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Laying out the ideal newborn sleep routine

Zofishan Umair

Zofishan Umair

Zofishan is a journalist, humour columnist, and a mum who has survived nappy explosions mid-air. She has over a decade of experience writing for print and online publications and is currently working on her first book.
Created on Apr 02, 2024 · 8 mins read

“Sleep now!” seems a popular phrase, bestowed upon newbies. The advice, while well-intended, isn't doesn’t completely hit the mark. Nor does it prepare the parents-to-be for the realities of life with a newborn baby.

The foundations of a newborn's sleep routine


A newborn sleep schedule is a slight misnomer.

Fun fact: newborns aren’t able to adhere to any kind of schedule as they adjust to life outside of the womb as they’re in the process of regulating their circadian rhythm.

This is why Mothercraft nurse Chris Minogue recommends letting your baby sleep for as long as they need in the first few weeks. This allows them to have the energy they need to feed properly.

Understanding your newborn's needs is crucial


At this point, expecting newborn baby sleep schedules is a bit silly- and even unhealthy for the baby!

But this newborn phase is the best time to get to know your baby and their preference for feed, play, and sleep.

It may not seem so, but from the day they arrive, your newborn tries to communicate their needs to you.

They have cues for sleep, food, when they get scared, or when they’re annoyed with their soiled nappy. Understanding these cues and the significance of responsiveness is the foundation for establishing trust, and allows them to feel safe while setting you up for a successful baby sleep schedule.


How much sleep does your newborn need?


On average, newborn babies sleep for about 16 to 20 hours per day, but this sleep is often in short stretches, typically ranging from 2 to 4 hours at a time. They have smaller stomachs that need frequent feedings, which might lead to waking more often. This need for frequent feeds can make it difficult to devise anything resembling a sleep schedule since breastfeeding mums are recommended to nurse on demand to establish a good supply of breast milk.


Crafting the perfect sleep schedule


For many sleep-deprived parents, achieving a baby sleep schedule in the first few weeks after birth becomes a goal (even if it feels like a far-reaching one).

But newborns sleep differently, and instead of trying to adhere to a strict infant sleep schedule in those early weeks, parents need to focus on getting as much sleep as possible.

So, as trite as it sounds, the advice “sleep when the baby sleeps” is pretty good for those initial weeks.

Once you notice changes in your baby’s sleep patterns, you can start encouraging sleep schedules. A soothing bedtime routine, with a bath and a wind-up musical mobile as cues, can help your baby to know what is coming next and help them settle down for the night.

A baby bedtime routine also helps babies learn the difference between day and night by reinforcing their natural circadian rhythms.

According to Chris Minogue, “Once you get to around three weeks, you’ll notice the baby’s more alert. They move into a feed, alert, and then sleep cycle. At this point, we need to wrap them, cuddle them calmly, and quietly put them down in their bed.”

To help your baby fall asleep (and stay asleep longer), introduce a predictable bedtime routine that includes a bath, feed, baby massage, cuddle, singing, or reading a bedtime story – or some combination of them all.

Make sure to put your baby down for sleep at a consistent time. A framework you could follow is:

7:00 PM: Bath time

  • Begin with a warm and gentle bath. Use mild baby soap and shampoo.
  • Keep the lights dim to create a calm atmosphere.

7:15 PM: Massage and quiet time

  • Apply a small amount of baby lotion and massage your baby gently.
  • Dress your baby in comfortable night clothes such as a onesie.
  • Dim the lights further and engage in quiet activities like soft singing or talking in a soothing voice.

7:30 PM: Feeding time

  • Offer a final feeding before bedtime. Whether breast or bottle feeding, make sure your baby is comfortably full.

8:00 PM: Storytime or lullabies

  • Choose a short, simple bedtime story or sing soft lullabies to your baby.

8:15 PM: Swaddle and comfort

  • If your baby enjoys being swaddled, wrap them snugly in a light blanket.
  • Offer a dummy if your baby uses one.
  • Spend time cuddling and give them a goodnight kiss.

8:30 PM: Bedtime

  • Put your baby in the crib or bassinet while they are drowsy but still awake.
  • Keep the room dark or use a soft nightlight.
  • You can use a white noise machine or a gentle lullaby to create a calming environment.

