Baby sleep explained: What it means to ‘sleep like a baby’
We all know that sleep is vital for our health and wellbeing – we feel pretty rubbish when we don’t get enough – but for babies it’s also particularly important for their growth. Unfortunately sleep deprivation is almost inevitable for new parents, despite the fact that newborns regularly sleep up to 18 hours a day! This is because every baby has a different sleep pattern and it’s unlikely it will fit in with yours for some time. The likelihood is that your newborn’s sleep will be erratic, unpredictable and leave you feeling utterly exhausted. But there are strategies that can help you cope, including easing into a routine from around two months. By understanding your baby’s sleep patterns, and with a bit of luck, by six months, you may persuade them to sleep soundly through the night – most of the time!
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Baby sleep patterns: What is ‘normal’?
You may think your baby never sleeps, but in reality, most newborns sleep up to 18 hours a day1, they just do it in two-to-four-hour bursts.
After the first few weeks, you will probably find that your baby is awake for longer periods and will sleep for longer too2. By around two months they will begin to transition into a more regular sleep pattern and may sleep more at night than they do during the day2. However, all babies are different. Some babies sleep through the night early on, while others take much, much, longer. The good news is that most will be able to sleep through the night by around six months.
The clues to your baby’s sleep pattern
Your baby goes through different states of consciousness throughout the day.
Baby sleep cycles
- Active sleep (also known as ‘rapid eye movement’ [REM] sleep): breathing is regular and your baby may twitch or startle at some noises
- Deep sleep (also known as ‘quiet sleep’ or non-REM sleep): your baby lies quietly without moving
- Drowsiness: your baby’s eyes start to close, and they begin to fall asleep
- Quiet alert: your baby’s eyes are open wide, their face is bright, and their body is quiet
- Active alert: their face and body move actively
- Crying: your baby cries and thrashes about
Being aware of these states can help you to learn about and respond to your baby’s individual sleep pattern2. For example, there is no point in putting them down to sleep when they are in ‘active alert’ – wait for them to show signs of drowsiness first.
A soothing environment
The right environment will help your baby sleep. They need to feel safe and comfortable. Studies show that your interaction with your baby, where they sleep and their feeds all affect their sleep pattern2.
In the early weeks and months, babies often wake up because they are hungry. Their tummies are only tiny, so they need topping up little and often. That’s why you are advised to breastfeed your baby ‘on demand’, day and night.
While your baby is still learning to regulate their body temperature, it’s important that they don’t get too hot or too cold. A rule of thumb is to dress your baby with one more layer than you would normally wear yourself for bed and then wrap them securely in a blanket, or place them in a baby sleeping bag with the correct tog rating for the room temperature.
Did you know your stress levels can affect your baby’s sleep? Try to stay calm and relaxed – it will relax them too1.
Consistency can help your baby sleep, so aim to put them in the same place for both daytime and nighttime sleeps, where practical2. Keeping them in the same room as you while they sleep is advised for the first six months. Read more about where your baby should sleep.
Safety and baby sleeping positions
For safety, babies should always be placed to sleep on their back with their feet at the bottom of the cot, until they are old enough to turn themselves over. They should not have a pillow until they are at least a year old, and cot bumpers are not recommended. You may also want to consider the pros and cons of swaddling, as some babies find it soothing.
Baby soothers and sleep monitors
Pressure-sensitive cot mats that detect movement; baby monitors that allow you to see your baby on your mobile phone for constant reassurance; cuddly sheep that emit pink light and play white noise: baby sleep tech is big business, but is it worth it?
The answer is personal preference. For some parents, high-tech baby monitors offer peace of mind, while they’re an added stress for others. The same goes for baby soothers: some babies will love a cutting-edge approach, while others will be comforted by the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a familiar-smelling muslin cloth. Whatever gets you through the night is alright!
You may feel like you’ll never get a good night’s sleep again, but be patient, there are simple steps you can take to encourage a good baby sleep routine and even the most persistent night owls will get there in the end.
- In the early days, accept that you will probably not get nearly enough sleep. Rest when you can, sleep when the baby sleeps and forget about the housework for now.
- Ask for help. As you’ll probably be doing all the night feeds, ask your partner to do more of the nappies, washing or baths. When your partner is at work, can a friend or relative step in to help with cooking and chores?
- Try to get out of the house every day. Fresh air is good for both you and your baby, and the activity may help them sleep.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed, make sure you talk to your health visitor as they will be able to give you practical advice and reassurance.
- Also talk to a health visitor if you feel your baby is particularly unsettled at night. They can check if your baby is suffering from other issues such as colic.
- Read our tips on establishing a positive sleep routine.
1. Tarullo AR et al. Sleep and infant learning. Infant Child Dev 2011;20(1):35-46.
2. Rosen L. Infant sleep and eating. JOGNN 2008;37:706-14.
Last reviewed: 9th December 2016
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