It’s exciting to bring your tiny bundle home from the hospital. But as any new parent knows, the first few months (also called the “fourth trimester”) are difficult and sleepless times. Remember that it’s not only your world that’s forever changed; so is your baby’s. She spent 40 weeks snugly cocooned in utero developing her tiny nervous system, which is still very immature when she’s born. In these first months of life, her sleep/wake cycles will become more regulated, and by four or five months, most babies have a predictable daytime and nighttime sleep pattern. Here are some tips for helping this (sometimes-bumpy) process along to ensure your little one is getting the sleep she needs.
Your newborn’s sleep is erratic because her circadian rhythm is a work in progress (that work began in utero, when she developed distinct periods of REM sleep, for example). Now that she’s out in the world, light and dark are powerful cues that will “entrain,” or synchronize, her biological rhythms and make for longer stretches of nighttime sleep. As the sun goes down and bedtime nears, keep the lights in the house relatively low, since research now tells us that artificial light can trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime. When your baby wakes up to eat, feed her using a nightlight that you either keep on all night or turn on when she wakes — either way, make sure the light isn’t very bright. Use blackout shades or curtains to block early morning light.
Use sun to your advantage
Light is the strongest cue for keeping your baby’s sleep cycle on a healthy track. Cells in the retina of her eyes are sensitive to light, and send messages to the brain that regulate her circadian rhythm. When she wakes up for the day, pull back the curtains, or go have your coffee on the porch and expose her to a short stint of indirect sunlight. Remember that babies shouldn’t be in direct sun, so choose a shady spot, or a well-lit room, to wake up in. This will not only alert her brain to the day, it will also help her sleep at night. Sun exposure is akin to pressing “GO”, so as the day winds down and sun exposure decreases, your baby will become drowsier.
Watch for bedtime
As your baby nears four to six weeks of life, it’s likely that her body will naturally tend toward a nice stretch of sleep (a few hours long) starting roughly when the sun goes down. This is because she has now developed a rise in melatonin in the evening that makes her drowsy (this is also probably why many newborns experience the “witching hour” fussiness). You may notice this tendency even when she’s sleeping out in the living room or wherever she dozes while you’re still awake. Take advantage of this natural inclination and start to put your baby down for bed early in her regular sleeping place. If you make a regular practice of this, she may surprise you by sleeping for several hours.
Here’s a common trick among parents: before you go to bed, pick up your sleeping baby and feed her. For example, if you’ve last fed her at 7:00 p.m. and are headed to bed at 10:00 p.m., go in quietly, scoop her up without waking her, and allow her to latch. Surprisingly, most babies can eat without waking fully (if you’re bottle-feeding, you can do the same). If you do this regularly, it may help her sleep a longer stretch at night without waking up, because her tummy will be full. It also helps to break the pattern of wake-cry-feed, because she’s being fed without the need to call out to you. Some babies take to this easily after a few days, so experiment and see if it works for you.
Prepare your station
To help your newborn get in the habit of staying asleep at night, make nighttime feeds, changes, burps and so forth as uneventful as possible. When your baby wakes, keep the lights low, using a nightlight or no light at all if there’s enough illumination from streetlights outside. Change your baby’s diaper only when she really needs it (you can look into buying nighttime diapers or liners to give her extra absorption).
Before you go to bed, prepare a station next to you so you’re ready for whatever comes. Have a stack of diapers, wipes (or a small dish of water with clothes if your baby isn’t ready for wipes yet), a burp cloth, a change of PJs, onesie, swaddle (or whatever your baby sleeps in), your nursing pillow, and a nursing pad if your breasts leak. This way, if your baby is sleeping next to you in a co-sleeper or bassinet, you can take care of all her needs without rousing her completely.
Separate breast and sleep
Breastfed babies love to fall asleep while eating, so the association between sucking and sleep develops quickly. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, but as the weeks go on, see what happens when you put your baby down awake. Pick a time when you know she’s not hungry but is ready for a nap, or, if it’s bedtime, try to feed her earlier than usual and put her down after a bath and PJ’s, for example. At this point, most sleep experts don’t recommend actually letting a baby cry, but leaving her alone for a bit is fine. She might surprise you by drifting off by herself. The more she practices this skill, the more she’ll be able to put herself back to sleep in the middle of the night.
Watch the clock during the day
Newborn sleep is unpredictable, but by about six weeks, your baby will be drowsy after roughly every 90 minutes of being awake. When she wakes up for the day or from a nap, look at the clock so that you know when to put her down next for optimal sleep. It’s best not to wait until your baby is yawning, rubbing her eyes, or fussing to put her down, because at this point she may be overtired.
Every baby is different; some seem naturally programmed to sleep easily, while others need more time and encouragement. Try not to get too frustrated with this difficult (but fast!) period, and remember that lots of babies go through regressions and changes in their sleep patterns. Allow for bumps in the road along the way to more restful nights — for you and your little one.