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Infant Sleep: What's Normal?

Getting Your Newborn to Sleep Like a Baby
-- By Jenny Sigler, Parenting & Pregnancy Writer

Inside the womb, your baby encountered too little light to distinguish night from day. And throughout gestation, your rhythmic movements and sounds also helped lull your little one to sleep. The womb was a warm, safe place for your child. There were no temperature changes, discomforts, loud noises, or sensations that weren't to her liking. Because of these comforts and the changes your baby encounters after birth, infants can't possibly have wake-sleep routines comparable to most adults.

Thrust into a world she isn't familiar with, it can be a complicated task to figure out how to coax her into resting peacefully with a routine that works with your own. Your baby has never been separated from you before, so you can't expect her to adjust quickly to a new set of routines and sleeping rules. As most new parents discover, it usually takes a team effort to lull a baby to sleep--especially as a newborn. But how do you know if your baby's sleeping habits are normal, and what can you do to help your baby get the right amount of sleep that she needs to be healthy?

What Is Normal?

Adults need six to eight hours of continuous rest each night. Babies, on the other hand, have more erratic patterns of sleeping. They usually need between 16 and 18 hours per 24-hour period. Of course, that amount of sleep is not continuous (though most parents would prefer it that way). Typically, those hours are pretty evenly spread over half a dozen naps throughout the day and night. Most newborn babies wake every two to three hours around the clock for a feeding, followed by an hour or two of wakefulness.

"Every baby is different." Are you tired of hearing that yet? Well, it's true! You probably know someone whose baby slept through the night at just six weeks old. But in truth, the majority of babies need at least two feedings per night up until they are about six months old. Some newborns are colicky and can cry for hours without discernable reason. This usually peaks at around six weeks and slowly subsides from there. Others always tend to be on the low end of the spectrum of sleep needs.

Your baby won't even begin to develop a circadian rhythm until she's about six to nine weeks old, and that rhythm doesn't mature until she's at least six months old. Babies will wake up and sleep often because they are made to do so. It is only our perceptions that lead us to believe that these patterns are problematic. Despite the blur of sleep deprivation that all new parents experience, try to persevere by knowing that the chaos usually settles down after baby settles into a more normal pattern when she's several weeks old. Beyond that, it's common for infants to awaken at least once per night until they reach 12 months of age.

Because so much of your newborn's life is spent feeding, it isn't uncommon to see her mimicking a sucking motion in her sleep. She might also twitch, snore, flutter her eyes, show a startle response at times, or make tiny, squeaky noises as she dreams--all of which are normal.

What Isn't Normal?

Sleeping Too Little
If your newborn sleeps less than the expectations outlined above, watch her closely--she may be overtired. Signs of exhaustion might include excessive crying or whining, being very clingy, or being very hyper.

Most infants, when going through a growth spurt (usually around the ages of 7-10 days, 2-3 weeks, 4-6 weeks, 3 months, and 4 months), will nurse or want a bottle more often, and may even sleep less throughout the day. But most babies will sleep noticeably more (overall) during these growth periods because of the intense need to conserve energy.

If your baby isn't sleeping enough, you'll want to rule out other factors that may be preventing her from drifting off to sleep. Here are some things to try:
  • White noise. Newborns are used to noise that they could hear in the womb. A house that is too quiet can actually cause stress for some babies. "White noise" from a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner or static on a radio can actually provide womb-like sounds that can help her relax and fall to sleep.
  • Swaddling. Before birth, your baby was accustomed to very tight surroundings, which is why swaddling is recommended. If you are not swaddling your little one for sleeping times, or she is not swaddled tightly enough, she could be experiencing stress that prevents her from sleeping.
  • Warmth. Your baby is used to living in a 98-degree environment, and is not yet efficient at regulating her own body temperature. Ensure that baby is warm, snug, and cozy enough to sleep. Swaddles will help maintain her body temperature, but in colder weather, make sure she is dressed appropriately to stay warm. Pay particular attention to her feet.
Sleeping Too Much
If your child is getting dramatically more sleep than you feel she should, speak to your pediatrician to see if there is an underlying cause. It is not uncommon for some newborns to sleep a great deal in the initial weeks. But this can become problematic if your baby is sleeping so much that she's not eating enough. If you have a "sleepy baby," you'll have to wake her every few hours for a feeding. Try:
  • Changing her diaper before a feeding
  • Removing all her clothes (except diaper) so she's not so warm and cozy
  • Wiping baby with a cool, wet washcloth
  • Rubbing an ice cube on the soles of her feet
If none of these tricks keep your baby awake long enough to consistently take full feedings, contact your health care provider to discuss possible causes of sleepiness. When older babies sleep more, it isn't as much of a concern as long as they are eating well at feeding times.

