Newborn Sleep Cycles

SLEEP BABY SLEEP  – guest author contribution by Kathy Fray

When heavily pregnant with your first baby, you can often begin to feel rather swamped with peoples’ remarks regarding the pending sleep deprivation which is going to beset you once your baby is born…

“You should appreciate your peaceful night sleeps while you can!” … “You know babies are easier to look after ‘in’ than ‘out’!” … “You’ll be falling asleep at 8 o’clock out of shear exhaustion, you know – no more late nights for you for a long while”.

Oh, and isn’t it foul! All that condescending, patronising advice – with the most awful part being that you know it’s actually probably true. Unless of course you ordered your model to be a baby with the customised luxury accessory of being born a great sleeper – oh no, did you forget to tick that box?!

Let’s face it, probably the most insidious part of being a new Parent (primarily a new Mummy), is the reality that it can be a jolly long time until you will be able to relish eight hours of uninterrupted sleep again. Certainly, Sleep Deprivation must rate as one of the most challenging difficulties for the majority of new mothers.

You see, when you are woken from an uncompleted ‘sleep cycle’, and then go back to sleep, the cycle begins all over again from the beginning. So it is very possible to be having say five 2-hour naps over a 24 hour period – but still be REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep-deprived. And depriving human-beings of REM-sleep is recognized as an effective form of torture. Your body goes completely out of equilibrium, heavily due to the homeostatic imbalance within your brain’s neuro-transmitters. You can’t think straight, you’re unable to concentrate, you feel despondent, your body easily becomes unwell – in fact you can even be an unsafe driver!

It is no understatement to realise, that learning how to teach your new baby to be a good sleeper, can pay huge rewarding dividends to you and your household – and to your baby, as scientific correlations are being made between children’s intelligence and their sleep patterns.

However, the subject of parents directing infant sleep habits is a topic rife with controversy and oozing with “expert” opinions. But a good first place to start is to have a clear-ish understanding of how much sleep is “Normal” (bearing in mind that the only one thing we can truly name as “Normal” is a cycle on a Washing Machine).

How Much Do Babies Sleep

  • Newborn: About 16-20 hours (say 6-8 sleeps of 2-3 hours).
  • 4-6 Week Old: About 16-20 hours (say 4-6 day-sleeps of 2-2½ hours, and evening sleep of about 5-6 hours, eg 10pm-4am).
  • 2-3 Month Old: About 15-19 hours (say 3-4 day-sleeps of 2-3 hours, and evening sleep of about 7-8 hours, eg 10pm-6am).
  • 3-4 Month Old: About 15-18 hours (say 3 day-sleeps of 2-2½ hours, and overnight sleep of about 9-11 hours, eg 8pm-6am).
  • 4-6 Month Old: About 15-17 hours (say 2-3 day-sleeps of 1½-2½ hours, and overnight sleep of about 10-12 hours, eg 7pm-6am).
  • 6-8 Month Old: About 15-16 hours (say morning & afternoon day-sleeps of 2-2½ hours, and overnight sleep of about 10-12 hours).
  • 9-12 Month Old: About 14-15 hours (say morning & afternoon day sleeps of 1½-2 hours, and overnight sleep of about 11-12 hours, eg 7pm-7am).

The topic of Infant Sleep philosophies is an area where you will need to make some black and white decisions, based on information mostly in shades of gray. And the bad news is, that you will be needing to repeat that process on hundreds or even thousands of parenting decisions as your wee sweet little darling grows. Our lives are so complicated these days by data asphyxiation, that parenting instincts can be left paralyzed by the overload of opposing information!

My goal below is to provide you with an overview of some of the middle-of-the-road guidelines on the generally accepted Golden Rules of Do’s & Don’ts regarding infant sleep.

Yes, you will be able to find “experts” who categorically disagree with some of these points, and you will also be able to find many experts who fervently agree with all points. It simply is no longer possible to give guidance on infant sleep that every expert agrees on. Only You will be able to decide what is right for your child and your household.

So here we go…

A brand new baby usually sleeps a lot in its first 24 hours, which is partially a ‘shell-shock’ response to the process of birth. A Day-2 baby usually sleeps a lot and suckles a lot (helping to bring the milk in). Then, often around the time that your milk arrives, and you are home from the hospital, your Bub’s true personality may start to be revealed.

