Looking for some newborn baby sleep advice? Searching for some reassurance in the middle of the night? It’s completely normal to wonder if you’re doing something wrong, I know I did! But lean into your instincts and trust that you know your baby better than anyone else.
Read on for some advice, a touch of clarity and a virtual hug from me. Rosy Whitwell, experienced infant sleep consultant, health visitor and mum of 3.
Am I Spoiling My Baby?
NO! You absolutely can’t spoil your baby I promise.
I’m starting here because this is SO IMPORTANT! In the early days looking after your newborn you’ll probably receive a lot of advice from well meaning friends and family. And you may well hear that if you keep picking up your baby every time they cry, you’ll spoil them. That you’re “making a rod for your own back”. I can’t tell you how much I hate this phrase! So I just want to reassure you that this absolutely isn’t true. You can’t spoil your baby.
Your newborn baby will usually need your help to get to sleep. This will include lying on you, feeding to sleep, singing, rocking etc. And this is exactly what they need. You don’t need to encourage independent sleep, it’s far too early for that. And you and your baby will likely feel very stressed trying to encourage something they’re not biologically ready for.
And don’t worry if they take a while to calm down, even when you’re holding them. It’s completely normal. You’ve fed them, changed them and they’re still crying. Just being there for them to help them cope is what your baby needs. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. I so remember feeling helpless with my first baby when she would cry seemingly for hours, often in the evening. I wish I had known it would just gradually get easier and it wasn’t my fault.
But if they have a temperature, aren’t taking feeds or just don’t seem like themselves, call your GP surgery or 111 if out of hours, for advice. Always trust your instincts on this because you really do know your baby best.
Offers of Help
Being sleep deprived goes hand in hand with being a parent of a newborn baby. People will joke and tell you how awful the lack of sleep is, often before your baby has even arrived! Just try and brush comments like this aside. Instead surround yourself with positive friends and family who want to boost your confidence as a new parent.
You will hopefully get offers of help in the early days so you can have a rest. Take them up on this! But if at all possible make sure you and your partner are doing the majority of the baby care. This will help you get to know their unique cues for comfort, milk etc. Your smell and touch is what your baby needs to feel safe and secure. This applies equally to formula or breast fed babies.
Sometimes the tendency can be for other people to offer to give your baby a bottle of expressed breast milk or formula because it frees you up to do other things. Which of course is great because it does. But during those early weeks, it’s so important for you to have those cuddles whilst you’re feeding, eye contact, your warmth, smell and just generally being close to your baby. You’ll quickly get to know their needs and how to respond which in turn will help your confidence grow.
Instead ask friends and family to help with the washing up, cooking healthy meals, housework and so on. Of course it’s ok to let them enjoy newborn cuddles but you shouldn’t be the one rushing around doing the jobs whilst they sit down with the baby. Some families just get this without you having to say anything but it may be you or your partner might have to politely speak up!
Coping with Sleep Deprivation
Take a Nap!
This is a piece of advice that I give out a lot as an infant sleep expert! And as a health visitor I always used to recommend this to new parents. Taking a daytime nap can help perceived energy levels and reduce muscle fatigue. Apparently Usain Bolt used to take a nap before winning Olympic gold and breaking world records (Walker 2017, p128). You might not be up to a 100m sprint but you might be able to get through the rest of the day!
When you’re sleep deprived it may be that a nap is more restorative than usual, helping you to regulate stress. And even if you find it hard to fall asleep, just resting is also good. Try after lunch as we naturally experience a dip in alertness then. Lab studies have found that subjects awakened after their first stage of sleep hadn’t even realised that they’d been asleep!
Just keep your nap short and early enough in the day so it doesn’t affect your ability to fall asleep later. 20-30 mins long is about right.
Try not to drink too much caffeinated coffee/tea after lunch as caffeine can affect your ability to fall asleep many hours later. Plus too much caffeine may affect your baby if you are breastfeeding which you definitely don’t want!
Also try and get some fresh air and natural daylight every day as this can help restore energy and keep your own sleep-wake cycle on track.
What’s Normal Newborn Sleep?
Your baby isn’t born with a circadian rhythm. Night and day are just the same to them! During the first few weeks your baby’s sleep will be very disorganised and they’ll be awake as much during the night as the day. Newborn babies can sleep for around 18 hours but only for a few hours at a time. They wake frequently to be fed as their stomachs are so small to start with, around the size of a small marble.
And the aim really isn’t to get them sleeping for long stretches as soon as possible (although you may be forgiven for thinking it is from all the advice and comments you’ll get!). Waking often may also be protective against sudden infant death syndrome.
But by around 3 months they’ll hopefully be sleeping more at night than during the day (although still waking for feeds overnight).
And there are definitely things you can do to help the development of their circadian rhythm. During the day keep them near you and surround them with the hustle and bustle of everyday noise and activity. This also fits with safe sleep recommendations that they don’t sleep alone for the first 6 months. As night time approaches, dim the lights and keep as quiet as possible. These environmental cues of light and activity during the day, dark and quiet at night, really help your baby to develop a circadian rhythm.
There’s definitely no right time to start a bedtime routine. It’s completely up to you. But after the first few weeks of being at home with and getting to know your baby you may want to start separating night from day a little. This can help you more than baby to start with, regaining a bit of control amongst the chaos! Keep it really simple to start with, a bath or wash then clean nappy and sleep suit before the evening feeds begin. You can start adding in extras such as a massage or looking at a board book together, whenever it feels right.
There is substantial evidence that a consistent bedtime routine even from as young as 3 months is related to easier transition to sleep, sleep duration and less night time waking (Fiese et al 2021).
Always put your baby on their back to sleep.
Be in the same room as your baby for every sleep, night and day, for at least the first 6 months.
Use a clean firm mattress protected by a waterproof cover (nests and pods have a soft base so are not recommended).
Try to keep the room temperature between 16-20 degrees. If the weather is warm, use less layers of clothing and bedding as appropriate. Try using a fan not pointed at baby and leave the window open if safe.
Keep baby in a smoke free environment.
Fall asleep on a sofa/armchair with your baby.
Don’t sleep in the same bed as your baby if: your baby was premature, you or your partner smoke, have had alcohol/taken drugs or you are extremely tired.
If you breastfeed and find bed sharing helps you all get more sleep, it can be done safely if you keep the following in mind:
The bed should be away from walls and furniture.
The bed’s surface should be firm.
Keep thick covers, duvet and pillows away from baby, who should have a clear sleep space.
Don’t leave baby alone on an adult bed.
Adoption of the C-position, infant’s head across from adult’s breast, adult’s legs and arm curled around the infant, infant on their back, away from the pillow (Blair 2020).
For all your safe sleep questions and information go to www.lullabytrust.org.uk
Blair P, Ball H, McKenna J, Feldman-Winter L, Marinelli K, Bartick M (2020). Breastfeeding Medicine 15 (1), 5-16.
Fiese B, Cai T, Sutter C and Bost K (2021). Sleep. 44 (8) pp1-27.
Walker M (2017). Why We Sleep. Allen Lane, London.