Infants require a significant amount of sleep in the first few months of life. It may be surprising for some new parents to discover that sleep does not come naturally to your much anticipated arrival, or you may find that your new baby is rarely awake. Just as they come in all shapes and sizes, the ability to sleep well at the start, varies hugely from each individual child. However, the amount of sleep necessary for healthy development does not differ hugely from baby to baby and there are a number of elements that may be addressed to ensure that you all get as much as possible.
Newborn sleeping patterns are completely different within the first weeks and months. The need for sleep will always be on a 24 hour context but at the beginning of life, the amount of sleep is about 16-17 hours within a 24 hour period and I would expect this to be scattered throughout the day and night, with an infant possibly waking to feed every 1-3 hours and needing to sleep every 45m-1.5hours of waking. This can mean that there are no long stretches of sleep for mum and dad, but this does pass as your child heads towards 10 weeks of age or so with daytime and night sleep starting to become more apparent. In the meantime, your function is to ensure that you are meeting your child’s every need and teaching them to feel safe and secure by doing so. I encourage all new parents not to worry about what may be perceived as “bad” habits where sleep is concerned and to do whatever it takes to ensure that your baby is well fed and well rested in the early days.
Be mindful that long standing sleep issues can stem from parents being overly involved in the child’s process of sleep. Unfortunately, many newborns are not efficient sleepers and have difficulty going to sleep requiring a high level of intervention from the parent and this should be provided. Most young children respond very well to motion, rhythm, sucking, close contact and white noise. All of which can be safely used to help promote sleep for your baby. Although these tools can often become the cause of a long term sleep issue; within the first 4 months of life, before neurologically the character of sleep locks into place, it is most appropriate and sometimes necessary to help a child sleep, provided that as they become older the parent lessens this intervention.
Within the first 4-6 weeks, teach your baby the difference between day and night by using exposure to light during day/waking times and utilising dim lights for night time to help regulate the body clock and start to lay a foundation for healthy and lengthier sleep. Beyond 10-12 weeks of age parents can start to see a day time structure appear and look forward to longer stretches overnight, although bed time will still be quite late. At this stage the need to distinguish between day and night becomes less relevant and I encourage a dark environment for all sleeps thereafter as the body naturally makes this distinction.
Night feeds can most certainly still be required within the first 6-9 months of age, typically though, young children who are learning to cycle through their natural sleep phases will start to organically sleep longer as the weeks go by so that by around 6 months of age and most certainly by 9 months, the length of sleep ranges from 8-12 hours overnight. When carrying out a night feed, whilst I would always advise eye contact, I would recommend that the room should be dim/dark and the feed non-stimulating so that your child goes back to sleep with ease and that you do not encourage your child to wake for fun as they get older. Always provide the night feed in the same room as the child is sleeping in.
Finally, parents can learn to establish their child’s sleepy cues and in doing so make the transition to sleep easier for all involved. An overtired baby finds it incredibly difficult to go to sleep even with intervention if their little body goes beyond sleep. Acknowledging early sleep signals such as brief eye rubs, yawning, zoning out, snuggling in, and acting on them with a pre sleep ritual can help your child go to sleep easily and stay asleep for longer stretches. A child who exhibits intense eye rubbing, big yawning, fussing, whinging, impatience or wired behaviour has typically become over-tired and this will cause resistance to sleep and short sleep durations both day and night.
Overall, parents obviously need to be informed, but not over anxious or overwhelmed by what their baby should be doing-there is no right way, only a way that feels right for you and your baby.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie, t: 087 2683584 or e: firstname.lastname@example.org