Sleep and your newborn

Your newborn’s sleep habits may be a total mystery to you. Here’s what you can expect. By Ann Richardson

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Most new parents agree that nothing prepares you for the exhaustion that sets in soon after your baby’s birth. And the question uppermost in your mind is usually, “When will my baby sleep through the night?”

To help your baby fall asleep, note how long she stays awake. An overtired baby will fight sleep. Your newborn can cope with being awake for around 45-60 minutes between sleeps, which only gives you enough time for a feed and a nappy change. So keep an eye on the clock, and help her to go back to sleep when her time draws to a close.

As your baby gets older, her ability to be awake happily will increase, and this will allow you to spend more time with her when she’s awake.

Watch for signals when your baby is tired

A tired baby is one of the most common causes of crying in the first 12 weeks. This can contribute to bad sleeping habits later on.

When your baby becomes too tired from being awake too long, or has been overly stimulated, she’ll display subtle warning signs to indicate that she’s reached a maximum stress level.

These signs may include:

  • Fisting her hands and ‘clawing’ her face
  • Splayed fingers across her face
  • Arching her back and neck
  • Showing a need for sucking
  • Increased irritability and crying

These signs indicate that you should modify your environment to give your baby a better opportunity to fall asleep more easily.

You can do this by taking her away from all stimulation, and encouraging her to suck (you can give her a feed, dummy or your finger), wrap her firmly in a warm swaddling blanket and hold her close to you. Rock her in a gentle, soothing manner.

Don’t worry about creating bad habits or spoiling your baby at this time. She needs you to help her to sleep, and sleep training is inappropriate for a newborn.

Usually within the first six weeks, babies will wake frequently at night for feeds, especially those who are breastfed. This gradually reduces, and within a few weeks (usually around six to seven weeks), your newborn should drop a feed and start sleeping for five or more hours at night. Don’t be tempted to wake your baby up to feed her at a specific time, in the hope that it will do away with a later feed, because it won’t work.

If your baby is gaining weight and is healthy, let her wake you at night. This way, you’ll find that within a few weeks, she should be waking for two to four-hourly feeds during the day, and sleeping at least one longer stretch at night, for example, sleeping from 6pm-12am, and waking every three to four hours for a feed.

Keep in mind that these sleepless nights are short-lived. Cherish and enjoy your little one while she’s awake, and grab every minute of sleep you can!

Tips and tricks

  • It’s common for a full-term, healthy baby to be sleepy in the early days, but if your baby isn’t waking for feeds during the day or night, you may want to have her checked for jaundice or low blood sugar (especially in the first few weeks).
  • At feeding time, wake her from sleep by changing her nappy. Then loosen her clothing and blankets to keep her cool and more comfortable. You can also blow gently in her face, and stroke her cheek or feet with a damp piece of cotton wool, to keep her sucking well.

Checklist

  • Ensure that your baby has a clean bill of health – infections, reflux and digestive disorders can prevent your baby from sleeping well.
  • Don’t wake your baby for feeds at night. Rather take her lead for waking, as this will allow her to establish natural sleep cycles.
  • Don’t smile or talk to your baby at night – keep these happy interactions for daylight hours.
  • Feed in semi-darkness – use a dimmer or a passage light instead of the bright bedroom light.
  • Don’t change your baby’s nappy unnecessarily at night, and buy the best nappies you can afford.
  • In the first six weeks, feed your baby when she wakes at night if more than two-and-a-half hours have passed since the last feed.

*Originally published in July 2012

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