8:31 PM

  • Go to sleep yourself! Okay, we’re mostly kidding here but hey – we’re also not discouraging it!

 

Changes in baby's sleep patterns with age


Newborns often sleep for shorter periods at night, waking up every 2-3 hours for feeding. They take frequent daytime naps, usually in short bursts lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.

  • At 3-6 months, many infants begin to establish more predictable sleep routines, and you may notice more extended periods of sleep at night.
  • The 3-4 months mark sees some babies start to sleep for longer stretches at night, typically around 4-6 hours as they start to need fewer night feeds.
  • On average, a 3-6 month-old baby may sleep about 14-16 hours in 24 hours. Some babies may take long naps while others may sleep through the night.
  • Between 6 and 9 months, many babies continue to refine their sleep patterns, and you may see more consistency in both nighttime sleep and daily naps during the day.

Teething and developmental milestones (like crawling, pulling up, and even growth spurts) can sometimes lead to disturbed nights and sleeping issues. If your baby is experiencing discomfort from teething or is mastering new skills, be patient and provide extra comfort during these periods. Also, breastfed babies tend to wake up more frequently for feeds than formula-fed babies.

Psst, a good breastfeeding routine and expressing milk so your partner can help tackle nighttime feeds is a great strategy to tackle your sleep needs!

Tips for a smooth newborn sleep strategy


Here are some tips for a newborn sleep schedule and strategies to help your baby fall asleep:

It gets better

Sleep schedule mantra? This too shall pass! Trust us, it may not feel like it at 3 am with a wailing newborn, but it does get better.

Yes, baby sleep is confusing! Newborns have unpredictable sleep habits, and it’s normal for them to wake frequently for feeding. During the first few weeks, focus on meeting your baby’s needs rather than trying to impose a strict schedule.

Create a calm sleep environment

You can help your baby to snooze by making their sleep environment conducive to rest. Keep the room dark, make sure there’s not too much excitement, maintain a comfortable temperature, and use white noise or soft music to create a soothing atmosphere.

Consistency is key

Develop a consistent bedtime routine to signal your baby that it’s time to sleep. This routine could include activities like a warm bath, gentle massage, reading a short story, or singing a lullaby.

Bedtime routines help your baby sleep better and for longer.

Similarly, encourage a consistent wake-up time in the morning to help regulate your baby’s internal clock. This can contribute to a more predictable daily schedule.

Learning to fall asleep

Putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake can help them learn to self-sleep independently which can set them (and you!) up for easier bedtimes in the future. This ability to self-settle can come in particularly handy during sleep regressions.

Establishing day and night awareness

Newborn babies do not have a well-established circadian rhythm, so their sleep-wake cycles may seem random. This can lead to them sleeping all day and partying all night in those early weeks (yep, both you and your new bestie will see many a sunrise together!).

You can help them differentiate between day and night by exposing them to natural light during the day and keeping the environment dark and quiet at bedtime hours. This can help regulate their circadian rhythm.

Recognising and responding to tired signs and cues

It’s not just about bedtime routines! Learn to recognise and respond to cues for hunger, sleep, and play. Tired cues may include pulling at ears, yawning, and even closing fits and fluttering eyes. Learn to spot your baby’s cues and use them to set a sleep schedule.

Introduce a designated sleep space

Create a designated sleep space, such as a crib or bassinet, where your baby associates sleep with that particular location. This can contribute to a better relationship with sleep (lucky duck).

Make gradual changes

As your baby grows, you can gradually change the sleep routine. Be patient and make adjustments based on your baby’s development and cues.

Wrapping it up


It can be frustrating and exhausting to get your newborn’s sleep under control but keep the faith! With these simple tips and a solid routine, you’ll get to the part where the two of you sleep through the night again. Remember, embrace sleep schedules with an open mind and be flexible. Every baby is unique and may require different approaches, so see what works for the two of you!


Sources

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/typical-sleep-behaviour-nb-0-3-months

https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=newborn-sleep-patterns-90-P02632

https://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(61)80164-9/abstract

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