For anyone who’s had more than one child, the term sleep habits feels more like an oxymoron than it does an attainable goal. Sure, certain babies settle right into a relatively routine sleep schedule within the first month or two of coming home from the hospital, but those are the anomaly. Most babies are growing, changing and responding to their environments so continuously that the process of establishing any type of routine is more like an evolutionary process than it is a Google-calendar-able plan.
That being said, there are things you can do to make sleep more inviting and successful as you and your newborn adjust to one another and your new lives together for the first few months. It’s very rare that a newborn sleeps for even six hours or more at a stretch until multiple weeks – or months – after birth. Knowing that’s the norm can help you re-think what a “good night’s sleep” really means for these next few months to a year. That grounded perspective helps you prepare from a more realistic foundation.
1. Understand what “sleeping through the night” actually means
There isn’t a single baby (or adult) on the planet that sleeps continuously through the night. We all go through sleep cycles, which include mini-wake ups where we adjust position, grunt or sigh, fuss or even babble in our sleep (see #6). Then we (optimally) settle back into sleep again. Within the first several months – you’ll be lucky if your baby sleeps ever sleeps six-hours straight through the night; four-hour stretches would be a healthy goal to achieve between month one and month three.
2. Put the books (and blogs) down and take a deep breath
Boy do our brains love to read read read books and blogs, and blogs and more books, about how to be “perfect parents” raising “perfect children.” It’s a huge illusion of control, and the irony is that it mucks up the works between what you and your baby are communicating to – and learning from – one another.
Take a deep breath and tune into yourself and your baby. If nobody gave you advice if you never read a parenting blog or book if you never had a baby monitor set to alert you and the smidgiest of whimpers or fusses – what would your daily and nightly routine look like? That is often the smartest place to start as your newborn household begins to explore and settle into your new rhythm.
3. Establish a nighttime routine (that involves a good feeding)
There are very few humans who don’t appreciate routine or ritual in their lives – even if they don’t identify it. The process of settling into a bedtime routine can be profound when it comes to a more soothing and predictable sleep schedule.
Whatever it is – bath, cuddles and snuggles, songs, books, time on the floor together, baby needs to go to bed with a recent, substantial feeding. When you consider your baby’s stomach is only about as big as its fist – and that babies are growing and developing at a rapid rate (burning through tons of nutrients and calories while doing it), it’s no wonder most newborns wake up every 90-minutes to 2-hours or so to replenish the nutrient coffers. By putting your wee one to bed with a fresh, milk-full belly (followed by a proper burping) s/he’s more likely to sleep longer that first few hours or so.
4. Go to bed when your baby does
We’re primal beings, and we lived for hundreds of thousands of years without electric lights and television. Humans and their babies went to bed when (or soon after) the sun sank because there was little- to no-light stimulation. While new moms (and dads) are hungry to reclaim parts of themselves (we promise that day will come!), surrender to your body’s need for sleep – and take it when you can.
You will get your evening time and your sense of self back over time, but in these first few months, heading to be quickly after your baby does is a smart move. It means you get precious extra hours of sleep that help you weather the storm of the unpredictability of nighttime waking, feeding and changing.
5. Respect natural circadian rhythms
There is a plethora of research supporting the importance of daylighting, no lights at night, the circadian rhythm and healthy sleep habits. Help your baby out by allowing your home to reflect natural day/night lighting cycles. Dim house lights after the sun sets, use red nightlights in baby’s room and around the house, and use minimal light (or none) as you put baby to bed and/or when you need to perform middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes.
6. Put the baby monitor on a much lower setting
Babies make a myriad of noises and fusses, and not all of them require your jump to attention. This is where baby monitors become a blessing and a curse. Many babies will even whimper or cry a bit and then self-soothe themselves to sleep. Thus, setting the monitor on a much lower level means you get better, anxiety-free sleep and will still be able to wake up when the cry is worth attending to.
7. Pay attention to what you eat and baby’s mood.
You are what you eat; your breastmilk is what you eat. Therefore, many women find that journaling what they eat – and their babies moods, colic, sleep-ability and fussiness – are connected. Start paying attention to whether typical irritants (spicy food, caffeine, cruciferous veggies, dairy, soy, eggs, garlic, onions, etc.) are affecting your baby’s tummy. If so, eliminating them from your diet may improve their sleep habits.
Need something to help you remember how precious that not-sleeping-newborn is to you? Consider a newborn photography session and all your baby’s moments – sleeping or not – in artistic, moving and magical ways.