Newborn babies are not exactly known for their willingness to fall in line with parental demands (toddlers and teens are compliant by comparison). So the idea of trying to get your tiny bundle to follow any kind of sleep routine might sound at best counterintuitive, at worst cruel.
But with the right gentle approach, gradually introducing a flexible routine that works for baby and you could be the key to ensuring your little one gets the quantity and quality of sleep she needs.
Prepare for some sleepless nights
You’ve no doubt been told that “newborns do nothing but sleep!” – and it’s certainly true they need plenty of shut-eye. In fact, because they have so much new information to process and are growing and developing at such a rapid rate, it’s not uncommon for babies to sleep for up to 18 hours a day for the first few weeks. But be warned: when that sleep is happening in short bursts over a 24-hour period, it can often feel as though your baby does anything but sleep.
Frequent night-time waking is perfectly normal for newborns. And although some babies may start sleeping through as early as eight weeks, the majority won’t. There are many factors that can affect baby sleep: young babies have small stomachs (so need to spread out their feeding over a 24-hour period), and little ones also spend more time in the rapid eye movement stage of light sleep, which causes them to wake up more easily. Therefore, it’s unlikely they’ll sleep for more than one to three hours at a time, day or night, during those early weeks.
A baby’s ability to sleep through the night is all too often seen as a marker of parenting success. But as with those other hallowed milestones - rolling, crawling, walking and talking - all babies develop at different rates and have their own unique needs.
Some babies sleep for longer periods, while others wake frequently. Some sleep through the night after just a few weeks, others can take months. Your newborn will have their own natural sleep pattern – and it won’t be the same as the rest of the babies in your NCT group. So just because your friend’s baby is sleeping through the night at eight weeks, that doesn’t mean yours should, too. Putting pressure on yourself or measuring your baby’s progress against others will only create more stress – that well known antidote to sleep.
Get them used to day and night
As adults, our natural body clocks, or circadian rhythms, take their cue mainly from light. When there is less light, like at night, our ‘master clock’, which is located just above the optic nerve, tells the brain to make more melatonin, a hormone that makes us drowsy. But this is a knowledge that’s acquired over time, so to begin with your baby won’t understand the difference between day and night. Although this will happen naturally over the coming months, there are a number of things you can do to help the process along.
Establishing a bedtime routine and putting your baby down at a consistent time each night, using black-out curtains to ensure the room is dark when they go to bed at night, and taking them out to experience daylight during the day can all help to set their body clocks. Keeping noise down at night-time but allowing normal, everyday noise levels during daytime naps can also help.
By about eight weeks, you should notice that daytime naps will begin to shorten naturally and night-time sleeps will last longer, although in most cases your baby will still wake up to feed during the night.
Introduce a bedtime routine
It might not seem like it, but babies love routine. They like to know what to expect next and are suckers for repetition. By establishing a consistent, familiar and relaxing bedtime routine, your baby will soon begin to associate these activities with sleep and see each stage as a cue.
A bedtime routine could consist of giving your baby a warm bath, changing them into cosy nightclothes and a clean nappy, giving them a feed, cuddling up for a bedtime story, dimming the lights and singing a lullaby or playing a musical mobile.
But a routine doesn’t need to be regimented or set in stone. The important thing is to find a routine that works for you, explains psychologist, author and founder of the Baby Sleep Clinic, Chireal Shallow.
“The routine should just be a sequence of events that you do one after the other, which are a simple cueing system,” she tells HuffPost Parents.
“But you don’t have to use the standard cues. For instance, some babies don’t like the bath, so if you think that’s going to cause distress, it could be a massage. You can be really flexible.”
Spot their sleep-time cues
Tempting as it might be to try and keep your baby awake during the day so they’ll sleep better at night, this will only make the situation worse in the long run. An over-tired baby will have just as much trouble getting to sleep as a wide-awake one and be super-cranky to boot.
Instead, look out for the visual signs that show your baby is ready for sleep and take that as your cue to let them nap. Whining, rubbing his eyes, yawning, stretching and becoming disengaged with toys and surrounding stimulus can all signal your little one is feeling sleepy and it could be time for a nap.
The dream feed debate
Some people find that semi-waking their baby for a ‘dream feed’ between 10pm and midnight, can help them sleep for longer stretches at night. But there is another school of thought that suggests you should allow a little time between feeding your baby and putting them to bed because by feeding your baby to sleep you are establishing a link between feeding and sleep. In other words, when they wake in the night, they’ll expect you to feed them back to sleep, which can become problematic when your baby gets older and you’re trying to encourage them to sleep through. As with any parenting decision, there is no definitive black and white answer. See what feels right for you and what works best for your baby.
Although babies like routine, and a night-time ritual can help send them to sleep, their sleep habits will always be subject to change. Therefore, it’s essential you have a flexible approach and are able to adapt to their changing needs. Just because they slept through the night for three days in a row doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. Their sleep needs change as they grow and they’ll also be affected by other factors, such as teething, illness, growth spurts or changes. So be patient, look and listen to your baby’s cues, and most of all, trust your mother’s intuition.