Newborns sleep about 16 out of every 24 hours.
2. But they feed constantly.
Newborns feed about 8-12 times every 24 hours and not in perfect intervals. So while they sleep a lot, they wake frequently. There is sometimes a 4 or 5 hour sleep stretch, but newborn babies can also sleep for just 45 minutes or an hour at a time.
3. Baby sleep cycles are shorter than adult sleep cycles.
A newborn will move through a sleep cycle (light and deep sleep) within 45 minutes to an hour. Adult sleep cycles are twice as long. Babies do sleep for longer than 45 minutes at a time of course. This just means that they have risen up into light sleep at around 45 minutes and then drifted back into another sleep cycle. When a baby is sleeping deeply she is less likely to wake up, even when you move her. But if she’s in very light sleep, she could wake easily.
Sleeping “though the night,” which is considered only 5 consecutive hours for a baby, means the baby has gone through a few sleep cycles without waking all the way up. Of course all this means that newborns can’t be awake for very long, either– really just a half hour of face time with an adult and a baby can feel wiped out and need to sleep. Babies tend to go through a sleep cycle, a feed and about 45 minutes to an hour of awake time before it’s time for another sleep (eat and awake time), though not always in that order.
4. Newborns don’t know day from night at first.
Newborns are not diurnal (sleep at night, wake for the day) for the first few weeks. This is a normal, passing phase and need not be treated as a “problem.” Sometimes waking the baby after several hours of sleep during the day can help a little. Keeping nighttime feedings quick and fuss-free might help. But mostly the best thing to do is find a way to make up for sleep by sleeping in, going to bed early or napping during the day when you can.
5. Parental exhaustion comes from interrupted sleep more than reduced sleep.
A parent can go to bed at 10 and get out of bed at 7 and be completely, staggeringly exhausted. Or completely fine. The difference between the tired mom and the awake one is when she was woken up during the night. If the baby wakes up this parent smack in the middle of each of mom’s cycles, she never really got her sleep on. But if the baby’s wakings roughly coincided with the breaks between the sleep cycles– when mom rises up to a lighter sleep before delving back into deep sleep– she may be fine and functional. This, of course, goes for dad, too. It can help to go to bed early and/or try to get someone to cover the earliest morning shift with the baby. If you’re in that bed for a longer period of time, the chances are going to be higher that you complete at least a couple sleep cycles.
6. Sleep training a newborn is almost universally considered a bad idea.
Some baby gurus recommend schedules pretty early on, but when you look at the plans closely you’ll see that the parents are still doing all kinds of work, day and night. It’s just organized along a imposed template as opposed to led by the baby’s needs. But MOST baby sleep gurus really emphasize the importance of NOT imposing strict sleep schedules on newborns (the first 3-4 months). Even the fairly conservative sleep training pediatricians say that the first three months are a no-go for holding back on night feedings or letting a baby cry to sleep. A newborn is programmed to elicit response when he cries for food or comfort, and it’s important that he get it for his development and sense of security. Letting a newborn “cry it out” to sleep or not feeding during the night could lead to some distress and/or lack of nourishment. Baby’s stomachs are super small, they need to feed frequently. The good news is that you can relax about that swirl of “baby sleep training” drama and advice for the first bunch of months and just enjoy being with your mostly very sleepy baby.
7. A great way to avoid sleep deprivation is by sharing the burden.
It’s absolutely proven that new parents lose sleep; especially mothers. Some research suggests that breastfeeding and formula feeders lose about the same amount of sleep. (Here’s some more on nighttime feeding.) But the point is that sleep deprivation is a real thing for parents of newborns. A mother is particularly hardwired to respond to a baby at night; that permanent “on guard” feeling can prevent deeper sleep and eventually take a toll. Sleep deprivation is related to postpartum depression and feelings of despair. Avoiding a build up of serious sleep loss is so important. In order to do this you’ll have to be creative. If mom is breastfeeding through the night, what can dad or another helper do to help her make up for nighttime sleep losses? Some couples divide up each night or week into shifts; others make sure there is someone to take the baby very early in the morning so that mom can sleep in for a few hours. Remember, she needs at least a couple of those 90+ minute cycles to feel at all human. Same goes for dad.