Advice on coping with your newborn baby's sleep routines, with useful information on overcoming common problems and dealing with a lack of sleep.
One of the most difficult things about becoming a new parent is coping with the lack of sleep that caring for a new baby brings. It is said that new parents are the most sleep deprived individuals in society and it's easy to see why. Although newborn babies spend approximately 17 hours a day sleeping, this only tends to be in very short bursts and, regardless of how you slept before becoming a parent, being woken every couple of hours is a huge shock to the system.
You may find that your baby is only able to stay awake for around an hour before becoming fussy and displaying signs of tiredness - this is completely normal. It is thought that newborn's have such a short sleep-wake cycle because their nervous system is not yet fully developed and, if you believe that we consolidate information whilst we are asleep, it's easy to see why young babies who are learning so much every moment they are awake, are unable to stay in or out of the land of nod for very long.
As your baby grows she will begin to remain both awake and asleep for longer periods of time as her body clock becomes attune with circadian rhythm - the internal mechanism that signals adults to stay awake in the day and to sleep at night.
As you begin to bond with your baby, you may notice that she displays certain behaviours when she is becoming tired and ready for a nap - whether this is rubbing her eyes, getting fussy or fidgety, once you notice these signs, they will help you put her down for a nap when she is ready which will not only help her settle more easily but will also prevent her from becoming overtired and upset.
Many believe that if you begin to establish a regular nap and bedtime routine for your baby early on, this will help her to settle more easily and wake less in the night. This doesn't imply that you need to regulate your baby's sleep in a regimented fashion. Instead, by using a series of cues and behaviours you can begin to teach your little one the difference between night and day, time for sleep and time for play.
To introduce your baby to the concept of circadian rhythm, you should clearly differentiate between night and day. Here's how;
- During the day time give your baby lots of attention, take her for walks, play with her and introduce her to lots of new sights and sounds. When you put her down for naps try not to make the house too quiet or dark; this will help her to learn that daylight means a time for playing, learning and being awake.
- When she wakes during the night you should try to keep stimulation to a minimum. Keep a nightlight on so that you can avoid turning on additional light and try to feed your baby without too much 'play' interaction. This will help your baby to learn that night is a quiet time meant for sleep.
- You can encourage this adaptation process by establishing a 'bath then bed' routine which will help to signal to your baby the end of 'day' and the start of 'night'. It may take a while but over time your baby will learn the difference and may begin to settle easier and remain asleep for longer periods during the night.
If your baby finds it particularly difficult to settle herself there are several different approaches you can try to help her learn this skill. These include avoiding soothing or feeding your baby to sleep and instead, comforting her until she is drowsy and then gently place her in her cot; a baby sleeping bag can make this easier as it causes less disturbance. This will help your baby learn to fall asleep on her own and may make her more able to settle herself when she wakes during the night.
Try to avoid rocking, walking or driving your baby to sleep - she will begin to depend on these movements as cues for sleep and may find it difficult to fall asleep without them. Keep an eye on your baby's temperature, not only will she be uncomfortable if she is too hot or too cold, but keeping her at a regular temperature will help to reduce the risk of SIDS. Touch your baby's tummy to feel her true temperature as her hands and feet can often feel colder than the rest of her.
All of these methods can take a little getting used to and it can be difficult to get your baby to learn good sleep habits when all you want her to do is get her to sleep anyway you can. With a little perseverance your baby will begin to sleep for longer in the night.
In the meantime, here are our tips for coping with your baby's erratic sleep patterns;
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. Friends and relatives will be happy to play with your new baby' make the most of their visits by taking a quick cat nap to recharge your batteries - they really won't mind and you'll feel all the better for it.
- Resist the pressure to fulfill your role as a domestic goddess by leaving the ironing and taking the chance to nap when your baby does. Adjusting to parenthood is a big step whether it's your first or fifth baby and taking a quick nap with your baby will help you to enjoy the time you spend awake together.
- Try to share nighttime waking with your partner; this will not only help you to grab an extra 40 winks, but will also help to avoid 'you get more sleep than me' arguments. While this can be more difficult if you are breastfeeding, you could get up when your baby needs a feed, and it could be your partners turn when she wakes and needs comforting.
- Try to eat healthily and take a little exercise each day, even if it's just going for a short walk. This will help your body to cope with the lack of sleep.
However, if at any time you feel that you are not coping well, you should always ask for help. Chat to your health visitor or GP and they will be more than willing to offer you useful advice.