Nearly all infants then need to be taught how to fall asleep outside the womb … and that means parents need to have learnt about the topic of infant sleep – otherwise they can end up utilising the ‘winging-it’ approach, which with about 4 out of 5 babies will almost immediately, or longer-term eventually, turn to custard.

Babies love predictable routines. From the first week during the daytime, use the routine of

  • Sleep-Time
  • Feed-Time
  • Play-Time
  • Sleep-Time.

Babies should wake-up because they are hungry, not go to sleep because they are full. (With newborns each awake-time Feed-Play period may only take 1½-2 hours total – and there is no ‘play time’ during the darkness of night.)

Babies need to be put down for sleep at the first on-set of any Tired Signs: Tensing body, jerky arms and legs, fists clenching, face grimacing, wide-eyed blinks, or grumpy grizzles. (Even 10 minutes later, a young baby can transition into being Over-Tired, which can manifest as a wide-eyed alert stare, flailing limbs, wailing cries, or yawning … now you’ve got a baby that can struggle to fall asleep unaided.)

Use a great swaddling cloth to wrap Bubs like a burrito. After leaving the cramped quarters of the uterus, newborns enjoy the security and touch swaddling provides, especially as initially they have no muscle control over their arms or legs.

Avoid Sleep Props – Such as carrying-to-sleep, feeding-to-sleep, driving-to-sleep, night-lights, cot vibrators … no sleep inducements, as they can create habitual sleep insecurities that may go on for years!

Always put Bubs down to sleep while still awake. If a baby hasn’t learnt how to fall asleep on its own unaided and without props during the daytime, it will almost certainly be unable to fall back to sleep on its own at 3am too!

A not-over-tired infant self-settling with crying itself to sleep has a normal pattern of the cries getting shorter and the silences between cries getting longer. As a rough example:

  • 5min cry  30sec silence
  • 2min cry  1min silence
  • 30sec cry  2min silence
  • Fidgeting
  • Plummet to sleep.

Crying stimulates the relaxing happy hormone oxytocin, which also aids digestion. (Over-tired infants can cry until they become hysterical, which is revolting and usually preventable.)

Don’t make the house quiet – instead turn on the humdrum noise – such as a radio playing outside the bedroom door. Newborns are able to sleep through loads of background sounds (heck, your uterus was very noisy), and this is something that you can strive to continue to instill, to enable you to get on with your household noise.

From Week-1 differentiate how you greet Bubs at the end of each day-sleep, in comparison to night-sleeps. During the daytime, use lots of energetic enthusiasm, such as “Hi Baby! How are you? Did you have a nice sleep? I bet you’re hungry!” But at nighttime, keep yourself and the atmosphere mellow and peaceful.

Cluster-feed Bubs in the late afternoon and evening with extra feeds, to create the ‘Christmas Turkey Dinner’ sensation, so the baby is ready for its longest sleep.

An abdominal sleep-wrap or infant sleep support cushion can be very useful to support your newborn to lie alternating on its sides and back to avoid developing a ‘flat-head’ – while also ensuring young infants are unable to roll onto their tummy.

Once the baby is a few months old and becoming more wriggly in its cot, the fifty-year-old wisdom of a BabyOK™ Babe-Sleeper attached sleep-bag is very useful for the following two years to allow the infant to roll from side-to-side and sit-up; but inhibit them from kicking blankets off and moving all around the cot getting arms and legs stuck through cot-bars, and stopping the toddler standing to fall out of its cot.

At the end of the day, the journey of teaching your infant to sleep through the night may be a fairly smooth ride, or could end up one of the toughest and rockiest expeditions you will face in your lifetime.

So perhaps the most valuable advice I can give you, is not to try to travel this path without a clear ‘map’. More help is available and information is accessible so use it – because extreme sleep deprivation is often retrospectively preventable torture.

Kathy Fray
North Auckland Midwife & author of the popular guide “OH BABY … Birth, Babies & Motherhood Uncensored”.
Email [email protected]
© 2009 Kathy Fray