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.
It’s completely normal for your newborn to have an unpredictable sleep pattern. Her 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 16 plus hours of sleep in a 24-hour period with short bouts of wakefulness lasting only 45-90 minutes during their first 3 months. Your newborn’s need to sleep is driven by Homeostatic (or sleep) pressure, whereby her periods of wakefulness build a pressure that can only be alleviated by sleep.
But fear not! At approximately 7 weeks of age, around the time your baby begins social smiling, her sleep pattern will begin to develop. Bedtime will naturally start to drift earlier, and sleep will begin to consolidate in the first third of night with a predictable stretch of 2-3 hours. By the time your baby is around 12 weeks old, she will likely be ready for a consistent bedtime each night and will sleep for longer stretches (typically 4-6 hours).
Have realistic expectations and be patient
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.
Use light and dark cues to foster the development of the circadian rhythm
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 her to sleep (even if she is awake, the lack of light filtering through her eyes will cue her body that it is time for sleep). 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.
Help your baby get developmentally appropriate daytime sleep
Overtiredness can hinder your baby’s ability to self soothe and regulate her little body throughout the night. Remember that sleep pressure (the need for sleep) builds up very quickly in newborns – allow her to succumb to sleep pressure. Do not try to make your baby stay awake for periods longer than she is comfortable during the day, as this can lead to overtiredness.
Create an optimal sleep environment – a cool, dark, quiet safe space
Give your baby every advantage to sleep well at night by providing the following:
Follow your baby’s lead, particularly in weeks 7-12
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 her to feed. Instead, let her body’s natural pattern emerge with reduced waking and feeding in the first part of the night (unless instructed otherwise by your pediatrician).
Also during this timeframe, let your baby practice initiating sleep at bedtime, so she can learn how to fall asleep independently. Regardless of location, track what time your baby falls asleep each night. When you start to see a consistent pattern emerge, practice laying her down in her sleep space at the noted time and let her practice falling sleep. She may need lots of support at first with shushing, tummy rubbing or picking up to soothe in your arms, but by gently asking your baby to try again each night, you are giving her the opportunity to learn the skill of independent sleep initiation.
Make sure your baby is eating most of her calories during the day
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 help your baby wake to eat during the day by exposing her to natural light, opening up the neck of her pajamas or rubbing the bottom of her feet.
Moon, Rachel Y. “How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained.” Healthy Children.org. Date accessed 19 Dec. 2015.