How to Maximize Your Newborn's Sleep

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Your little bundle of joy is here - yay! Congratulations!  Woo hoo!  You have been waiting for this moment for a long time!  If you're like me, you read all the books out there on pregnancy and the first years but did any of those books tell you much about sleep?  Probably not.  Maybe a page or two.  Something along the lines of, "make sure you put baby down drowsy but awake and your life will be a breeze!" Ahem.  I beg to differ.

3.5 years ago I was in your shoes.  A first-time mom (or maybe you're not a first time mom but your other children slept like angels!) who thought she was prepared for it all.  But most books don't really prepare you for baby sleep, which is crazy considering newborns sleep for 16-20 hours per day!  That's what this blog post is here to do.  Let's get you ready and set you up for success... or at least hopefully less sleepless nights ;)

How does newborn sleep work?

We've all heard the saying, "sleep like a baby" but what does "sleeping like a baby" really mean? While it's true that babies sleep a lot (babies under 1 month of age require 18-20 hours of sleep every single day) most babies don't sleep for very long.  This sleep will occur in 2-4 hour chunks all throughout the day and night (sigh).  There are a couple of factors that influence this fragmented sleep: 
Hunger.  Newborns grow at an alarming rate - most have doubled their birth weight by 6 months!  In order to ensure they are receiving all the nutrition they need to sustain this growth, they need to eat around the clock.  Trying to schedule feedings or eliminate nightfeedings at this age is a huge no-no.
Sleep Cycles.  In addition to this need for constant nourishment, newborn babies' sleep cycles are also vastly different from an adult's sleep cycles (or even from an older baby's sleep cycles!) Adults spend most of their sleep (about 80%) in non-REM (or deep sleep) whereas a newborn baby only spends about 25% of their time in deep sleep, and the majority (75%) in REM (or active) sleep.  In addition to most of their time being spent in active sleep, a newborn's sleep cycles are very short, only about 45-50 minutes long.  While an adult likely only has about 4-5 sleep cycles a night, your newborn baby has twice that many - and that means double the chances of waking up between sleep cycles.  In addition to the sleep cycle transitions being more frequent, active sleep is a much lighter sleep state.  These two factors combined is why we see frequent wakings in newborn babies.  So don't fret if your baby is up many times a night, these wakings are designed to keep your wee baby safe and healthy.  The fact that baby spends so much time in an active sleep state means that she will wake to feed and she will be protected from SIDS.  Although these every 3-4 hour wakings are completely normal, there is a lot we can do in order to ensure these wakings aren't occurring every single hour all night long, that they continue to improve rather than worsen, and that we are setting baby up for healthy sleep habits in the future.

So what can we do to maximize a newborn's sleep?

Keep the intervals of wakefulness short and sweet

Newborn babies need to literally sleep around the clock.  They are awake long enough to eat, and then are back down to sleep.  And this is how it should be!  Do not worry about separating feeding from sleeping at this young age because your attempts will be futile.  They will almost always fall asleep at the breast/on the bottle and then wake up again in time to eat and fall asleep again.  After the first few weeks, baby will start to become more alert and will be capable of staying awake for longer periods of time but these 'longer periods of time' are actually still very very short!  A baby 1 month or younger should not be awake any longer than 45 minutes, and a baby 2 months or younger should not be awake longer than 1 hour at a time.  This means that you need to be starting your soothing routine with enough time to ensure baby is asleep within these windows.  If not, you will have an overtired baby on your hands and an overtired will have more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.  In addition to making sure baby's intervals of wakefulness are short, we also want to start shifting baby's bedtime earlier once they hit 7/8 weeks.  Newborns naturally have a late bedtime (anywhere between 9:00-11:00pm) but it's important we start moving it earlier (likely to around 8:30pm by 2 months).  This bedtime should shift 20 minutes earlier every 2 weeks or so and should be in the recommended 6:00-8:00pm range by 4 months.  See my blog post here for more about age-appropriate bedtimes for babies.

Swaddle

I cannot recommend swaddling enough to you.  "But my baby hates to be swaddled, he fusses and cries and kicks and squeals".  This is all normal.  It is the process of swaddling that babies dislike.  Once they are wrapped up nice and snug they sleep much better.  Helping newborns sleep better is all about recreating the womb.  And the womb was a cramped place!  Babies find comfort in this snugness.  In addition to comfort, swaddling helps to muffle the startle reflex (this startle reflex for babies is similar to how you feel when you get the sensation that you are falling while you are asleep.  Imagine if this happened to you all night long!  The worst!)  In order for the swaddle to be effective, it needs to be snug around the arms and loose around the legs. Check out this video here for the best swaddling technique out there.  My son was a little Houdini and we tried every swaddling contraption on the market but this technique ensured he was wrapped snug all night long.  To ensure your baby is safe while swaddling, make sure you are dressing them in lighter clothing (or even just a diaper) and that you are always placing them on their backs while swaddled.