Creating a Sleep Routine

Children of all ages thrive on consistent routine. It is a good idea to create a nighttime sleep ritual, and possibly an abbreviated version of it for naptime. After a few weeks, your baby will catch on that a certain order of bathing, massage, changing into pajamas, reading a book, and feeding always ends in sleep time. Create your own routine that includes singing songs, rocking, using a pacifier, going for a walk, or something else pleasant and soothing.

During the day, encourage your newborn to distinguish between the light of day and the dark of night by exposing her to sunlight and fresh air. When she naps, don't try to make it too dark or be overly quiet. She will learn to prefer the dark and quiet times for sleeping. Conversely, keep the lights very dim at night to enhance restfulness, and try playing some white noise (like a fan or humidifier) to help lull your baby to sleep. Some babies enjoy drifting off to sleep while listening to soft music or CDs that mimic the sounds they heard while in the womb.

Learn to read your baby's cues and respond (start your sleep routine) at his first signs of tiredness, which may include rubbing his eyes, yawning, looking "glazed", generally slowing down in activity, or becoming disinterested in whatever he was doing. A baby will sleep longer if she falls asleep when she isn't overly tired, which is the opposite of what many parents think. If you miss the early signs, your baby will become overly tired and experience difficulty calming down and falling asleep.

In The Happiest Baby on the Block, author Harvey Karp recommends "The S's" to help your baby sleep better and longer--swaddling, shushing sounds, swinging, sucking, and more. Almost all babies love to be wrapped tightly in a swaddling blanket, and most parents find it very effective. The womb is a noisy place, so babies love loud, white noises. Try getting close to your baby's ear and making a loud "shh" noise, and note his response. (Most babies love this!)

Realistic Expectations

Some schools of thought are too rigid, calling for strict rules that "break" baby of certain habits until he is on a schedule. Other theories might be too lax, giving a baby too much freedom to make up his own routine. The solution is different for everyone but for most, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Your baby and your intuition are the best guides to getting through the ins and outs of infant sleeping patterns. "Sleeping through the night" is defined as five consecutive hours, but focus your goals on the quality of your baby's rest--not some scientific expectation for quantity.

Above all, set realistic expectations for your baby. A compromise made out of love--not convenience for just the parent(s) or just the baby--must be made so that the needs of each family member are respected. After all, keep in mind that your little one is just as new to living outside the womb as you are to parenting him. It's a process for you to get to know one another, learn each other's language, and learn to respond lovingly.

This article has been reviewed by Tanya Jolliffe, BabyFit Resident Expert.

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Member Comments About this Article
"my baby has hes irregular sleep hes awake at night but sleeps at morning . what should I do? I hope you could help me out cause I'm really having a hard time." -- NINADAINEL
"Babies are very smart and learn that if they cry for 30 minutes and then get picked up, they will cry for 30 minutes, then 35 then 40 -- as long as it takes for people to come and pick them up. Learning other soothing techniques that attend to your baby and let them know you are there without picking them up can be a helpful in-between. This site can help you learn which ones will work best for you. The Baby Sleep Site" -- TONKA_14
"My baby is 6 weeks old and does not sleep AT ALL....I have tried every tip I have found onthe internet and have been given by other moms and nothing seems to work. I can not get her to take more than a 20 min nap every few days. The thought of her taking a 2-3 hr nap is just a dream for us! She was sleeping through the night pretty good until a few days ago, now it's just an hr or two at a time. She cries the moment you put her down and doesn't stop until I pick her up. I know this is not good..." -- KGBMOM
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About The Author
Jenny Sigler
Jenny is a stay-at-home mom to her young children, Augustine and Olive. She enjoys writing about pregnancy and child care topics to empower women to make healthy choices.

 


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