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Understanding infant sleep

27 Nov, 2023

Taking your new baby home from hospital can be quite a challenging time. Sleep is one of the biggest concerns for new parents, and rightly so! I think it’s really important to understand basic newborn physiology in order to help promote their sleep, as well as yours.

How much should my baby sleep?

Newborn babies vary greatly in regard to how much sleep they each need. Generally, babies will sleep between 14-18 hours in each 24 hour period. This is quite a big range! We know that some babies need a lot of sleep, and others need less.

Remember that initially, your baby’s stomach is tiny – about the size of a cherry. This means they need to feed very frequently as their stomach can only hold a small amount.

It can also take your baby a few weeks to work out the difference between night and day. When they are in-utero (in the womb) it is always dark, so it generally takes 3-6 weeks for their body clock to adjust. Ensuring the room where your baby sleeps is well lit in the day, and dark at night for the first three weeks can help them to work out the difference.

When should I start a routine with my baby?

Firstly, newborns do not do sleep routines! I see far too many parents who are absolutely exhausted trying to get their baby into a routine that they are just not ready to do. Babies biologically do not thrive on routines – all they care about is getting their immediate needs met (hunger, comfort, and safety). Remember your baby has spent the last 9 months inside the womb where it is warm, always dark and they are constantly rocked with your movements. It's going to take some time for them to adjust to living in the outside world.

If you would like to implement a routine then I recommend waiting until at least 3-4 months of age, however, you don’t need to implement a routine at all if you don’t want to.

How can I help my baby sleep?

  • Put away all the books on sleep routines. They generally don't work and can pull you away from connecting with your baby and your instincts. At the very least put them back on the shelf until your little one is 3-4 months old.
  • Consider where you would like your baby to sleep. It is recommended to sleep your baby on their own sleep surface in your room until they are 6 months of age. It is also recommended to place them on their back, with their head and face uncovered.
  • Check out the Red Nose website for excellent information on infant sleep.

How can I help my baby if they are unsettled?

It is very normal for newborn babies to have periods of being unsettled. They can often seem ‘windy’ or uncomfortable with their digestion. This will improve as their digestive and nervous system matures, but in the meantime, you can try these strategies to help calm your baby.

  • Skin to skin – Research shows that placing your baby skin to skin on your chest for 10 minutes reduces their level of the stress hormone cortisol and increases the love/bonding hormone oxytocin. This is my number one strategy that I implement with my clients if their baby is unsettled.
  • Use a baby carrier or stretchy wrap - this is called baby-wearing, and most babies will comfortably go into a deep sleep when being worn. This replicates the womb like environment and can help a baby to adjust. Your partner can babywear too!
  • If your baby is unsettled, try a breastfeed. Many newborns will fall asleep at the breast when they have finished feeding, and this can be a great settling technique. Breastfeeding your baby to sleep is normal, you are not creating a bad habit.

Try not to worry about your baby’s sleep. Many parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to ensure their baby is getting enough sleep. Most babies will fall asleep when they are ready. It can be helpful to adjust your expectations, and just know that your baby may take some time to adjust to being on the outside world.

Article written by PBC Expo Midwife

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