Baby sleep can be a huge issue – every new parent would love more sleep! It is very common for new parents to constantly work towards their baby sleeping for longer but these expectations might not be realistic. This guide focuses on what is normal for new and young babies and how you can look after you when you are tired.
As a postnatal practitioner, my perspective on sleep is this: I feel that parents with a baby could be much better off preparing for and expecting not much sleep and working with that so they can plan for more support and rest. If you are a parent who is always wishing for more sleep and expecting that your baby can sleep through the night, that can be exhausting and you may feel like you are failing every night when your baby isn’t sleeping for long periods. This will come but when your baby is older.
Baby Sleep Facts
- Newborns may only sleep for up to 2 hours at time
- By 3 months, some babies will sleep for longer periods. 47% will wake 3-4 times
- By 5 months, 50% babies will be able to sleep for 8 hours on some nights (but not necessarily in one block of sleep)
- At 6 months, 84% of babies will wake atleast once
- By 12 months, 73% babies can sleep for 8 hours on most nights (but not necessarily in one block of sleep) and 50% will need help to help to settle if they wake in the night)
Babies start to learn the difference between day & night from about 4 months old when their circadian rhythm starts to establish. This doesn’t fully develop until about 12 months.
Total Sleep over 24 hours, including naps
0-3 months = 11-19 hours
3-11 months = 10-18 hours
12 month+ = 9-16 hours
The variation between babies is huge – there isn’t a right amount of sleep for all babies, just the right amount of sleep for your baby. And that may vary from day to day.
No-one sleeps through the night – even as adults we will wake up during the night and no two nights are the same for us.
We have an average of 7-8 hours per night and we sleep in 90-minute cycles with REM sleep (dreams, irregular breathing and heart rate) 20% and nREM sleep (restorative deep sleep) 80%
Babies have 45-minute sleep cycles until they are about a year old when this increases to 60 minutes. Their sleep cycles are made up of more REM – light sleep with noises, movement, faster breathing – because babies need this for brain development. This means they wake more easily.
REM sleep is…
50% at birth
40% at 4 months
30% at 6 months
25% at a year old
Your Baby’s Brain and Stress
When a baby needs safety, reassurance and to deal with any stress, they need to cling to their adult, who can calm them. When a baby experiences stress and is crying the adrenal gland is stimulated to release cortisol. The production of cortisol only stops when a baby is comforted by someone who makes them feel safe, which is why your baby may only settle with you.
When a baby clings it is because he is trying to calm himself – babies are not capable of handling stress on their own.
Responding to your baby when he is unsettled and crying influences his brain development: 90% of his brain development takes place in the first five years.
Positive interaction helps a baby’s rational brain to develop – this is responsible for creativity, imagination, reasoning, decision-making, reflection, kindness and empathy.
Leaving a young baby to cry could mean that he remains stressed and harder to settle and his brain could be wired to be more sensitive to stress. By being able to respond to your baby before he gets too upset, you will probably be able to settle him quicker, meaning less stress for you.
Why can’t babies sleep for longer?
Babies have small stomachs so they need regular calories to grow and develop. A baby will hold between 2-5oz in their stomach, whereas an adult will hold 35oz.
Their body systems are immature so babies are meant to be close to their mothers to help regulate their temperature, breathing and heart rate as well as calm any stress they experience as part of their development and adapting to the world around them.
Babies sleep cycles are about 45-minutes long (compared to 90-minutes for an adult) and they have more REM sleep than an adult, which is a lighter sleep when their brain is active. Some babies will start to wake at the end of a sleep cycle and they will need help to get back to sleep again. They may have periods of sleeping for longer but they may wake up more often with growth spurts.
Night-waking is a normal part of baby development. Babies will wake for food, for comfort and reassurance – sometimes they wake briefly inbetween sleep cycles and just need some gentle encouragement to go back to sleep, others will need to be awake for longer, especially if they have wind or if they are teething.
What does your baby need to encourage sleep?
- To feel safe and secure
- To be comfortable
- An environment to encourage sleep
- To be ready for sleep
What do you need to manage lack of sleep?
- Patience, understanding, chocolate, coffee
- Support with your baby and household chores
- An opportunity to rest and catch up on sleep
- An early night when you get the chance and a lie in would be great too
- To remember that it will get better and you aren’t doing anything wrong
What can help?
- Being calm and as relaxed as possible
- Safe Swaddling
- Being Close To You
- Rocking & Movement
- Going for a walk
- Having a feed
- Accepting how your baby sleeps
- Ditching the clock
Where your baby sleeps…
Some babies will sleep well in their cot – other babies will need to be closer to you.
Your options are…
- Continue to try to get your baby to sleep in the cot – this can work or it can feel like you are battling with your baby, leaving you tired and wondering what you are doing wrong!
- Co-sleep safely if your baby settles when he is closer to you – I have attached additional safe co-sleeping guidance but the key elements are: no pillows, duvets, not by the edge of the bed, not on a sofa/chair, it must be a firm, even mattress and have your baby near the boob
- Try a bednest so your baby is closer to you – these three-sided cots can provide many of the benefits of co-sleeping.
- Go for a combination of sleep environments – some babies are happy in their own space for some of the night but need you for the rest of the night. Just make sure it is safe.
Every night most parents with a baby hope for more sleep which can mean disappointment, frustration and a sense that you could be doing something wrong.
New babies are not meant to sleep through the night, they are not designed for it and it isn’t safe for them. Accepting that you will need to be up to feed, settle and soothe your baby can make a huge difference.
Plan for your night-time parenting so have what you need close to hand so you are comfortable and prepared:
pillows for feeding
everything you need if you are bottle-feeding
Tips For Coping With Tiredness
In those early days and weeks it can help to…
- Rest and sleep when you can – apart from eating, everything else can wait!
- You and your partner need to work as a team with your baby and with chores
- Ask for help so you can have a break and get some rest
- Eat well & drink plenty of water
- Don’t do too much – give yourself the chance to sit, recover and conserve some energy, even if that is with a sleeping baby on your lap
- Remember, it is normal for babies to wake during the night
- You are not doing anything wrong
- It will get better – eventually – when your baby is ready and able to sleep for longer
- Try to have realistic expectations of your baby and of yourself
- Accept and expect to get little sleep – each night try to go with it rather than feel disappointed that your baby has woken up
- Rest and have quiet days when you can
Janine Smith | a specialist in pregnancy, birth and early parenting
Just get in touch to arrange a 1:1 session so you can ask questions for further information and support.