Five Things to Know About Newborn Sleep

Erica Desper, PCD (DONA), Pediatric Sleep Consultant

Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Erica Desper, of Confident Parenting shares her tips for parents…

When new and expecting parents are asked about their biggest concerns, lack of sleep always ranks high on the list. Here are five things to know about newborn sleep so you can arm yourself with reasonable expectations and the tools you need to survive. 


1. Newborn Sleep Looks Nothing Like Adult Sleep 

Newborns spend the bulk of their sleep times in “active” or lighter sleep cycles and the length of these cycles are shorter than ours. This is important to know so you aren’t concerned that baby is sleeping restlessly or not getting the right quality of sleep. It also means you may want to stop, look and listen when you hear baby “wake”. They may just be in an active, noisy sleep stage that does not require you to respond or intervene. If you do need to respond, don’t be quick to assume baby is done sleeping. They may just need your help to transition into the next cycle. 

2. Their Sleep Is Disorganized (And That’s Okay!) 

Another common concern is that there is no rhyme or reason to baby’s sleep. Parents lament the lack of predictability or a schedule. Now that we know that the brain has a long way to go, we can understand why sleep would be disorganized. The organization of sleep is driven by neurological development and your baby just isn’t there yet. Newborns do not have an internal clock, nor do they produce Melatonin, the sleep helping hormone. So, they don’t know the difference between night and day or understand your craving for a schedule.

What can you do? Try shifting your mindset from a “schedule” to a “flow”. Aim to start and end baby’s day around two fairly fixed points and find a pattern to follow between those two points. For example, your baby will wake and want to eat, followed by a brief period of playtime before they are ready to sleep again. Then this pattern will repeat throughout the day. Around 12-16 weeks of age a more formal schedule will begin to emerge naturally so just find a predictable rhythm to get you by until then. 

3. They Don’t Want To Be Put Down 

Babies have a tendency to wake as soon as you lay them down or soon after. While this can be very frustrating for parents, it may help to know that your baby isn’t trying to drive you crazy. When a human baby is born full-term their brain is only about 25% of the way developed which means they need loads of help getting and staying calm, falling and staying asleep, and even regulating things like body temperature and respiration. Your baby instinctually knows that being on your body instantly makes their list of “chores” a whole lot shorter. Body temperature? Check! Happy hormone exchange to keep me calm? Check!

As baby continues to develop, the need for so much support will diminish as their ability to regulate themselves improves. Since you are filling a legitimate need for this new little person, it is NOT a bad habit to help them to sleep or hold them for sleep. If you do hope to put baby down, try swaddling them to prevent them from startling awake and waiting about 10-20 minutes until there is no movement behind their eyelids and their breathing is slow and deep, rather than rapid and shallow.  

4. Baby-wearing Is A Lifesaver 

Which brings us to tip #4…baby-wearing. If we combine our early tips – the fact that babies sleep very actively and are prone to rouse often AND that being close to you is, for now, a legitimate need, baby-wearing is the perfect solution. Rather than feeling trapped on the couch with baby in your arms, wearing allows you to have your arms free to do other tasks during the day while keeping baby where they want to be and using closeness to soothe them through sleep cycle transitions. There are loads of ways to wear your baby and getting past the learning curve is well worth it.  

5. You Are Going To Need To Ask For & Accept Help 

Boy do I wish I could have a do over on this one! Parents, this gig was not intended to be performed alone. Gone are the days of a built-in village to help you welcome and care for your baby. These days, we need to find and build our own village, not to mention wrap our heads around all the emotions that come with asking for and accepting help. Whether you are able to hire an overnight doula, hand baby off to the grandparents or a friend so you can catch a nap, or take shifts with your partner overnight, find a way to get breaks when you need them. Use them to get some uninterrupted sleep.

If you are breastfeeding, let your partner know how they can help. Can they bring you a snack and a drink? Can they roll towels up and place them behind your back and baby’s lower back so you can nurse while, side-lying, on the bed? Can they whisk baby away and resettle them to sleep after an overnight feed so you can return to sleep quickly? I’m sure you are a super hero but you don’t have to prove it during this time. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so let others care for you so you can care for your baby.  

Erica Desper is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Certified Infant Massage Instructor and Postpartum Certified Doula (DONA). She teaches Newborn Sleep 101 and Why Won’t My Child Sleep?! classes at Main Line Family Education. Erica has supported hundreds of families in and around the Main Line, Philadelphia, and internationally to improve the quality of their sleep. She is also mom to son, Jaiden, who, as a baby, was very good at crying and not very skilled at sleeping!  Erica founded Confident Parenting in 2012.