A baby doesn’t come with a user’s manual, but here is the best guideline that we can offer to new mothers. Some mothers say that children sleep during the day and cry through the night. This is true in many cases, but all babies are different. You could get lucky and get a night sleeper. Otherwise, there are some tricks that may help your baby to sleep all night long, or at least for most of the night. Let’s talk about the ins and outs of newborn sleep.
1. Sleep needs vary. Most babies sleep for a total of at least 16 hours each day during the first few months of life. Some even sleep up to 18 hours per day during the early period. As you may guess, we do not mean a continuous 16-18 hour period, but several sleep periods, interrupted with a need for feeding and diaper changes. Gradually, the sleep cycle changes as a newborn grows. Soon, your infant may drop down to 12 hours per day, but don’t worry if she needs more. 12-16 hours per day is normal up to one year of age. Sleeping 12-16 hours is a good sign, whereas sleeping only 7 to 8 hours could mean that the child is hungry, uncomfortable in the crib, or possibly ill. Some infants need a little more sleep, and some a little less, so you needn’t worry if your baby is a little beyond, or below the 12-16 hour time frame.
2. They need food, lots of it. Since newborns have tiny tummies, they require small, frequent portions of breast-milk, or formula. If given too much milk at once, the infant will spit up. But, if not fed frequently enough, nutrition will be inadequate leading to failure to thrive. Typically, a feeding puts the child to sleep, just as a large meal can make an adult sleepy. After sleeping for a long stretch (5-6 hours), many infants will wake up crying. This is their way of saying “feed me”. A mother needs at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per day, so try to match your schedule as closely as possible to that of the baby.
3. They can be restless. Most newborns are restless, and a small noise or discomfort could wake them up. The newborn sleep cycle –the order of the stages of sleep– is different from that of older children and adults. This difference makes the newborn waking threshold unpredictable. Your infant may sleep soundly through some event that would wake an adult, yet wake up from something else that normally would not jar you or an older child during sleep. The sleep cycle improves and becomes more predictable during the first couple of years of life. Infants can be quite noisy while sleeping, due to sounds emanating from the mouth, such as crying during the dream state.
4. Be ready for diaper change. Your baby will need several diaper changes throughout the day. You and your partner may wake up two to three times per night to change dirty diapers. Getting up constantly is not pleasant, but neglecting diaper changes can lead to skin irritation and rashes. Whenever possible, have your partner share the wake-up duty, for instance by agreeing to be “on-call” on alternate nights.
5. Make a cycle. If you want your baby to sleep more during the night, you can influence the sleep-wake cycle to some extent. Play with the child in the morning and afternoon to reduce the amount of daytime sleep. Take control of the dark-light cycle by exposing the child to a good amount of light early in the day. In the evening, during the two hours leading to the time that you want the child to go to sleep, keep the level of light low. Put the child to sleep in a room that is either completely dark, or lit dimly with special bulbs that eliminate light from the short wavelength (blue) end of the light spectrum. Using low/no blue light sources —and avoiding sources that are particularly high in blue light, such as handheld screen devices— before bed time can be extremely effective, because the blue end of the spectrum inhibits the pineal gland from secreting melatonin, the sleep hormone. Such adjustments to lighting can help, not only with the baby’s sleep schedule, but with yours too.