Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Baby Sleep

You thought you knew what being tired felt like…and then you had a baby. It’s safe to say you now understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture. To help shine a light on the mystery that is baby sleep, we spoke to certified sleep consultant and registered paediatric nurse Jessie Lee from Safe Sleep Company.

Read on for her fascinating insights into baby sleep, along with her top tips to help you maximise your chances of some decent shut-eye.

Day vs. Night

“When your baby is born, their circadian rhythm (internal biological clock) is very immature, and they are not yet producing their own sleep hormones to help regulate their body clock,” explains Jessie.

“They don’t start producing their own until closer to 6-8 weeks and this isn’t well established until closer to 4-6 months. This is why in the early months babies can struggle with day and night confusion.”

To help your baby learn the difference, Jessie recommends you expose them to lots of natural light throughout the daytime and make their sleep environment calm and dark throughout the night.

The typical newborn sleep cycle

You will notice that when bub is first born, they will be very sleepy. For some newborns this will wear off after a few days, while for others it may take a few weeks.

“Most newborns in weeks 0-3 will only spend about 45-60 minutes awake between naps including feed times, with this timeframe extending to roughly 90 minutes by 6 weeks,” explains Jessie. “It’s very normal for babies to feed and fall asleep again almost instantly, especially in the first weeks whilst they establish feeding.”

During these early weeks, naps will likely last anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. “To ensure your little one has enough wake time and full feeds during the day, I advise capping naps at 3 hours,” says Jessie.

“Your baby will feed on demand overnight, usually waking every 2-4 hours.” The time between night feeds may become a little longer when bub is around 6 weeks old, with one potential longer stretch of sleep lasting between 4-6 hours.

Tips for creating the optimal sleep environment

During the first few months, newborns tend to sleep better in an environment that replicates the womb. “Using white noise and a swaddle can help settle your newborn, and I encourage naps in a dark space (when possible) to limit distractions and create a calm environment,” advises Jessie.

“During the first few months it is really normal for babies to want to be held for naps and they can often require a lot of motion for settling; bouncing and swaying are particularly soothing for babies.”

While a dark sleep environment is optimal, it’s not always do-able — particularly when you have errands to run or will be out and about. Don’t stress though; it turns out a nap or two while you’re on-the-go is perfectly fine. “I encourage utilising naps on-the-go at least once a day in either a carrier or stroller to get you out of the house, and you can slowly build up naps in the bassinet,” says Jessie.

Baby or pterodactyl?

Does your baby make so much noise when they’re asleep that you’ve begun to wonder if you gave birth to a pint-sized dinosaur? You’re not alone. Turns out all that noise is completely normal.

“Newborns spend 50% of sleep in ‘active sleep’ during which they can make noises, have their eyes open, move A LOT and even cry out a little at times,” explains Jessie.

“They may take 25-30 minutes to get into a deeper sleep. Due to this, it’s normal to have to hold your baby a little longer before transferring to the bassinet, or to spend more time settling them in their bassinet to support them through active sleep.”

If you are settling your baby to sleep in your arms, Jessie recommends waiting 20-25 minutes (or until they feel heavier and calmer in your arms) before transferring them to their bassinet to ensure they are moving into a deeper sleep state.

Help! My newborn will only sleep on me.

If your baby refuses to sleep in their bassinet or cot, please know you are not alone — and that this phase won’t last forever. “Your scent and warmth are comforting to your little one, which is why they tend to settle relatively well in your arms,” explains Jessie.

If contact naps are becoming difficult or unsustainable for you, it can help to start working on one nap at a time in the bassinet. “I suggest starting with the first nap of the day as this tends to consolidate first and your baby is less likely to be overtired or unsettled,” says Jessie.

“I recommend optimising the environment with white noise and darkness, then placing your baby in a swaddle such as the Ergopouch or using a muslin blanket. Have a nice calming wind-down for 15 minutes before naps, then place your baby calm but awake into the bassinet.”

Baby still not settling? Try rolling them on their side until they drift off. “You can roll baby onto their side and shush/pat until they are asleep, then gently roll them back onto their back for sleep,” suggests Jessie.

“Newborns tend to settle very well on their sides, but try not to be discouraged if they startle awake…remain calm and keep patting/shushing and they should go back off. Also, don’t be alarmed if they only take a short nap the first time, either try and resettle for a short while in the bassinet or your arms or simply try again on the next nap.”

Will my baby EVER sleep through the night?

While it might feel like you’ll never have a decent night’s sleep ever again, rest assured baby will sleep through the night eventually.

“The age in which babies sleep through the night differs significantly between families,” says Jessie, “however the majority of babies will tend to still wake for one late feed overnight until they are established on solids between 6-8 months.”

I’ve tried everything and baby still won’t sleep. Help!

