You’ll get lots of well-meaning advice about your baby’s sleep schedule. Here, a child development expert shares what the science of sleep says about your newborn.
The Pump Station & Nurtury has supported new and expecting parents in the Greater Los Angeles area for more than 34 years with evidence-based breastfeeding, baby care, and parenting education. Through its array of prenatal and postnatal classes and services, The Pump Station gives parents the tools they need to parent confidently.
You just brought your little bundle of joy home from the hospital, and already you’re getting unsolicited advice on how to get your newborn to sleep through the night! As well intended as family and friends may be, when parents feel pressured to get their newborns to sleep long stretches at night, it will most likely lead to frustration because they’re going against the science of sleep.
Jill Campbell, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 25 years of experience specializing in maternal mental health, women’s issues, parenting, and early child development. Jill is the Curriculum Director of the Parent & Me program at The Pump Station & Nurtury, and she’s here to share her knowledge of newborn sleep patterns and what you can expect as your baby naturally progresses through the early stages of sleep development.
When babies are first born, and for the first several weeks of life, they have very little ability to regulate their affect and arousal. During this time period, we cannot expect too much from our babies in terms of regular sleep patterns because their nervous systems are still so underdeveloped.
As babies grow, their ability to stretch sleep will grow as well. They will become more predictable, and their cues will be easier to read. This is not going to happen all at once, but rather it will be a slow progression as your baby’s brain develops.
In the first four weeks of life, newborns tend to sleep in short stretches, typically ranging from 30 minutes to four hours at random times of the day. While adults have strong circadian rhythms that rule the way we sleep in a 24-hour period, newborns do not. It takes until somewhere between three and five months of age for babies to develop mature circadian rhythms.
Babies spend much less time in “quiet” sleep than adults do. Quiet sleep is the stage of sleep where there’s minimal body movement and we are hard to wake. While quiet sleep is restful, deep sleep, many experts believe it can actually be risky for a newborn to spend too big a chunk at a time in quiet sleep. This is because if a baby isn’t getting sufficient levels of oxygen (perhaps because the baby has fallen asleep in a sitting device rather than lying on his or her back), he or she will be hard to wake. Therefore, the way babies sleep, with frequent arousals, may actually be a protective mechanism for them. In fact, one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for at least the first six months of life is that doing so increases arousals.
Babies spend more than half of their sleep cycle in “active” (REM) sleep. In this stage of sleep, they are not still. They often jerk their bodies, breathe irregularly, twitch their faces, and make noises. Many times, new parents rush to pick up their baby when they are making these movements and noises, but often the baby is not really awake. Parents actually wake them by picking them up!
So does that mean there is absolutely nothing you can do to help your newborn’s sleep resemble a 24-hour day? Not necessarily. Even newborns are receptive to environmental cues, so there are some things you can try. I am merely suggesting that as a new parent, you keep realistic expectations and understand that your baby’s internal clock will be growing and maturing in the not too distant future.
If you would like to try to help your newborn baby figure out day from night, try to get your baby familiar with natural light patterns. Expose your baby to indirect sunlight during the day and lower the lights in the house in the evening. Perhaps get your baby used to a daily routine. Start your baby’s day by opening up the shades in the room and letting in the morning light. Keep your baby in active areas of the house during the day and start dimming the lights by 9pm.
And if your mother swears to you that you were sleeping straight through the night at two weeks old, breathe, smile, nod, and keep in mind that the science of sleep would suggest otherwise.
Interested in an Online Pump Station Newborn Sleep Class?
Find out more about Sleep: Getting Your Newborn Off to a Good Start.
Find out more about Pump Station’s Baby Care 101 Prenatal Class.
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