Newborn sleep the early weeks – while, yes, newborn sleep is a lot of the things people say it is – disorganised, unpredictable at times, fragmented, hard to figure out – there are many things we can do to help our newborns to sleep better and to set up healthy sleep habits for the future. When I work with newborn clients it’s not about sleep training, newborns are just not ready for that and it simply doesn’t work, they don’t have any ability to settle themselves to sleep. But what we can do is work on setting them up with a great routine, using positive sleep associations, and help to set up healthy sleep habits so that when they are ready, self-settling is easy. When we do this at the newborn stage, we often don’t need to work on any formal sleep training, and the whole process flows easily.
From very early on I suggest getting yourself into a basic routine, something like baby wakes, feeds, nappy change, chats and snuggles with Mum and Dad before being wrapped back up and put back to sleep. This whole process in the beginning should take no more than an hour (some very new babies will only cope with more like 40 minutes awake) – and that’s an hour before they are back asleep, not an hour before you start settling them to sleep. Newborns can become overtired in the blink of a very sleepy eye, and once this happens, they can become almost impossible to settle! Awake time changes quickly in the newborn phase (as do a lot of things!) and by the time baby is 6 weeks old they will be ready for more like 90 minutes awake, so keep an eye on your developing baby and change awake time accordingly. This pattern repeats itself all day long, wake, feed, play, sleep. If you only take one thing from this blog post, let it be that routine is king, babies thrive on a great routine. You can check out a video on how to avoid day-night confusion here.
Swaddling is magic for newborns in the early weeks, and I highly recommend using an arms-down swaddle for your baby. It helps them feel snug and secure, keeps them warm, supresses their Moro or startle reflex (which can wake them up as they drift from a light sleep into a deep sleep) and helps to calm their central nervous system. This is especially helpful for babies suffering from reflux and colic, who can be easily overstimulated and become ‘wired’, needing a bit of extra help to settle off to sleep. Using a swaddle for naps and night sleep also becomes a positive sleep association for your baby, when used consistently they will start to associate the swaddle with sleep and this is a great way to help them to settle easier.
Another great tool for newborn sleep is white noise. White noise gives babies something to focus on, helps them to settle to sleep and resettle when they wake between sleep cycles. It should be used constantly for the duration of naps and overnight sleep, and should be a low, rumbling sound such as wave, rain or fan noise, or a radio left between stations. It should be played as loud as a fast running tap or vacuum.
Using a dummy can help babies to settle, sucking triggers the calming reflex in newborns, and using a dummy, especially for a baby with reflux or colic, can be a great way to help them to calm down and go to sleep. Feeding to sleep, either breast or bottle, will also work well, and is a great tool to have if needed, although a lot of babies develop feed-to-sleep associations which then need to be weaned off down the track. Remember, though, that often with newborn babies the need to help them to fall asleep any way that works outweighs the need to prevent habits forming!
Movement sleep works wonders for newborns who are struggling to settle. Sometimes adding a bit of rocking, swinging, patting to your settling routine is just the ticket to help baby to settle off to sleep. I would suggest going for patting first, simply because this is easier to wean off once baby is a little older. You can help baby to fall asleep in their own bed by first patting them in your arms (aiming for the middle of their back or on their bottom, use a rhythmic patting, like the ticking of a clock, patting more firmly and quickly if baby is upset) and then, once they are 90% asleep, transfer baby to bed, still patting, and finish patting them off to sleep. As time goes by and they get better and faster at falling asleep this way, you can back off how much assistance you are giving them to go to sleep and just see what happens. Often babies who have had a good routine in place, their sleep environment is spot on and you find the ‘sweet spot’ when they’re just tired enough to fall asleep, can start drifting off to sleep in their own bed from really early on, no sleep training required. You can keep on practicing this, with the understanding that newborn sleep isn’t as predictable as older babies, and one day it may work beautifully, the next day it may not, one day baby may need a lot of assistance to get to sleep, one day they may put themselves to sleep as you stand next to their bed and watch them. Just keep on working towards getting all of the pieces of the puzzle in place and it will all come together in time.
For help with your newborn if you’re struggling with their sleep, get in touch here.