RD, LDN, CBS
Certified in Maternal and Infant Nutrition from Cornell, Angela’s mission is to help people reach their wellness goals. She also helps run a program that teaches pregnant women about how a healthy lifestyle optimizes prenatal and postnatal care.
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It’s completely normal for your newborn’s sleep pattern to be unpredictable. Their circadian rhythm (the natural biological internal body clock) is not yet developed and likely won’t mature until around 4 months of age. Until then, newborns average 14-17 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period with short bouts of wakefulness lasting only 45-90 minutes during their first 3 months.1 Your newborn’s need to sleep is driven by homeostatic (or sleep) pressure, where periods of wakefulness build a pressure that can only be alleviated by sleep.2
But fear not! At approximately 7 weeks of age, around the time your baby begins social smiling, their sleep pattern will begin to develop. Your baby’s bedtime will naturally start to drift earlier and sleep will begin to consolidate in the first third of the night with a predictable stretch of 2-3 hours. By the time your baby is around 12 weeks old, they will likely be ready for a consistent bedtime each night and will sleep for longer stretches (typically 4-6 hours).3
Read more: Sleep Patterns: What’s typical for a newborn?
While it may be both frustrating and exhausting, it is completely normal for your newborn’s sleep pattern to be unpredictable. Be patient while your new baby’s biological clock develops and begins to regulate, and in the meantime, make sure you’re getting adequate sleep and naps so you’re better equipped to handle your baby’s night owl tendencies.
Light has a very strong impact on the development of circadian patterns. Keep your baby’s sleeping environment dark during the times when you want them to sleep (even if baby is awake, the lack of light filtering through their eyes will cue their body that it is time for sleep). Keep lights dim or off during middle-of-the-night feedings. Conversely, expose your baby to daytime natural light during periods of wakefulness – go on walks outdoors or sit near windows. Light exposure each day, over time, will cue your baby to be awake.3
Over-tiredness can hinder your baby’s ability to self soothe and regulate their little body throughout the night. Remember that sleep pressure (the need for sleep) builds up very quickly in newborns – allow your baby to succumb to sleep pressure. Do not try to make your baby stay awake for periods longer than they’re comfortable during the day, as this can lead to over-tiredness.
Give your baby every advantage to sleep well at night by providing the following:
A cool sleeping space – A cool room tends to make for the best sleep, as the body’s temperature naturally falls during sleep. Overheating a baby can disrupt the sleep process, so if you swaddle your baby, do not over-bundle to avoid overheating.4
A dark sleeping space – The room should be dark enough that you are unable to read. Avoid using cell phones, TV’s or computers throughout the night in your baby’s space, as these devices all have LED lights (pure blue hued lights) that negatively impact the circadian rhythm.5
A quiet sleeping space – Offer a white noise source to block out extraneous sounds, but remember your baby’s sleep environment should remain consistent throughout the night. If the white noise is present at bedtime, it should remain on all night. Avoid playing music that changes in pitch or tone, such as thunderstorms or ocean waves.
A safe sleeping space – Place your baby on their back on a firm mattress (such as in a newborn bassinet, bedside co-sleeper, or other approved infant bed) free of any loose bedding or clothing. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against newborns and infants sleeping on their sides or stomach, as this presents an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.6
If baby is younger than 8 weeks, (or more importantly, has not yet started to roll) you can swaddle your baby to encourage sleep and calm. Just remember not to swaddle too tightly (to avoid overheating) and keep an eye out that baby doesn’t roll over. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room sharing, but not bed sharing, for newborns.6
For more information: Setting up a safe sleep environment
Watch your baby closely during weeks 7-12 to see new sleep patterns emerge. When your baby’s sleep begins to consolidate in the beginning third of the night, avoid waking to feed. Instead, let baby’s natural pattern emerge with reduced waking and feeding in the first part of the night (unless instructed otherwise by your pediatrician).
Read more: Sleep Patterns for a Baby Ages 4-12 Months.
You can also let your baby practice initiating sleep at bedtime so they can learn how to fall asleep independently. Track what time your baby falls asleep each night and when you start to see a consistent pattern emerge, lay them down in their sleep space at the noted time and let them practice falling asleep on their own.
They may need lots of support at first with shushing, tummy rubbing or picking up to soothe in your arms, but by having your baby try again each night, you are giving them the opportunity to learn the skill of independent sleep initiation.7
Read more about establishing a bedtime routine here.
If your baby is sleeping longer stretches during the day without waking to eat, but sleeping shorter periods at night with the need for lots of calories, your baby may be experiencing some day/night confusion. Encourage daytime feeding sessions, and stimulate your baby wake to eat during the day with exposure to natural light, undressing your baby, or rubbing the bottom of their feet.
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.
Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitians certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday – Friday 8am-8pm (EST), and Saturday – Sunday 8am-4pm (EST). Chat Now!
For more on this topic, check out the following articles:
Setting Up a Safe Sleep Environment
Sleep Patterns: What’s Typical for a Newborn?
Establishing a Bedtime Routine for Your Child
How to Help Your Baby Sleep Well at Night
Sleep Patterns for a Baby Ages 4-12 Months