It’s not for nothing that one of the biggest topics of conversation for new parents is about sleep, or lack thereof. If you’re being kept awake at night and spend what feel like enormous chunks of the day calming a baby you may be left wondering whether your baby is getting enough sleep or too much, whether she needs more or less stimulation and how you can help him get the sleep he needs and hopefully a little for yourself along the way.
New babies usually sleep for around seventeen or eighteen hours a day, but there are a couple of reasons why it may seem as though they’re sleeping a lot less. For newborns there is no difference between night and day and they need to gradually learn that night-time is for sleeping. In fact many new babies may have their most active periods at night and most sleepy periods during the day. If this fits your baby then it isn’t because he associates darkness with being awake, but because during your pregnancy he adopted a rhythm of being lulled to sleep by your activity during the day and being more active when you rested at night.
The other thing waking your baby at night is his need to feed frequently. A new baby’s stomach is small so he’ll need to wake to feed more often at the outset. All babies are different, but it’s usual for new babies to wake for feeds at least every three to four hours, whether it’s night or day. And of course if he’s waking every three to four hours then so are you.
Making sure your baby is well rested When you’re being kept awake at night then it might seem to make sense to try to keep your baby awake as much as possible during the day, so that he’ll need to sleep more at night. But, particularly in the early weeks, most babies do need a lot of sleep during the day and while it may seem counter-intuitive, a well-rested baby usually sleeps better at night. In fact, most newborns don’t like to stay awake for much more than an hour and a half to two hours at a time and if they’re kept up much longer then may become cranky and more difficult to settle to sleep.
Reading the sleepy signs At first it might be difficult to tell whether your baby is crying because he is hungry, bored or tired, but if your baby is pulling at his ears, developing dark circles under his eyes or rubbing at his eye, then he’s probably tired. Over time you’ll begin to recognise your baby’s own patterns of sleeping and signs that a nap is due.
If you can, then try putting him down to sleep in his bed as you first notice signs of tiredness so that he doesn’t become over-tired and find it harder to sleep. For the first few months you might need to help your baby off to sleep for daytime naps, particularly if he becomes over-tired.
Helping your baby off to sleep
- Mid-feed nappy changes – Sucking is quite a tiring job and many newborns will want to sleep directly after a feed, often falling to sleep on the breast. While later you’ll want to be careful to avoid associating feeding and sleeping too closely, in the early weeks it’s very natural for babies to sleep following feeds. Changing your baby’s nappy half-way through a feed can help avoid the need to wake him later for a change and if he’s sleepy through the feed can help wake him up so he gets a full feed and can have a good nap
- Holding your baby close to you – Most new babies love the sense of security they get from being held close to you and being rocked very gently from side to side
- Talking and singing – Your baby will probably find the sound of your voice very comforting, particularly if you talk softly or sing to him when he’s in his bed or in your arms
- Using a baby carrier or sling – Baby carriers are great for being able to give your baby the reassurance of your closeness while leaving you able to get things done. Your continued movement can help settle an overtired baby to sleep – don’t worry if he continues to cry for a few minutes after going into the carrier, but if he doesn’t soon settle then there may be something else causing him discomfort
- Going for a walk in the pram – A daily walk in the fresh air will do your baby lots of good and the motion can help her off to sleep. In the very early days you might find that rolling over cobbles works wonders
- Giving him lots of fresh air – Lots of fresh air will help your baby to sleep better, both during the day and at night, so do take him out and about as much as you can. You can also put him in the pram in the garden or balcony for daytime naps
- Avoiding day-time hush – New babies are used to plenty of noise in the womb so there’s no need to tip-toe around them during the day to get them to sleep. In fact, many small babies find the white noise of a vacuum cleaner, washing machine, car or hairdryer reassuring and comforting (something they will usually grow out of quite quickly). Making a usual amount of daytime noise will also help your baby to gradually distinguish between day and night
Once your baby is six weeks to two months old you’ll be able to do more to help him learn the difference between night and day and settle into a night-time routine with longer stretches of sleep at night. It might seem like a pipe dream now, but take comfort from the fact that by six months of age most, but not all, babies are ‘sleeping through’ – just remember that this means a stretch of around six hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, not sleeping through from eight in the evening to eight the next day!