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Newborn Sleep Habits: What Should You Worry About & When?

Jun20

by

Hi Amy,

I feel a little bit like I am writing an email to a celebrity – I have spend the last 9 months of pregnancy plus 4 weeks of (endless) hours of breastfeeding reading your advice column and blog.

Now that my little guy is here and just passed his one month birthday, I wanted to ask some sleeping advice. At night, he sleeps swaddled between us in a Snuggle Nest (like a dog bed for babies) and goes to bed whatever time we do, usually after his last bottle between 9 and 11. He wakes up to eat every 3-6 hours and sometimes ends up in bed with me if we fall asleep nursing or he is fussy in his little bed (that is not often at all). During the day sort of sleeps on and off wherever, the bed, the swing, someone’s arms, no routine or schedule.

My question for you is, what habits should we be encouraging or discouraging at this stage of sleeping. I know he is much too young for any type of sleep training, CIO or otherwise, but I also want to be sure I am not setting myself up for a kid who won’t sleep through the night! At what age should I be starting a routine and sticking to a schedule? When do I have to stop letting him sleep in my arms if he cries?

Thank you!
Julie

This is kind of a sticky topic, since I don’t really think there are that many hard and fast rules that Must Be Followed For All Babies, especially so early on. There’s also no set schedule that Must Be Followed For All Babies like clockwork. But I completely understand that fear you go through with newborns, the fear that you’re falling into bad! sleep! habits! that will be the bane of your sleepless existence for the next two years. At what point do you need to stop with the “doing whatever works” approach and start with…well, who even knows? There are four million jillion opinions and books and blog posts about baby sleep habits out there — and a ton of them completely contradicting each other — to wade through and figure out what approach is right for your particular baby.

(AND OH LOOK HERE’S ANOTHER ONE.)

Actually, scratch my second sentence. I just thought of a hard and fast rule: Trust your instincts. You have them, I promise! Don’t let any dumb blog post rattle you about Impending Sleep Doom if you don’t follow some dumb blogger’s advice. Follow your baby’s lead. Slow down and let yourself watch and learn and go from there.

Right now (at the age of one month), I’d say what you’re doing is perfectly fine, and your baby’s sleep patterns sound perfectly normal. Newborns sleep about 18 hours a day, and aren’t quite alert enough to run into problems nodding off and putting themselves to sleep whenever they are tired. (Which is almost always.) In a few weeks, you’ll notice that will change — there will be more fussing and “fighting it” and non-hunger-related wakings. That’s when you’ll understand the importance of the “put them down sleepy but awake and not overtired” thing that everybody talks about, and should become more aware of how involved you are in his settling-down period (i.e. constant rocking, falling asleep on the boob, etc).

Once you notice the shift, even if it’s subtle, THAT’S when you have a good early window at good sleep habits. Try to climb through it, but don’t lose your mind over it if there are still a lot of zigs and zags and wakings and regressions. It’s just part of life with a baby.

Watch for signs that he’s sleepy — a yawn, rubbing his ears or eyes or side of his face, a general zoning out or crankiness — and start a mini sleep routine, for both daytime snoozes and “bedtime.” A diaper change, a good swaddle and a musical mobile or crib aquarium worked well for me. Obviously nursing usually conks them out too, but if you can possibly get him settled down without that, it’s a good thing since the nursing-to-sleep crutch CAN become a bit tricky later on. But you know, feed your baby. Don’t stress about it. Nurse if you have to. Pull him off once you notice he’s asleep to keep him from just idly sucking and do your best to transfer him out of your arms.

This might not work every time, by the way. In fact, I can probably guarantee that it won’t. Again, it’s okay. Maybe you misinterpreted the sleepy signs and he just wasn’t ready to take a nap or go to bed. Maybe he’s got some gas or soils his diaper 30 seconds after you change him. Maybe he takes the occasional nap in someone’s arms, either because that’s just what works that day or because Grandma just needed herself some cuddles. Aim high and dream big on the good sleep routine, but good lord, some days you just take what you can get.

If you notice his sleep at night becoming more and more interrupted, that might be a sign that he’s ready for a better nap schedule during the day. Don’t let daytime sleep last longer than a couple hours, and keep the house bright and noisy. Talk and sing while you nurse him and wake him up if he nods off during a feeding. (If he nods back off, see if you can treat it like a formal nap, with a swaddle and transfer.)

