Newborn babies often have erratic & unpredictable sleep patterns due to their circadian rhythms (body clock) being underdeveloped which is completely normal at this stage. They are born without the developmental ability to regulate their day-night rhythm and are at this stage, are not producing melatonin which is a hormone that contributes to help us to feel sleepy. It is often said that they have their 'days & nights mixed up,' as they "have no ability to regulate their sleep-wake and day-night rhythmicity by hormonal control." (Chu et al 2014)
Circadian rhythm begins to develop at 6-8 weeks old and by 3-6 months, most will have a more regular sleep pattern. All babies develop at different rates and each child is unique when it comes to the optimizing of their sleep and development of their sleep needs. Often, newborns and young babies have very short awake intervals & struggle to be awake for more than 1-1.5 hours at the most. However, there are infants who may be able to tolerate a longer cycle of 2-3 hours, however we must be sure to avoid overtiredness seeping in. Every baby is different and there is no such thing as 'normal.' You should observe your baby and watch for natural rhythms and unique signs of tiredness.
"When your baby sleeps better, having quality sleep during the night and day, you should notice a more patient, calmer & happier baby in general."
There are some things that cannot be avoided when it comes to newborn sleep such as short durations, night wakings & the confusion between day and night. However, there are some things you can do to encourage a healthy sleep foundation from the onset. It must be noted that these may not transform sleep completely if an infant is very young but can help to ease them from womb to world and to develop circadian rhythmicity for the weeks to come.
1. Night & Day
Teach babies the difference between night and day by helping them with their body clock. This can be done by making sure they are exposed to 12 hours of light during the day and 12 hours of darkness/dim lights. This will help the child's melatonin levels rise naturally to promote sleepiness. (Melatonin is the hormone that is secreted when it gets dark, making us want to go to sleep)
2. Calm & Quiet
Before attempting to put baby down to sleep try to make sure they are calm enough to be able to fall asleep in the first place. Some quiet time that is not too overstimulating can help them to relax. Infants are able to mirror the emotions of their parents so try to keep the environment calm and peaceful - infant will pick up on this and be easier to settle.
3. Baby massage
This is a great way to help young babies to relax, help with digestive issues and there is a lot of research which shows this is 'positively correlated with sleep & settling.' (Field, 2016) It is also a lovely way in which to prioritise attachment & bonding with your baby and dads can take part too. Securely attached infants can be more content, calm and confident.
The place you put baby down to sleep shouldn't be too hot or cold. Body temperature is the lowest in the morning - watch out for a drop in body temperature between 2-6am. If children are feeling cold, this can trigger a wake up. It is the highest in the evening - you should ensure the evening bath is not too hot or child will struggle to regulate temperature in order to fall asleep.
5. Sleepy/tired cues
Try not to allow baby to become overtired by recognising their individual sleep cues. Some babies show some a few early signs before quickly becoming overtired, others can have a higher tolerance being able to cope with more time between naps. For example, some early signs may include yawning, fussing & waving arms or legs. Late signs may be looking for comfort through feeding or becoming inconsolable.
6. Awake intervals
Ensure your baby is not awake too long between naps. Some babies can only tolerate being awake for 1 hour at a time whereas other babies are able to stay awake for 2-3 hours. This will change as your baby gets older depending on their unique biological sleep needs.
7. Household noise
Allow your baby to tolerate sounds during the daytime naps by refraining from minimizing household noise. It will become difficult having a baby highly sensitive to sound who can only sleep in total silence, particularly if there is an older sibling in the house. Although this can be more difficult with a first baby, you can try leaving a radio on & not speaking in hushed tones.
From the time they are born up until around 4-5 months old, babies have something called a startle reflex where they feel as though they are falling and this sensation tends to cause jerking movements which causes them to wake up. Swaddling can help with this allowing them to feel safe & secure, imitating the comfort of the womb all whilst encouraging good sleep. Remember to always swaddle safely and not too tightly so that baby doesn't overheat, and never place them on their side or front.
9. Optimise feeding
Making sure any feeding problems are sorted out from the very beginning is crucial to promoting good sleep. Many sleep problems are feeding problems in disguise, if you have any concerns that your baby is not feeding well it is important to seek the advice of a lactation consultant as soon as possible.
We are creatures of habit & the use of age appropriate mini nap routines and bedtime routines help to prepare the body for sleep by receiving sleep 'cues' and assists to set the body clock. It allows children to feel safe and secure. In the early weeks this can be 5-10 minutes, simply going to certain location and then singing the same song/saying the same sleep phrase will reinforce a pattern of behaviour that the baby will come to associate with going to sleep.
Words of affirmation : Always remember you are a great parent(s) transitioning your little one to the outside world.