Nothing can prepare you for the changes in your sleep when you welcome a newborn baby into your family. Experienced parents will issue dire warnings and tell you to sleep while you can during the last few weeks of pregnancy. (And you will think, yeah right, there’s a large boulder resting on my bladder, and sometimes it kicks for good measure.)
But then the baby arrives, and your world changes forever. Sleep disruption is one of the most immediate and dramatic changes associated with parenthood. It isn’t just that you’re getting less sleep; it’s that your sleep is suddenly dependent on this baby sleeping. And even though newborns sleep a lot – as much as 16-18 hours per day – it feels disorganized and unpredictable.
The thing is, babies, even brand new ones, actually do have organized sleep, it just isn’t organized like yours. But under the surface, baby is working towards being more like you in his sleep. During the first few months, you have no choice but to go with the flow and sleep when the baby sleeps (something I was never good at), but it can help to understand the inherent patterns in your baby’s sleep/wake cycles so that they become more predictable. Your goal is to work with your baby’s biology, find some time for your own sleep, and support your baby in his natural development towards more mature sleep patterns.
In the research for my book, I’ve buried myself in research papers on infant sleep, trying to glean some knowledge that can be helpful to parents in these first few months of baby’s life. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Understand newborn sleep cycles. Newborn sleep alternates between active and quiet sleep (akin to REM and non-REM sleep in adults). During the first few months of life, infants usually begin each sleep period in active sleep. Then, after about 25 minutes, they’ll transition to a cycle of quiet sleep, also about 25 minutes long. During active sleep, babies will twitch and flail their limbs, grunt and sigh, and maybe even cry a little. Their eyes move beneath translucent closed lids and may even open from time to time. In quiet sleep, babies breathe slowly and rhythmically, and their bodies are still 1,2.
Why care about the biology of sleep? Because it can help you in these practical ways:
- Babies wake easily from active sleep, so if your baby falls asleep in your arms, wait until you see signs of that deeper, quiet sleep before you try to move him.
- Around the 45-50 minutes mark, baby will be finishing up that first active/quiet sleep cycle of 45-50 minutes. Transitioning from one cycle to the next can be tricky for a new baby, so if he wakes during this time (particularly if it’s after just one cycle), see if he wants your help returning to sleep before assuming that he’s ready to eat or play.
- Active sleep is noisy. Parents often mistake the normal vocalizations of active sleep as the baby waking, and in their efforts to soothe the baby, they’ll actually wake him up. If you think your baby is waking up, pause and watch him for a moment. He may just be dancing in his sleep, or he might be waking briefly only to return to sleep on his own.
2. Help your baby find a rhythm. We are adapted to Earth’s 24-hour cycle of light and dark, and our physiological circadian rhythms help us to feel awake during the day and sleepy at night. Newborn babies, on the other hand, sleep just as much during the day as they do at night. It takes them some time to develop rhythms to match our day/night cycle. You can help by sending baby strong environmental and social cues about day and night. Read more