Five things you need to know about newborn sleep

The night we got home from the hospital, my son refused to sleep from 10pm to 4am. It was f*cked up. I spent those hours wondering two things: have I ruined my life, and why the hell does he not know it’s night and time for sleep?

I read almost nothing about newborn sleep patterns or their needs before he was born. I wish I had. It would have saved me a sh*tload of frustration and helped me put some good habits in place early on.

So, mamas to be, here are five things to know about newborn sleep to give you a leg up during those first few weeks. 

1. They don’t know the difference between night and day

You might find your newborn sleeps all day and parties all night (remember those days?). It turns out that the areas of their brain that manage their circadian rhythm (the thing that helps us recognize when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake) haven’t developed yet. So they simply don’t know that night means sleep. 

Babies start to settle into a day and night sleep pattern around the four-month mark (which feels like a f*cking long time, but we promise it goes fast). And, you can help them start to understand the difference by reserving playtime for the daytime and keeping the nights as calm as possible. 

2. They need more sleep than you might think

Sleep is hella important for your little one: it helps them grow and develop. And while it might feel like they’re constantly awake, newborns need a lot of sleep – about 16 hours a day.

Although there’s no set routine at first (because your baby is developing their circadian rhythm), you might notice: 

  • And they’ll likely drift off again every one-two hours. (At which point you go the hell to sleep too, mama.)   

3. They sleep in cycles and phases like adults

A newborn’s sleep cycles are anywhere from 20-50 minutes long, and they’ll typically sleep in bursts of around one-three hours. That’s much shorter than an adult whose sleep cycle is 90 minutes. (We know this reads like a crappy maths problem, but stick with us.) 

Newborns also have phases of lighter and deeper sleep, like us. These phases are called active sleep and quiet sleep, respectively. During active sleep, your little one might move around or make noises, and they are easily woken. In quiet sleep, they’ll be still, their breathing will be even, and they’ll be harder to wake. Each of your newborn’s sleep cycles will have both active and quiet sleep. 

But – here’s the difference. Unlike adults, babies often wake up at the end of their sleep cycle and may find it difficult to fall back asleep (e.g. move from one cycle to the next) during those newborn weeks. Hence the frequent wake-ups for mom and dad. Love that for us.

4. They need your help learning how to sleep

Even though newborns are very clever, they don’t know how to sleep. They need our help to learn.

While, as mentioned above, there’s no schedule at first, you can put some habits in place to start to help your little one understand when it’s time to sleep and how to go to sleep. This will also help down the line when things like sleep regressions (a.k.a. living hell) hit.  

Tips include:

  • Putting your baby to sleep when they’re tired to avoid them becoming overtired (which can disrupt your baby’s night sleep – yikes). When a baby is tired, they often give cues like rubbing their eyes, looking away, yawning, and fussing. 

5. When they do sleep, they can be bloody noisy 

When my son finally did sleep, he sounded like a dinosaur. It was weird, unnerving, and – rather annoyingly – disrupted my sleep even more. 

Surprisingly, newborns can make a whole range of sounds while they’re sleeping. Though it can seem stressful, it’s normal. 

Noises can include irregular breathing, tummy gurgles, lip-smacking, grunting, whistling, whimpering, and much more. (Light sleepers might want to invest in ear plugs…) Why are they so noisy? There are several reasons, including that their little bodies are still developing, they’re congested, or they’re going through the lighter phase of their sleep cycle. 

We can practically feel you panicking from here, mama. But don’t fret; they should grow out of it after a few weeks. 

And though we’ve said it a million times before, remember that all babies are different. Some sleep more, or less, than others. If you’re ever concerned about your newborn’s sleep, speak to your pediatrician.

Share this with a mama-to-be who’s about to bring a newborn home.

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