The birth of a baby is without a doubt a beautiful thing. In fact, many would suggest that it is hands down the most beautiful thing on this planet. Right up until that point where your baby makes it home, and you come to the stark realization that its babies and sleep patterns are well and truly all over the place.
You might find yourself wondering if how much your newborn is sleeping is normal? Or how many hours they should be sleeping for? And if there is any way that you can actually get your newborn baby sleeping better? This article will cover babies and sleep patterns.
Overview of Newborn Sleep Patterns
As many of you would realize, a normal newborn infant will sleep through much of the day and most of the night, typically waking every few hours for a feed.
Quite the life, really!
However, as a result of this, it can be quite hard to figure out both how long and how often your newborn should sleep for. Unfortunately, there is no set schedule that manages to fit all individual situations.
You see, as adults, our sleep-wake cycles are dictated by our circadian rhythm.
This biological rhythm essentially determines when we get tired and fall asleep, and when we wake up. Interestingly, we are not actually born with this innate ability. It is developed in accordance with the changing of night and day.
But as newborns have never been physically exposed to the natural change in light that comes to the sunrise and sunset. They essentially have their days and nights confused. This leads to some rather obscure sleeping patterns.
As a result, newborns tend to sleep for around 7 to 9 hours during the day, and then another 7 to 8 hours at night.
It is important to note that because of their lack of circadian rhythm, this sleep is not undertaken in one or two large chunks. It is broken up into brief 1-3 hour long periods.
In fact, most children will not start sleeping through the night until around 3-4 months in age. It’s important to note there are significant individual variances within this.
How many hours a day should a newborn be awake?
Looking at all this info you might be wondering how many hours your newborn child should actually be awake for. The answer is- not many!
In fact, you can expect your newborn baby to be awake for a grand total of 4-6 hours per day, and another 2-3 hours per night.
Within this, they are going to be highly likely to wake up for around 1-3 hours at a time, get a bit of a feed, before quickly nodding off again.
Remember, this whole time period is about growth and survival for them – and they need all that energy!
Related Article: The Stages Of A Woman’s Sleep Life: Pregnancy And Postpartum
What are the sleep states of a newborn?
Much like adults, newborn babies also have various sleep states (Mirmiran, 2003).
These states are ultimately dictated by the depth of the sleep that they experience and their associated physical responses. There are primarily two types of sleep that can collectively be split into a grand total of four distinct stages.
First up we have Rapid Eye Movement (or REM for short) sleep.
This is what we would consider a light sleep state, which is typified by the eyes moving rapidly while still sleeping. This eye movement is thought to be the result of increased brain activity, and subsequently, dreams occurring.
Newborn infants will spend between 14 and 17 hours each day asleep. Only about half of this amount is in a state of REM sleep. The other time spent in a state of Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (or NREM sleep, for short).
NREM sleep is a different state of sleep where brain activity slows down – this is thought to be integral for learning and recovery (Barbeau, 2017).
It is important to note that NREM sleep can be broken down into three specific stages.
NREM Sleep Stages
- Stage 1: occurs at the beginning of sleep cycle, and is typified by slow eye movements and drowsing. Some people actually refer to this stage as a state of ‘relaxed wakefulness’
- Stage 2: occurs immediately after stage 1. During this stage, no eye movement occurs, and dreaming is very rare, although the newborn will still be easily awakened
- Stage 3: describes a state of deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep). Dreaming is more common in this stage than in the other stages of NREM sleep, although still not as common as in REM sleep.
During a single sleep cycle (which can take as little as 45 minutes) your newborn will enter at stage 1 of NREM sleep, then slowly transition into stage 2 and then stage 3. After moving through stage 3 of NREM sleep, they will move into a state of REM sleep.
This cycle can repeat itself a number of times in a single bout of sleep (if we are lucky…).
How can you help your baby fall asleep?
This topic is one that creates much debate among parents and practitioners alike – not because it is a particularly sensitive topic, but because there appears to be a huge amount of individual variance in the sleep needs of newborns.
To put it simply, what might work for your child may not work for the child next door.
Hence the conjecture.
However, in saying all of this, there does appear to be some simple things you can do to facilitate the process that is well supported in a number of different settings.
Firstly, skin to skin contact (also known as ‘Kangaroo Care’) for as little as one hour per day has been shown to cause significant improvements in the rate at which a child falls asleep, while also improving the quality of that sleep (Feldman, 2002).
