Newborn Sleep & Setting a Solid Sleep Foundation
How to Navigate Newborn Sleep
Newborns can (and should) sleep a lot. Like, A LOT.
In 24 hours, it’s not uncommon for a newborn to sleep between 14-18 hours.
The only problem is, this sleep is sporadic and very disorganized.
Not easy when you’re a new parent trying to learn all the things that come with bringing home a new baby, as well as get a little rest yourself. Trust me, I get it. I’ve been there. When I had my daughter, I was just trying to do what I could and the world of newborn sleep was totally and completely new to me.
Lucky for you, I’ve spent most of my life working with babies as a nanny and as a mom, and now I specialize in pediatric sleep! When I was able to help my nanny families with their newborns’ sleep, I knew I had to make this a thing – I’ve learned quite a few things from my personal and professional experience and my process to become a certified sleep consultant.
When your baby makes their appearance earthside, it’s important to remember where they came from and all they know – the warmth, dark, cozy, and somewhat loud (yes, I said LOUD) womb where they spent their first 9 months since conception. To help with their transition to life outside the womb, we want to try to recreate this same environment and feeling for them.
The Environment + The 5Ss (From Dr. Harvey Karp).
If you haven’t already heard of Dr. Harvey Karp’s 5Ss in the newborn world, you’re about to! His 5Ss for soothing your newborn are all based on the idea of recreating the womb environment: Shush, Swaddle, Swing, Suck, & Stomach/Side hold.
I’ll give my take on it below…
It was loud in your womb! 80 decibels, actually. Your baby was up close and personal to all of your internal organs – your stomach gurgling, your heart beating, and your blood flowing. Shushing and patting WORKS because it mimics the sound of your blood flowing through your veins and your heart beating that your baby heard 24/7 in the womb. Shushing and white noise are ideal when it comes to calming your baby and providing a stagnant noise in their sleep environment. I’d recommend using white noise for all periods of sleep, without turning it off until your baby wakes.
It was dark in there. Most babies will be able to sleep anywhere those first few weeks of life. A good rule of thumb, though, is to make sure your baby is sleeping in total darkness at night and make dark naps a priority between 6-8 weeks when their circadian rhythm starts to develop a bit more. It should be so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
It was cozy and tight. This is why we swaddle newborns! There wasn’t too much room to move around in the womb, so a swaddle can work wonders for sleep. Pro-tip: ask a labor and delivery nurse to teach you how to swaddle when you’re at the hospital. They are pros! You’ll want to swaddle your baby until around 8 weeks or until they start to show signs of rolling. Removing the swaddle by 12 weeks is important for safety and development.
Your baby was also used to a lot of movement in the womb, so swinging, swaying, and rocking can be incredibly soothing for your baby. Swinging can be a great daytime activity but is not recommended for safe sleep. Make sure if you’re holding and rocking your baby for sleep that you are totally awake and it’s safe for you to do so.
Did you know that your baby may have even found his or her thumb in the womb?! Babies love to suck, whether it’s their fingers, your breast, a bottle, or a pacifier. Using a pacifier can be incredibly soothing for your baby and can help with sleep those first few months for sure, and can also help reduce the risk of SIDS. You will likely also notice your baby falling asleep or getting drowsy during feeds for this same reason. It’s totally normal, but do the best you can to keep your baby awake to ensure full feedings.
Safe sleep is a hot topic. You should know and be aware of the current safe sleep recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics; an easy way to remember is their ABCs of safe sleep: your baby should always be placed down for sleep Alone, on their Back, and in a Crib (or bassinet). Only cribs or bassinets are considered safe sleep spaces for babies – no boxes, nests, pillows, etc. Your baby in a swaddle and a tightly fitted sheet are the only things that should be in the crib. Airflow is also important. Keep a fan on low in your baby’s nursery.
Routines and Wake Windows
Now that you know how to calm your baby and have the appropriate environment set up, you should focus on another foundational piece of sleep: ROUTINES! Your baby will start to make sleep associations early on, and you can start developing some early associations with the help of a solid bedtime and naptime routine. I recommend starting with a diaper change and putting on some pajamas, reading a book, offering one final full feeding (trying to keep your baby awake!), burps, kisses, cuddles, snuggles, swaddling, and finally, turning the lights off, white noise on, and laying baby down. If it’s bedtime, you can always start with a bath and lotion massage. A nap routine shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes, and bedtime at this age shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes total.
The other thing to pay attention to is the idea of wake windows or the time between naps and naps and bedtime. At the newborn stage, your baby can likely only handle about 45-60 minutes awake before needing to sleep again. They’ll also need to feed about every 3 hours. In reality, when you really think about it, that’s not a lot of time awake! Your baby might have a feeding, maybe a few minutes of tummy time, and then it’s time for a nap. It goes by quickly! Watch for sleepy cues too: staring off, reddening eyebrows, and yawning all mean it might be time for a nap. If it’s been about 45-60 minutes, you know your baby has a full tummy, and they’re starting to get a little fussy, guess what?? They’re tired! Put that baby down for a nap ASAP.
Offering naps every 45-60 minutes throughout the day will also help ensure that your baby doesn’t get overtired. An overtired baby is NO FUN, and by the afternoon and evening hours, many families experience the “witching hour” with their newborn…overtiredness likely being the cause. This witching hour is a period of fussiness and crying and can feel very exhausting for any parent. Try to avoid it by offering naps frequently throughout the day.
Your baby will basically go through this routine of feeding and sleeping all day. Most newborns will take between 4-6 naps in a day. Once it’s been about 12-14 hours of daytime, you’ll want to treat the next 10-12 hours as nighttime, offering feeds if it’s appropriate, and laying baby back down to sleep without any additional awake time. Keep the lights dim and interactions calm and quiet. We don’t want to overstimulate your baby at night and help teach them that nighttime is for sleeping!
Drowsy But Awake?
When I say “lay your baby down,” I mean you can actually lay your baby down awake! Slightly or fully awake. Offering opportunities to fall asleep on their own will help them learn to be a solid and independent sleeper. The more you can practice laying them down drowsy but awake, the better they will get at falling asleep on their own! This won’t always work, though. It’s also okay to rock or even feed your baby to sleep at this stage. Cuddle naps, stroller naps, and carrier naps are also great at this stage, as long as they’re done safely.
This is life with a newborn for about the first four months. Following this advice will help you build a solid sleep foundation from the start with your baby! And if you find that around 4 months, you’re struggling with your child’s sleep, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d love to help you figure out and navigate sleep for your family moving forward. This is the perfect age to start working together!