trimester—the first 12 weeks after they’re born—as it’s a time for major growth and development.

“Humans develop less in utero compared to other mammals, meaning that when a baby is born they still have a lot of growing and developing to do,” explains Dr. Diamond.

“This makes for a newborn period that looks a lot like life looked in the womb, and means babies need a ton of sleep to keep getting larger, stronger and making brain connections.”

Can a Newborn Sleep Too Much?

In most circumstances, no, newborns can’t sleep too much, and it’s not likely that your newborn is getting too much sleep. That’s because babies are born with the ability to auto-regulate their sleeping. It’s best to follow your little one’s natural cues during the first few months and try to gently stimulate them while they’re awake and help them to sleep when they’re showing tired signs.

“In general, if babies are given adequate stimulation when awake (which requires very, very little during the newborn period), don’t force them to stay up when they would rather be napping,” says Dr. Diamond.

It is important to ensure your newborn is awake enough to be eating at regular intervals throughout the day and night. Always check in with your pediatrician if you have questions about your newborn’s feeding schedule and if you should be waking them to eat if they are sleeping for long stretches.

Here are a few other reasons you may want to contact your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your newborn’s sleep, according to Dr. Diamond:

  • Your baby is sleeping much more than usual.
  • Your baby is having issues with feeding and/or having trouble staying awake to feed.
  • You’re noticing signs your baby may be sick.

Why Won’t My Newborn Sleep?

You’d think that if your baby’s averaging 16 hours of sleep each day you should feel rested and relaxed with plenty of time to knock all those tasks off of your to-do list, right? Think again. While your newborn’s total hours of sleep may clock in fairly high, the reality is that sleep is unpredictable and inconsistent.

“Babies are born without a well-developed circadian rhythm and the circadian rhythm is why we have a consolidated night and day. Without it you’re basically napping round the clock,” explains Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of “Precious Little Sleep.

This explains why your newborn won’t just wake up to eat and then fall right back to sleep; instead, they’re often awake at night for long periods of time, sometimes even a few times each night.

“The circadian rhythm is also an important component of why we have consistent and predictable bedtimes. Without this bedtime is often a total mystery,” says Dubief. “One night they’re out like a light at 8 p.m. The next night they’re wide awake at eight, take a 30-minute nap at nine then are back up till midnight. It’s a really challenging and uncomfortable time because it’s hard not knowing what to expect one night to the next.”

The newborn period is also a time of rapid growth, and your newborn is wired to wake frequently to eat. And there are sleep cycles to consider.

“Newborns cycle through light sleep phase about every 30 minutes and generally need help falling BACK to sleep,” says Dubief. That means that naps will be short unless you’re providing a high level of soothing, like motion and rocking, to help them navigate those wakings.

When Does Newborn Sleep Improve?

Knowing why your newborn doesn’t sleep in long, predictable stretches can help you feel a little more prepared as a new parent. And while when you’re in the moment it feels as if you may never sleep again, the good news is that it only takes a few months for your baby’s sleep to start falling into place.

“On average, it takes about two months for the circadian rhythm to click in,” says Dubief. “That doesn’t mean it’s utter chaos for two months and then a light switch flips; things are gradually improving and becoming less mysterious over those two months.”

So what does that mean for your baby’s sleep patterns? According to Dubief, you may start to notice:

  • Your baby is both consolidating their sleep and staying asleep for longer stretches.
  • Long night gaps of awake time start closing.
  • Bedtime starts becoming more predictable.

“By two months, you should have a kiddo with a reasonably knowable bedtime and, if they wake multiple times at night, those wakes should be fairly brief (no more two-hour middle-of-the-night baby parties),” she says.

When do newborns sleep through the night?

“Many babies can get at least a six-hour stretch of sleep by two months, and by three or four months many will be sleeping through the night. A six-month-old can usually sleep 10-12 hours through the night,” says Dr. Diamond.

But remember: these are just averages, and every baby is different in their sleep needs and sleep schedules. You can use these averages as a general what-to-expect guideline, but know that your baby may deviate from them, and that’s completely fine.

