Sleep is often the first thing on new parents minds during postpartum. Newborn sleep shaping may help create positive sleep associations with your baby from early on.
Did you know that a newborn baby generally sleeps between 15 and 18 hours per day? That is right; they are master nap-takers. But what is going on in our newborns’ bodies when they are this little, and how can we encourage positive sleep habits from the early weeks?
How do newborn babies sleep?
Newborn sleep is broken up into short bursts of sleep, varying between 15 minutes and three hours. During this time, newborns will wake at various times of day with no set sleep schedule and with feeds occurring every two to three hours on average.
A newborn sleep cycle generally lasts between 40 to 60 minutes and is divided into phases:
- Active sleep (often marked by twitching, having their eyes open, or crying)
- Quiet, deep sleep (often marked by well, quiet and deep sleep)
By two weeks of age, we may notice that our babies will sleep for a more extended period, i.e., they may sleep longer in the morning but wake more frequently in the afternoon.
Note: It is common for newborns to be woken easily and become unsettled during the late afternoon hours; you’re not doing anything wrong.
What is newborn sleep shaping?
We ought to remember that newborn sleep shaping is not formal sleep training, which is not recommended at such an early stage.
Newborn sleep shaping involves soothing our babies to sleep without having to nurse them to sleep.
Our intention with newborn sleep shaping is to create positive sleep associations, good sleep hygiene and facilitate a sleep environment for our babies to feel safe, secure, and comfortable.
We can start newborn sleep shaping when babies are around six to eight weeks old. At this point, most babies will sleep shorter stretches during the day and longer at night.
However, they will not cycle between light and deep sleep until they are about four months old.
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My #1 tip for successful newborn sleep shaping
Here it is: having a secure attachment with your baby is essential
Before starting with newborn sleep shaping, we need to develop a secure attachment between our babies and ourselves. This attachment is crucial to our children’s long-term health and wellbeing.
A healthy, secure attachment promotes three main functions (outlined below), which will help our children self-regulate their emotions and form safe, healthy relationships with others in the future.
They will also feel secure enough to change their habits and behaviors when it comes to sleep regulation.
1. Our emotional connection begins at birth.
We should always focus on our babies’ nonverbal cues, respond to and provide them with physical affection to help foster our babies’ sense of security and safety with us as mothers.
2. We can help our babies regulate their emotions.
By soothing them when distressed, experiencing joyful moments together, i.e., through babywearing, play, singing, or rhyming, and creating a calm atmosphere at home.
3. We should try to be emotionally available, sensitive, and responsive.
By doing so, we will instill a sense of confidence, security, and safety in your baby to explore their new environment and surroundings.
How can I practice newborn sleep shaping?
Below you’ll find four tips to start newborn sleep shaping with your baby when the time is right.
1. Offer your baby a feed before and after sleep times
Making sure our babies eat regularly is vital, no matter whether we bottle or breastfeed. For one, milk is a source of tryptophan which helps our body create serotonin, which produces the sleep hormone melatonin.
At around nine weeks of age, newborns will start to make their melatonin. Before that, breastfeeding mothers can pass on some of their natural melatonin through breast milk, which is more concentrated at night.
Another benefit of milk is that it makes our babies satiated. This fullness helps raise energy levels after naps, but as we all know, when we have had a good meal, feeling full can make us feel sleepy.
Lastly, the routine of offering milk to our babies before and after naps will help gently nudge them into a flexible yet straightforward routine that they may slowly start to associate with sleep.
2. Soothing our babies to sleep
Newborn babies cannot self-soothe. However, we can encourage them to settle by helping to soothe them verbally and physically assuring them, i.e., by shushing, stroking, patting, swaying, or swaddling.
In doing so, we help them associate sleep with different sounds or motions other than nursing them directly to sleep.
Pick Up Put Down, a popular method developed by Tracy Hogg helps calm our babies by holding them each time they cry until they’re calm before returning them to their cots awake.
You can repeat this process several times until your baby is relaxed and falls asleep.
3. Creating a safe and secure sleep environment
To support our newborns in achieving good sleep hygiene, including mitigating the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), consider a few crucial points.
- Always put baby down awake.
- Place them on their back in the cot in the ‘feet to foot’ position, meaning their feet should touch the end of the cot.
- Make sure the bedroom is dark.
- Use an age-appropriate, tog-rated sleeping bag.
- Keep the room temperature between 60°F and 68°F; 65°C is ideal.
- Use dimmed light in the evenings – opt for amber or red bulbs.
- Never sleep on a sofa or armchair with your baby.
- Do not smoke when breastfeeding, and don’t let anyone else smoke in the same room as baby.
- Watch baby’s sleep cues, i.e. yawning, sucking on their thumb or finger, frowning etc.
- When using white noise, ensure the white noise machine is kept at least three feet away from our babies and set the volume below 50dB.
4. Observing our newborn baby’s wake windows and sleepy cues
Newborns do not have a light-dark cycle (circadian rhythm) before they are about eight weeks old, which is why it feels as if they randomly wake all the time. However, they have a biological threshold when it comes to staying awake.
Wake windows by wage:
- Newborns will be awake for about 45 minutes
- One month old babies will comfortably stay awake for up to one hour
- Two month old babies the window increases to around 75 minutes
- Three month old babies may stay awake between 90 and 105 minutes
We must learn to respond to their sleepy cues as their wake windows are constantly changing. They may include frowning, sucking on their fingers, going cross-eyed, yawning, or becoming quiet.
In that case, we offer them a nap towards the end of their awake windows.
So, will I ever sleep again?
Of course, you will! At least until they’re teenagers, then we may need to talk again. But jokes aside. We all know that our babies are not robots. There is no definite way of saying when any baby will sleep through the night and be a happy napper.
We are all human – we all need and want to sleep. As parents and especially as mothers, we ought to trust our instincts and offer our children the chance to sleep to the best of our ability. It’s up to them to take it.
Additional newborn sleep resources
Miriam is a Child and Baby Sleep Consultant based in the UK; she’s an IPSA and IACSC member and a mother of one. Miriam runs Early Sleep Consulting where she offers online sleep training and sleep education services to mothers of newborns, babies, and toddlers aged three years old. Having overcome postpartum depression herself, Miriam advocates for the importance of postpartum maternal health.