Similarly, daily infant massage has also been shown to have positive implications for sleep in newborn children, causing significant improvements in both sleep quality and sleep duration (van den Hoogen, 2017).
Finally, there is also research to suggest that light cycling – the process of restricting light exposure during the night and exposing them to light during that day – can increase the rate at which they develop their circadian rhythm.
This can further promote the development of a normal sleep-wake cycle, while also assisting them to get asleep faster (Guyer, 2015).
Much like for adults, this means limiting exposure to artificial and electronic light as it gets closer to night time, to ensure a better night’s sleep.
What are the best sleep positions for a newborn?
Somewhat alternatively to our previous point, there are some rather clear guidelines around the best sleep positions for newborn infants (CPC, 2004).
These guidelines have been developed with the intent to not only maximize the quality of your child’s sleep but to also reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (or SIDS) from occurring – so it really is in your best interest to adhere to them to the best of your ability.
These guidelines state:
- Your newborn infant should be placed on their back, with no objects in the crib.
- The crib should contain a firm mattress.
- When your baby can turn over on his own, there is no reason to keep them on their back.
- Infants should never sleep on pillows, air mattresses, waterbeds, cushions, soft materials or loose bedding.
Related Article: The Effect of Swimming During Pregnancy on Fetal Growth
Sleep Training For Your Newborn Baby
With all the overwhelming information around sleep out there, you might also find yourself thinking about the potential merits and applications of sleep training – or what is commonly known as controlled crying.
Sleep training essentially describes where parents respond to their infants cry at increasingly longer time intervals, to teach them how to fall asleep independently.
Now, while this may sound a little cruel, there is some evidence to support it.
In fact, research has demonstrated that the application of sleep training in newborns and infants can consistently improve sleep quality, reduce the risk of sleep problems developing, and even improve parent mood and energy (Korownyk, 2018).
In short, if you can bear it, it is likely to have some rather positive effects.
When should you start sleep training for your baby?
So, considering that sleep training does indeed have some rather positive implications for mother and child alike, you might be wondering “when is it appropriate to start?”
Which is a pretty fair question if you ask me!
Unfortunately, this area of research is a little less clear than some of the other things we have discussed today – however, there does appear to be some merit in waiting until your child has developed a sound circadian rhythm before implementing sleep training.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that commencing before the age of 4 months may not really have any positive effects (Douglas, 2013).
But, with all this in mind, if your child is not sleeping through the night by the time they are 4-5 months old, it is definitely an avenue worth pursuing.
Take Home Message
Taking all of this into consideration, it should become quite apparent that your newborn child needs a lot of sleep – and to be clear, I mean a lot of sleep.
Using some of the tips outlined in this article, you can help your child fall asleep faster, and experience better sleep in the process. This can help facilitate the development of a normal sleep-wake cycle, which can only be of benefit to you and your baby.
In my mind, it is an extremely valuable pursuit!
Mirmiran, Majid, Yolanda GH Maas, and Ronald L. Ariagno. “Development of fetal and neonatal sleep and circadian rhythms.” Sleep medicine reviews 7.4 (2003): 321-334.
Barbeau, Daphna Yasova, and Michael D. Weiss. “Sleep disturbances in newborns.” Children 4.10 (2017): 90.
Feldman, Ruth, et al. “Skin-to-Skin contact (Kangaroo care) promotes self-regulation in premature infants: sleep-wake cyclicity, arousal modulation, and sustained exploration.” Developmental psychology 38.2 (2002): 194.
van den Hoogen, Agnes, et al. “How to improve sleep in a neonatal intensive care unit: a systematic review.” Early human development 113 (2017): 78-86.
Guyer, Caroline, et al. “Very preterm infants show earlier emergence of 24-hour sleep–wake rhythms compared to term infants.” Early human development 91.1 (2015): 37-42.
Community Paediatrics Committee (CPC). “Recommendations for safe sleeping environments for infants and children.” Paediatrics & Child Health 9 (2004): 659-663.
Korownyk, C., & Lindblad, A. J. (2018). Infant sleep training: rest easy?. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 64(1), 41.
Douglas, Pamela S., and Peter S. Hill. “Behavioral sleep interventions in the first six months of life do not improve outcomes for mothers or infants: a systematic review.” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 34.7 (2013): 497-507.