How To Get a Newborn to Sleep

How to get a newborn to sleep: the million dollar question of new parents everywhere. While it’s not realistic to expect hours of uninterrupted sleep from your brand new baby, there are things you can do to help encourage your newborn to sleep longer—and better—even from day one.

  1. Set realistic expectations. According to Dubief, a lot of managing newborn sleep comes down to managing your own expectations around it. “Human beings like things being predictable, and the irregularity of the newborn phase is really uncomfortable for many parents! You need to expect and be prepared for significantly disrupted night sleep for the first two months,” she says. “Some days naps will be 30 minutes, other days two hours. Some days bedtime will be at 8 p.m., other days 11. Some days your baby will wake five times, sometimes two,” she explains. Adjust your expectations, prepare accordingly and try to go with the flow. “Chances are you will not be cleaning the house and preparing healthy meals while your newborn takes long chunky naps. Ask for help if you can. Make peace with turkey sandwiches for dinner. Free time will be scarce.”
  2. Keep an eye on the clock. It may sound counterintuitive, but keeping your baby awake too long doesn’t encourage more sleep—it actually creates an overtired baby who’ll likely sleep less. Dubief advises ensuring your newborn isn’t awake for more than about one to 1.5 hours, or even 45 minutes for some babies. And remember that newborns can’t tell you they’re tired! Some babies may not even show the typical tired signs like yawning or rubbing their eyes, so be mindful of the clock and try for a nap even if your little one doesn’t look like they’re ready.
  3. Encourage natural rhythms. Help your newborn get the message that daytime is awake time and 3 a.m. isn’t time to party by managing light exposure, the key driver of our bodies figuring out night versus day, explains Dubief. “When your baby wakes up for a long stretch at night, try to keep the lights dim and the activity levels low. During the day when they’re awake try to keep the lights bright (sunlight is great),” she says.
  4. Use safe soothing techniques. Safe soothing techniques can help your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep, says Dubief, and you should use as many as you can.
  • Aim for most sleep to happen in a dark room.
  • Use white noise (roughly the volume of someone taking a shower).
  • Swaddle your baby for day and nighttime sleep. (Always remember to place baby on their back for sleep, whether you’re swaddling them or not.)
  • Use a pacifier.

How to get a newborn on a sleep schedule

A newborn sleep schedule is another good tactic for encouraging healthy sleep habits. While your schedule won’t be perfect, especially during the first few months, trying for a loose schedule can help both you and your baby be more rested.

In addition to the strategies above (safe soothing techniques, watching awake time and encouraging your baby’s natural day and night rhythms), here are a few other things you can try to get your newborn on a sleep schedule, according to Dubief.

  • Extend awake times as the day progresses. “The amount of time babies need to be awake between naps generally expands as the day goes on. They may only be able to stay awake for 45 minutes before the first nap of the day, but this should expand to about 1.5 hours before bedtime,” explains Dubief. Also keep in mind that the number of naps each day will vary, especially in the first few months. If your baby is taking very short naps, that will mean more naps throughout the day, and if they’re napping for longer, they’ll be taking fewer naps—and that’s okay. Naps will begin to emerge in a more predictable pattern as baby gets older.
  • Work toward a consistent bedtime. Newborn bedtimes are fluid—but you’ll still want to keep an eye on the development of a consistent bedtime, recommends Dubief, and aim for within a range of about one hour. (Between 8-9 p.m., for example.) “Bedtime should be preceded by the longest period of wake time of the day and should be the longest uninterrupted stretch of sleep for the day (this may only be a few hours at first!),” she explains. “When you see a reliable bedtime start to develop, encourage it, and do your best to aim for that window as reliably as possible.”

Keep in mind that a consistent bedtime is the scaffolding for independent sleep. Implementing a consistent, predictable bedtime routine (think final feed, bath, massage, and songs or books, for example) every night will help you eventually pivot to your baby falling asleep on their own between two to four months if that’s something that works for your family.

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