Avoid day/night confusion

It is very normal for babies to come into this world with their days and nights confused.  If you think about the womb, it is dark 24/7 so a baby's biological clock has not had a chance to set itself to 'daysleep' and 'nightsleep', but there are ways we can help them to set their clocks.  Keep the daytime bright and noisy.  You can still put baby to sleep in his dark bedroom, but just ensure that baby's awake time (however short) is spent in sunlight (or artificial light, but sunlight is always much preferred!)  At nighttime, keep all the lights off.  When you feed baby, be completely boring.  Do not talk, sing, or engage baby in any way.  It's right to business and then back to sleep.  As well, if baby seems to be sleeping his entire day away, wake him up every 3 hours for a feeding.  There is no need to keep him awake as this will lead him to become overtired, but at the 3 hour mark gently rouse him, feed him, and let him fall back asleep if he wishes.  

Routines

Routines are so incredibly important for babies (for all children actually!)  It is never too early to begin a consistent and soothing nap/bedtime routine for your child.  The nap routine does not need to be long, only about 5 minutes and is generally a shortened version of the bedtime routine.  The bedtime routine is usually longer and may include a bath, massage, books, etc.  These routines are a cue for sleep for baby.  He will know that no matter where he is, no matter what time it is, that when this routine occurs, it is time for sleep.

E.A.S.Y. Method

The E.A.S.Y. Method is a great technique we can use to ensure that we are always separating feeding from sleeping in baby's little brain.  Very young infants, as I mentioned above, will only wake to eat, so we don't have to worry about feeding them to sleep - it's inevitable!  But once baby is a bit older and able to tolerate a bit more awake time, the E.A.S.Y. Method is great for ensuring that an association does not develop.  The acronym stands for Eat Activity Sleep You.  So basically you want to try to ensure that baby is eating upon wake-up from sleep times, followed by some light activity, then nap time, and then of course 'You' time (which if you are like most moms this involves some combination of cleaning and hopefully relaxing!) 

White noise

I am a big fan of white noise.  Check out my article here for the reasons why I love it so much.  It all really goes back to the theory that we want to recreate the womb for baby.  The womb was a noisy place, about as loud as if you were standing next to a lawnmower.  The sounds of your blood rushing, your heart beating, muffled voices.  It is a bit daunting to go from the noisy tummy to dead silence.  White noise has been shown to reduce stress in babies, and not to mention that it helps to drown out all the sounds of your house (especially helpful if you have older children or a dog that loves to bark during nap time!)  Due to the recent studies on white noise, you want to ensure you are not placing the machine right next to baby's head (it benefits baby more when it is placed on the wall that you are trying to block noise from) and we don't want it too loud.  If you are concerned about the volume, there are many free apps you can download that test decibels.  The white noise should be about 50 dB (by comparison, normal conversation is 50-60 dB).  In addition to a white noise machine, I recommend placing a fan in baby's room.  Not only does this provide more sound blockage (double white noise! woo!) but fans in baby's room have been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.

The Swing

In addition to being a white noise lover, I am also a swing lover.  When you have a newborn baby, you really want to use all the tools you can to get that baby to sleep.  Do not worry about creating bad habits at this young age.  Womb Recreation 101 includes a little bit of motion.  Babies were in constant motion in mom's tummy, this movement would lull baby to sleep.  I'm sure you remember what would happen as soon as you laid down for the night - baby would start kicking up a storm!  So to help bring that tummy motion to your newborn baby, we introduce a swing.  And if the swing works for sleep - use it!  The key to successful swing sleep is ensuring we are still swaddling baby in the swing, putting the swing in baby's dark bedroom with white noise playing, and placing baby in the swing awake and allowing him to fall asleep on his own.  By allowing baby to fall asleep independently, you have helped teach a valuable skill and once it comes time to transition baby from the swing to the crib (usually somewhere around 4 months) the switch will be easy peasy!  My favorite swings are those that can swing both forwards and backwards and side-to-side, as I found that I was more successful when I switched up the swinging direction.  As well, most babies are soothed by a fast swing but feel free to turn it down once they are asleep (or even off if baby doesn't mind).

Dark bedroom

Once again, we are going to recreate the good ol' womb.  So far we've wrapped baby up nice and snug, we've got the white noise playing, and we may even be using motion to help baby to sleep.  Now, we are going to get baby's bedroom nice and dark just like mom's tummy.  A lot of parents may feel bad for putting baby in their dark bedroom, and some may even think baby will be scared of the dark.  I can assure you that this is not the case.  A baby does not yet know that the dark is something they should be afraid of.  They have just spent the past 9 months in total darkness!  A dark bedroom is especially important as baby gets older and becomes more alert.  An older baby can be stimulated by wallpaper - no lie!  Ideally, we want that room so dark that we can't even see our hand in front of us - during the day and at night.  Cheap (and the most effective!) options include black construction paper, black garbage bags, or my personal favorite - tin foil!  You won't win any design awards but your baby will sleep better!

 

Life with a newborn baby is rarely easy but is incredibly short-lived.  The first few months are all about surviving.  I hope the above tips are helpful in making this time in your life and your baby's life a little bit easier and a little more restful :)