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Understanding Newborn Sleep

Jennifer Kelly Geddes
June 26, 2015

New babies need their rest. So do you! Understand newborn sleep patterns and soon both of you will be sleeping soundly.

As a new parent, you may wish for the kind of blissful slumber your baby seems to enjoy, but in reality, newborn sleep is pretty erratic. Newborn sleep may range from a few minutes here and there to a couple of hours throughout the day and night. "Sleep changes dramatically across the first few months, moving from no pattern during the early weeks to more predictability around the 3-month mark," explains Dr. Jodi Mindell, a pediatric sleep expert and author of Sleeping Through The Night.

Also, because an infant isn't able to distinguish the difference between day and night, you may notice that she's often snoozing during daylight hours and then awake and crying when the rest of the household is in bed.

How Long Newborns Sleep
"Newborns sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day, and even more if your baby is brand new," says Kim West, a licensed clinical social worker and author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight.

Here's how sleep progresses: From birth to 2 months, most babies sleep about 1 1/2 to 2 hours at a stretch, and then that increases to about 2 1/2 to 4 hours. Sometime between 4 1/2 and 6 months of age, most babies will begin to sleep about 5 or 6 or even up to 8 hours at the beginning of the night. Their awake times start to lengthen, too which of course means longer sleep times.

How Development Affects Sleep
"In the first few months, babies sleep the majority of the time because rest is an integral part of their development," Mindell points out. Your baby is growing while she sleeps, so allowing her to get enough rest is important. Watch for sleep cues, such as eye rubbing, yawning and crying. "Oddly enough, an overly tired, fussy baby will have a harder time falling and staying asleep than one who's getting the sleep she needs," says West.

In addition, when your baby is new, she has to eat every couple of hours, especially if she's breastfed. "Formula-fed babies eat a little less often, usually every three to four hours," says West. If you find your baby is sleeping longer than this during the day, wake her up to nurse or have a bottle. At night, it's okay to let her sleep, although most parents will find that their babies will wake to eat at least once during the first 4 1/2 to 6 months.

And read How to Wake a Sleepy Baby for Feeding.

How You and Your Newborn Can Cope
Sleep experts advise parents to encourage a healthy newborn sleep pattern to help your baby get used to a regular sleep pattern. A solid bedtime routine which can include a bath, a book, a little rocking and a song is a good start.

You can use parts of this same routine for naps. During the day, head outside regularly with your baby to expose him to daylight. At night and nap time, consider using blackout shades and a white noise machine to make your baby's room as conducive to sleep as possible.

For parents, well, you probably won't be getting the solid nighttime sleep you might be used to. Take turns with your partner getting up at night to feed and soothe your newborn, or have a "one night on, one night off" system, if possible. In addition, you might have to let some things go such as your usual level of cleaning or cooking. "The first few months with a baby are all about survival, so try to divide and conquer," recommends Mindell.

Accept offers for help from friends and family. Even a little help during day with dishes, laundry or a meal can make a big difference and will allow you to get the sleep you need, too.

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She's a frequent contributor to Care.com and the mom of two teen girls.

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