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How a Newborn Sleeps and How You Can Help

May 19, 2015

The phrase “sleep like a baby” is a punchline to the parents of newborns. When my first baby came along, “sleep like a baby” felt like a cruel joke. Her sleep was anything but sweet and peaceful, she didn’t gently nod off on her own, and almost anything seemed to wake her. Getting her to sleep was a battle. But what I was really battling was my own misunderstanding of how newborns sleep. The rules are different with newborns. Having realistic and fluid expectations of newborn sleep will go a long way in helping you feel calm and confident about the situation, although still pretty exhausted.

Here are some general characteristics of newborn sleep:

  • Newborns sleep a lot, but not for long. The total average is 16.5 hours of sleep per day. But the normal range is anywhere from 12-19 hours. At a time, the normal range is 30 minutes to 4 hour bouts of sleep at a time. Believe it or not, two hours for a newborn is considered a long stretch. And “sleeping through the night” for a baby is 4-5 hours. So rather than be exasperated when she wakes up again, plan on it.
  • Newborns sleep at all times, divided pretty evenly between night and day. Newborns haven’t started drumming to the circadian rhythm of night and day yet, and won’t even be developmentally able to until 2-4 months.

  • Newborns sleep backwards. The adult brain ends a sleep cycle with REM sleep which is both light (wakes easily) and active (dreaming). Newborns begin their sleep cycle in this light state. It usually lasts at least 25 minutes or longer and then they move into deep sleep for the remainder of their short sleep cycles.
  • Newborns are light sleepers. Babies spend twice as much time in the light, active stage of sleep compared to adults, and newborns spend most of their sleep in this state. One study suggests that they spend as much as 75% of their sleep in this light, active state. (Poblano et al 2007; Sadeh et al 1996)
  • Newborn sleep is not peaceful. They are noisy (sigh, grunt, gurgle, breath fast, breath slow) and move around a lot (dramatic jerks and twitches). Newborns haven’t fully developed the neurological barrier that prevents arms and legs from acting out dreams (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/variations/changes-in-sleep-with-age).
  • Newborns are social sleepers. But with good reason. Because their brains aren’t fully mature, they don’t regulate their biological functions smoothly yet. All kinds of new research is showing how parents fill this gap with just their presence. Your body helps regulate hers, just by being near. Newborns sleep better when held because their whole bodies function better: breathing, body temperature, stress hormones, calorie absorption, and immune function.

Now that you know what to generally expect, keep in mind two important factors when applying it to your newborn:

Age:

Don’t forget that due date quite yet! There is a huge difference in a brand new baby born at 37 weeks and one born at 42, about 5 weeks of brain development difference! Sleep is controlled by the brain and the brain develops like clockwork. Remember that if your baby was early term, her newborn phase will likely last a few weeks longer.

Individuality:

Your baby’s cocktail of genes is totally unique, as are her personality and temperament. Ranging from easy-going, sensitive to intense, understanding and respecting your baby’s temperament can help you understand her reactions to what’s happening around and inside her and help her cope.  Always remember your baby has her own normal.

For example, if your baby was born late, she might only need 12 hours of sleep. Trying to get her to sleep longer than that is frustrating and pointless (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience!).

So how do you help your baby sleep during this newborn stage?

  1. Know when your baby is ready. This might take some time to figure out initially, but sometime during your baby’s wakeful state, she will shift from a “quiet alert” where she’s calmly interacting with her environment, to being done. With my babies, I could always see it in their eyes. They wouldn’t make eye contact with me or they’d just look away and stare. That was my cue to get them to bed ASAP. Other “I’m done!” signs include twisting and squirming, movements becoming more jerky, or hands on faces or ears. Catching their first cues and acting on them can keep them from resorting to fussing and crying, although some babies go from “quiet alert” to “I’m done!” with lightning speed.
  1. Even when ready to sleep, newborns often need a little help to get to sleep. Some even need help to stay asleep, especially during that light, active stage. Here are some things to try:
  • Keep baby close. We all sleep better when we are more comfortable, and newborns are biologically more comfortable when close to a parent. During the day, holding or even wearing your baby in a sling is another way to do this. At night, keep a bassinet in your room, because even just being in the same room helps so much that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends room-sharing with infants until six months of age.
  • Learn to swaddle. Keeping baby from waking herself up with her twitches and jerks, especially at the beginning when she’s in that light active sleep, is key.
  • Learn the “baby bounce.” Many cultures have some version of rhythmically coaxing their babies into sleep. Scandinavian parents very firmly pat their baby’s bums until the baby is in a deep slumber. On your knee or in your arms, that rhythmic bounce seems to simulate the rhythmic movements and sound of the very noisy womb. Swings also work for some newborns.
  • Provide a soothing environment. This is highly personal for your baby, but includes temperature, sights, and sounds. White noise is extremely effective for a lot of babies. One of my babies wouldn’t sleep if there was anything to look at. Other babies are extremely sensitive to clothing, temperature, or being wet while others don’t notice.
  • Let them suck. You’ll find various opinions on letting your baby soothe to sleep with a pacifier, bottle, or breast in her mouth. The fact is sucking is incredibly soothing and even pain-reducing for a baby. And it works. And my mantra for the newborn stage is: Do What Works.
  1. Know Your Baby

What works for some moms is a disaster for others. If constantly holding your baby works, go for it. But, don’t feel like you have to keep your baby right next to you at all times if your baby’s very loud sleeping noises keep you anxious and on edge all night. Your doctor knows all about babies in general, but you know your baby individually. Parenting experts aren’t experts on your baby. So listen to the advice, but listen to your baby more.

Remember that the newborn stage is unique and comparatively short. Every day your newborn is growing so much. And every day your knowledge of your baby and your soothing skills grow, too. At the end of this stage, you’ll be just as amazed at the growth of your baby as you are at the development of your savvy soothing skills.

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