By Jessica M. Brodey, IMI Baby Planner, Maternity & Child Sleep Consultant Graduate, Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Happiest Baby Educator, Owner Eat-Sleep-Love, Newborn and Child Consulting Services and USA – East Director of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants
The first six months of parenting a new baby are exciting. It is also a time of change as a new family dynamic emerges. Sleep (or the lack thereof) is a critical factor for parents.
Sleep is a Learned Skill
While newborns instinctively know how to sleep, falling and staying asleep are learned skills that develop over time. Sleeping is part neurological; over the course of infancy, brains change and develop. Sleep organizes in a specific pattern: first night sleep, then the morning nap, and then finally the afternoon nap. By the time a newborn is four months old, his/her pattern of sleep cycles is largely the same as an adult’s. Sleeping is also behavioral, including the ability to self-soothe. It is our responsibility to teach children the behavioral components to sleep as they become neurologically ready to master those tasks. Every child should learn to put him/herself to sleep without a “sleep crutch” – a negative sleep association requiring something to be done to or for them to fall asleep. Luckily, this is not a skill we expect our children to master overnight.
TIP#1: The first step to developing good sleep habits is a sleep plan.
Before baby arrives, couples should ask themselves: Do we want our baby sleeping in our room, sharing our bed, in a crib next to the bed, or sleeping in is/her own room? How long do we want to room or bed share? What is our timeline for achieving our goals? Any option can work for a family, but couples that become reactive (unintentional) co-sleepers may grow to resent baby’s presence in the bed.
The Fourth Trimester
Newborns can sleep up to 20 hours a day! It is a myth that formula-fed babies sleep better than breastfed babies, and rice cereal does not increase the length or quality of sleep. Newborns will wake to eat every 2-3 hours, and this is normal.
The first night or two of life, newborns tend to wake just to feed and easily fall back to sleep. The third and/or fourth nights can be a different story, which often coincides with coming home from the hospital. Try not to worry…it is likely just a short-lived case of the baby fussies. As parents and baby get to know each other better and baby’s natural clock resets, nighttime should become easier again. Dr. Harvey Karp, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at USC School of Medicine, considers the first three months of newborn life the “fourth trimester.” This is the time babies need to transition from life in the womb where every need is met to life outside the womb where they need to develop a new set of skills.
Tip #2: Practice Dr. Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s to help soothe your baby when upset: swaddling, stomach/side hold, shushing, swinging, and sucking.
Ultimately, the notion of the fourth trimester boils down to one simple fact…you cannot spoil a newborn! Those first weeks and months are about responding to a newborn’s needs and making them feel loved and secure.
Building Healthy Sleep Habits
The key to helping new babies sleep is to be mindful of their sleep requirements. An over-tired baby is cranky and harder to soothe. Consistency matters; work on developing flexible but predictable routines around eat and sleep. Around 4 weeks, babies suddenly become more alert by day, and this is the critical time to focus on napping. According to Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, newborns should not be awake longer than 60-90 minutes at a time.
Tip #3: Be mindful of baby’s awake windows and put them back to sleep within 60-90 minutes after each waking all day.
Regular nap routines take time to emerge. Babies do not consolidate into three regular naps a day until they are 6-8 months old! The process of watching awake windows helps lay the foundation for excellent sleep habits. Initially, it does not matter where a newborn sleeps. Explore a variety of tools to help calm and soothe baby: a bouncy seat, using strange voices, a quiet song, a swing, or the car. Babywearing can be an invaluable tool, freeing hands while promoting closeness and bonding with baby.
Babies use crying to communicate, but not all crying indicates hunger. After the first 6 weeks, try other ways to soothe baby (the 5 S’s are a great place to start) before immediately feeding.
Tip #4: After 6 weeks of age, start to develop other ways to soothe your baby than just nursing or feeding.
By 6 weeks, start trying to put baby to sleep drowsy but awake at bedtime, without a bottle or breast in their mouth. Creating a calming and predictable bedtime routine helps baby recognize bed time. Initially, newborns prefer a later bedtime (around 10-11 pm), but by 4-5 months, bedtime should move earlier (8:00 – 8:30, and as early as 7:00 by 6 months of age).
Creating a Healthy Environment for Sleep
Most experts recommend that babies sleep in a clean, quiet, dark room that is temperature controlled (between 65-70 degrees). A baby’s crib should be free from hazards such as loose bedding and pillows, monitor wires, strings from window coverings, and toys/stuffed animals.
Tip # 5: To reduce the risk of SIDS, create a calm, dark, safe sleeping environment for babies, and remember, back sleeping is safest!
Babies should be put to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Babies do not sleep as deeply on their backs, but swaddling babies calms the startle reflex and helps promote good sleep habits. White noise (such as a ceiling fan or from a noise machine) can help drown out household noises and limit sleep disruptions. Parents may help baby differentiate between night and day by creating morning rituals, exposing baby to natural light, and keeping a quiet, dark environment at night.
Good sleep habits do not happen immediately, but they are slowly shaped and developed over time. You will sleep again!
Certified Lactation Counselor, Maternity & Child Sleep Consultant, Professional Baby Planner
Jessica Brodey is the Eastern Regional Director (USA) of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants, and the Founder/President of Eat-Sleep-Love. Jessica graduated from Emory University and the New York University School of Law, after which she worked as an intellectual property counselor and litigator for four years, and as an education, technology and disability law policy consultant for over ten years.
Since the birth of her first child, Jessica became interested in the relationship between healthy sleep habits and child development and has been actively involved in breastfeeding and parenting support groups, both in person and online. She began connecting with other parents as a “mommy blogger,” writing about her own parenting challenges and experiences with her children, such as her daughter’s gastro-esopheageal reflux disease related sleep struggles when she was five months old. The issues she faced caused her to seek out information about helping children develop and maintain good sleep habits. Ultimately, she decided to pursue advanced training in this area and has been working with clients ever since.
Jessica received her sleep training through Kim West’s Gentle Sleep Coach program and the International Maternity Institute’s Maternity and Child Sleep Consultant program. Jessica is also a Certified Lactation Counselor through the Healthy Children’s Center for Breastfeeding, a Happiest Baby Educator certified by Dr. Harvey Karp, has completed her coursework to become a Professional Baby Planner through the International Academy of Baby Planner Professionals, and is enrolled this Fall to study Greenproofing at the International Maternity Institute with Alexandra Zissou, author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy, and Mary Oscategui, author of Green Body, Green Birth. She currently resides in Bethesda, Maryland with her family.