Newborn sleep: the basics
In the first weeks of life, babies sleep for an average of 16-18 hours a day. Sleep cycles change over time. Usually newborns sleep for 2-4 hours at a time, wake up for a feed and short play, then drop off again.
In the early days, your baby might doze off constantly without a peep (unless he has colic). Newborns might fall asleep in a baby pouch, in a pram, a car baby capsule or in a bassinet.
Where baby sleeps
Where your baby sleeps is a personal choice. It’s best made after you consider your own family’s needs and situation.
Sleeping with you
There are benefits of your baby sharing your bed (also called co-sleeping). Researchers say babies who sleep near their mothers are more likely to breastfeed successfully and for longer.
But sharing a bed with your baby is associated with an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and fatal sleep accidents in some circumstances.
Sleeping in a cot
It’s recommended that babies sleep in their own beds, with the safest option being a cot in your room for the first 6-12 months. This has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Make sure your baby’s cot is set up for safe sleeping.
If you’re looking at portable cots, it’s important to find one that’s safe and easy to use.
Sleeping with siblings
Lots of new babies share a room with older siblings. This can make getting your baby to sleep a little more complicated, but there are ways to work around this.
Letting your newborn fall asleep
The trick is to put your baby down to bed just before he dozes off, every time, day and night. This is so he can do the falling asleep part himself. This way, your baby can ‘learn’ to drift off without depending on you to settle him to sleep for naps and bedtime, or any time during his normal sleep rhythm.
Until your baby is three months old, she’ll still need you to feed her and change her nappy at least every four hours. (By the time your baby is three months old, she’ll be waking often at night – the idea is that she’ll be able to settle herself to sleep again.)
Some babies do fuss and cry at sleep time. The most important thing is to do what you feel is right for you and your newborn, under the circumstances. If you’re looking for ideas, the patting settling technique might help. It can give comfort to babies without making them dependent on being walked, swung, bounced, driven or rocked to sleep every time.
If you’re thinking of using a dummy, read about the pros and cons of dummies.
In some cases, inconsolable crying can be caused by colic. It might also be overstimulation – sometimes newborns need less going on, not more. That’s why wrapping helps many newborns to sleep. It can help stop their bodies from twitching while they’re trying to fall sleep. It can also make them feel secure, like they were in the womb.
Starting a sleep routine
You can start a newborn sleep routine anytime between day one and three weeks (when newborns are so groggy, they tend to fall asleep easily). For example, if you consistently put your baby in his cot to fall asleep, he’ll soon prefer falling asleep in the cot to anywhere else.
If you can learn to predict when your baby gets tired, you can be ready with the nappy changed before your baby starts to drift off. It helps to know your baby’s sleep signs and to have a good ‘feed, play, sleep’ routine.
Sleeping through the night
Most new parents dream of getting back to their old sleep schedule. But, just as you want your baby to sleep more at night, your baby wants you to learn to rest during the day, so you can be fresh when she wakes up.
In the first few months, it’s common for newborns to wake 2-3 times a night for feeds.
Full-term newborns aged:
1-8 weeks tend to wake every 2-4 hours at night to feed
8-10 weeks tend to wake every 4-6 hours at night to feed
10-12 weeks tend to wake every 6-8 hours at night to feed.
A baby achieves independent sleep when he sleeps for 6-8 hours during the night and can settle back to sleep without calling out to you after waking in the night. Around 60% of babies can do this by six months of age.
At 10-12 weeks old, some babies can sleep from 10 pm or 11 pm until 5 am or 6 am (as long as they’re getting enough milk during the day). But all babies are different – some like to keep us guessing about when they might start ‘sleeping through the night’.
Good sleep habits
Good sleep habits are mostly about associations with bedtime rituals and the physical sleep environment. There are also a couple of important biological clocks that shape sleep habits. It helps to understand how those things work when you’re trying to set up good sleep habits or change existing ones.
Pre-sleep rituals that involve one or more parent can help promote positive associations with sleep, as long as they’re soothing (especially for a colicky baby). Rituals can include softly showering babies with affection, kisses and cuddles, bathing, comfy pyjamas, a feed, dim lights, soft music or even baby massage.
Falling asleep environment
It’s best to keep your baby’s falling asleep environment simple and consistent (and not dependent on you). This could include:
- the familiar look, feel and smell of the cot
- the sound of a fan
- a snug wrapping
- darkness (luckily, newborns are not afraid of the dark yet!).
Soon your baby will begin to associate these things with sleep – ‘Ah, I'm in my nice comfy cot. The last time I was here, I went to sleep. It must be sleepy time’.
The ‘tummy clock’ helps remind us what time to feel hungry. The circadian rhythm reminds us when to feel sleepy and when to wake up. These are mostly set by what we did yesterday and the day before. Parents can help tune these clocks to fit in, as much as possible, with the rest of the family.
- You can help your newborn to associate darkness with sleep by minimising activity, noise and light when you’re feeding or changing a nappy during the night.
Bottle-feeding in bed isn’t a good way to help your baby get to sleep. It can cause illness if milk goes down the wrong way. And as your baby gets older and develops teeth, it can also cause severe tooth decay if milk pools in the mouth while he sleeps.
- The tummy clock is powerful enough to wake a baby with hunger pangs. So starting at three months, if your baby wakes up hungry at 2 am or 3 am, you can offer a bottle of sterile water. This might give your baby enough associations to get back to sleep, and turn off the tummy alarm clock after a couple of nights.
- To sleep well and safely, babies need to be not too hot or too cold. Read more about dressing your baby for bed to help get your baby’s temperature `just right’.