If a baby is still crying at nap time and struggling to settle there could be several reasons why. “One of the main causes can be if they are under (or overtired) at sleep time, and they may need an adjustment in schedule to increase (or decrease) sleep pressure to reduce crying and settling time,” says Jessie.

“Also, if the environment is not conducive to good sleep or bub hasn’t had a chance to wind down before their nap they may struggle to settle. I suggest winding down for 10-15 minutes prior to sleep to calm your baby’s nervous system and prepare for sleep.”

The ideal sleep schedule for a six week-old baby

For a baby of 6 weeks, Jessie recommends awake times of no more than 90 minutes between naps throughout the day, including feed and changing time. “A strict routine may still be harder to achieve at this age, so following wake windows is appropriate and using a routine as more of a guide can be really helpful,” says Jessie.

“Most baby’s around 6 weeks will have 3-5 naps throughout the day, depending on their duration, with a total of about 4.5-5.5 hours of sleep during the day. Evening cluster feeding is very common around this age, and some parents may find their baby doesn’t settle until later in the evening.”

A six week-old baby taking 3 naps a day may be on a schedule roughly like the one below:

  • Awake: 90 minutes (feed/change/play)
  • Nap: 1 - 1.5 hours
  • Awake: 90 minutes (feed/change/play)
  • Nap: 2.5 hours
  • Awake: 90 minutes (feed/change/play)
  • Nap: 1 - 1.5 hours
  • Awake: 60-75 minutes (feed/change/play)
  • Bedtime

The ideal sleep schedule for a four month-old baby

From around three months most babies can tolerate being awake for around 1 hour and 45 minutes awake between naps, with this awake window increasing to about two hours by four months.

“Daytime sleep will now reduce to a total of around 4-4.5 hours across 3-4 naps, with nights around 11-12 hours on average,” says Jessie. “As wake time increases, the fourth nap tends to drop off which can help avoid bedtime from becoming too late.”

A sample schedule you could follow for your four-month-old is below:

  • 7am – Awake and feed
  • 9am – Nap
  • 10am – Awake
  • 10.30am – Feed
  • 11.30am – Optional top-up feed
  • 12pm - Nap
  • 2pm - Awake and feed
  • 4.30pm - Nap
  • 5pm – Awake and feed
  • 6pm – Feed
  • 6.30pm – Bed
  • 10/10.30pm – Optional dream feed

What’s the deal with the four month sleep regression?

You may have heard furtive whispers and warnings about the four month sleep regression. But what does it actually mean? And is there anything you can do to make it easier on bub (and yourself)?

“One of the major changes that occurs around four months is that your baby’s sleep cycles mature and replicate more of an adult style,” explains Jessie. “Your baby will go from two phases of sleep to five, and they will also start transitioning through light sleep into deep sleep, followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.”

This can feel very different for babies, and some little ones may have a hard time coping with this change. “These new lighter stages of sleep mean your baby now comes to a natural wake-up or slight rouse every 45-50 minutes during the day, and every 1-2 hours overnight,” explains Jessie.

Every time they transition back to this lighter stage of sleep, an opportunity to wake arises. “If your baby hasn’t yet managed to fall asleep or resettle themselves without intervention, they may cry out for help with this,” says Jessie.

Some babies will breeze through this period with minimal disruption, and others may start to experience shorter naps or more frequent night wakings. “If the latter is occurring, try to focus on age-appropriate awake times of around 2 hours, offer regular naps during the day, optimise your sleep environment and try to gradually work on independent settling,” suggests Jessie.

“If your little one is waking every two hours overnight, I also suggest trying to avoid feeding at every wake-up to prevent bub from reverse cycling (feeding more overnight than in the day).”

Are dummies the devil?

Not at all, but using one does come with some caveats. “Dummies are an amazing tool to help with settling as sucking is very soothing for babies, especially during the newborn phase (0-3 months),” says Jessie.

From around 4-7 months you may begin to experience issues with waking when the dummy falls out, resulting in you having to replace it multiple times overnight (not fun!).

“If this is the case, I tend to suggest removing the dummy entirely, especially overnight to support them to resettle independently,” says Jessie.

When to seek help

If the word 'sleep' is basically a swear word in your household and you are experiencing issues with settling, early rising, nap refusals, short naps, nap transitions or frequent night wakes, it might be time to seek some expert guidance. 

“I would always advise seeking guidance and support to help you through,” says Jessie. “I also believe in implementing positive sleep foundations from the newborn phase to prevent the need for later sleep support.”

“Being educated on normal infant sleep behaviours and creating positive sleep foundations is a powerful tool to help parents adapt and adjust through parenthood and manage changes with sleep without causing major disruptions.”

Looking to speak with a sleep consultant? You can book a free chat with Jessie Lee from Safe Sleep Company by visiting safesleepcompany.com.

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