Understanding newborn needs: sleep, feeds and play
Most newborns spend most of their time asleep – they sleep about 16 hours in every 24. They’re programmed to sleep in short bursts of about 2-3 hours between feeds, night and day.
Also, newborns need to feed every 2-4 hours. And they need your attention during the day and night.
The first few months of your baby’s life is the time to get to know your baby, and learn about your baby’s needs for sleep, feeds, play and settling.
You might find that a very simple, flexible routine seems to help your baby, and helps you feel more in control. But this isn’t the time to worry about getting your baby into any kind of rigid routine.
A good way to understand what your newborn is feeling and what they need is to pay attention to baby’s cues and body language. Responding to your baby’s needs helps baby feel secure and builds your relationship.
Newborn sleeping, feeding and play: letting your baby lead the routine
With newborn sleeping and feeding, the key is being flexible and following your baby’s lead. Your baby will let you know whether they want to sleep, feed or interact with you – it’s OK to go with whatever feels right at the time.
It’s also OK to try to do things in a similar order if that feels right for you and your baby. For example, you could try a simple routine of feed, play, sleep. Here’s what this might look like:
- Offer your baby a feed when they wake up.
- Change your baby’s nappy.
- Talk, play, cuddle and interact with your baby.
- Put your baby back down for sleep.
If you try this kind of routine, it’s still important to watch your baby’s cues and respond.
For example, your baby might show tired signs soon after a feed. This means that it’s time for your baby to sleep, even if you and baby haven’t had much time to play.
Or your baby might show signs of being hungry after a play. In this situation, just give your baby another feed before settling baby for sleep. Your baby will sleep better with a full tummy.
Or your baby might have an extra-long sleep every now and then. That’s OK too. Unless your doctor or child and family health nurse has told you otherwise, there’s no need to wake your baby for feeds.
And at night, a good option might be settling your baby straight back to sleep after feeds, rather than trying to play.
Newborn play might just be a quiet cuddle or some time stretching out and kicking on a blanket. You might find about 10-20 minutes of play is enough. Some newborn babies get tired after being awake for about 1-1½ hours. Some newborns are happy to play for longer than this.
When it’s hard to know what your newborn needs
There are times when it’s hard to know what newborns need. For example, you might have tried feeding or putting your baby down for a sleep, but baby still seems unsettled.
If your baby is crying, first check whether baby is sick, hurt or uncomfortable. If not, and if baby has fed in the last two hours, cuddling and comfort are in order. For example, you could try holding your baby in your arms with their head near your chest.
Your newborn will feel safe and secure when you interact with them in warm, loving and responsive ways. You can’t spoil your baby by picking them up, cuddling them or talking to them.
If your baby is crying a lot, it’s very important to look after yourself. Even just five minutes reading a book, walking around the block or doing some meditation can give you a break if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or angry. Or sometimes it might help to have another person take over for a while. If you can, ask your partner or a friend or relative to help out.