At night, keep it dark and quiet and feed him in silence. This will help him kinda “get” that there’s a difference between day and night, and that night is for sleeping and daytime is when he can expect your attention and fun things. Naps can be really unpredictable for awhile, and if you feel kind of lost or unsure of what kind of schedule to aim for, give the 2-3-4 schedule a try — maybe in a month or so? Then again around 12 weeks if it doesn’t work at first?

The 2-3-4 schedule, once more, with feeling: Try for a nap two hours after final waking in the morning — get him dressed and changed and “up” for the day – and then after two hours watch for a sleepiness signal. Diaper change, swaddle, put him in bed or a swing or whatever. Three hours after the morning nap (provided it happens, of course, and lasts at least 45 minutes to an hour), put him down for another one. Then aim for a bedtime — with an extended routine, with a bath and a book/lullaby or something — four hours after he wakes up from the second nap. Any wakings after that should be treated differently, with silence during nursing and a laser-sharp focus on getting him back to sleep. And oh don’t worry about his diaper at night unless he’s pooped or it’s leaking, or in the active throes of a bad rash! Unswaddling and diaper changes are a signal that it’s waking-up time, so no guilt or need to wake him up unless you have to

If all goes well and you’ve got yourself a “good” sleeper, by three or four months old you MIGHT see a nice mostly-regular nap schedule and only one or two wakings at night. Maybe less, if you’ve got yourself a “mythical unicorn” sleeper — I had one of those, lots of people do, I just don’t want to overpromise sleeping through the night by any set age because IT JUST DEPENDS SOMETIMES. Once you’re satisfied with the sleep situation (and not in the throes of a developmental sleep regression, because oh right those things), you can start weaning from the swaddle (legs or arms first, one arm at a time, etc.) and get stricter about his sleep location (no swings or carseats, in his own crib if you’re done with co-sleeping, etc.)

Probably the BEST habit to establish in preparation for all that is to help him fall asleep on his own, without deep involvement from you – the nursing/rocking/bouncing stuff that we all do, and pretty much have no choice but to do at first. Again, your instincts are best here, and what you think is best for your particular baby. Some people just don’t mind nursing and rocking to sleep every night for months on end, and would much rather worry about breaking the habit later than let a young baby cry or fuss it out. Others are like, NOPE right from the get-go and believe it’s best to break the sleep-crutch habits super early. I’m in the middle camp, I guess, since I think GENTLE sleep training can start around six months old, if no-cry methods haven’t worked and/or Mama is losing her damned mind.

Anyway, WOW, that was a lot of words to basically tell you: Eh, you’re doing fine. You’re going to continue doing fine.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Newborn Sleep Habits: What Should You Worry About & When?”

  1. Rachel Jun 20 at 6:08 pm Reply Reply

    I recommend the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. It was a lifesaver for me when my baby was about 8 weeks old. The focus at this age (until about 5 months old) is on short windows of wakefulness. We tried not to let our baby stay awake longer than 2 hours, sometimes he’d only make it an hour before showing signs of being tired. Once we started doing this during the day he magically started sleeping a LOT longer at night. Now that he’s six months he sort of switched on his own to the 2-3-4 thing. And night is a crapshoot HA.

    • KO Jun 22 at 2:39 am Reply Reply

      I second the suggestion of HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS, HAPPY CHILD! We’ve used it off and on for the past almost-three years now, and it’s been of wonderful use. I only wish I’d bought the physical copy, because the e-book is a little difficult to flip through and find exactly the applicable section you need at any given moment. Also, HAPPIEST BABY ON THE BLOCK book/YouTube videos came majorly in handy with us (not necessarily sleep-focused, but definitely helpful if you have a baby who isn’t easily soothed, which can play into sleep issues). Best of luck! :)

    • Sheila Jul 01 at 10:32 pm Reply Reply

      I third Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. At first, you will hate it (SO hard to let your baby cry without going in to soothe them). But I’ve been doing it for less than 2 weeks and my 5mo is sleeping like a champ. We switched from the Ferber CIO to this and magically my son started 2 1/2 hour naps and a bedtime before 11pm (which SUCKED) and is usually no later than 8pm now. I did not start any sleep methods until he hit the 4 month sleep regression, decided he hated his swaddle and was all of a sudden not sleeping through the night. Up until 3 months I allowed myself to hold him during naps because I was selfish and was about to go back to work. It did not affect his sleep at all – so I say spoil away and don’t worry until around 3 months. That’s when I noticed sleep habits really started to matter.

  2. Bea Jun 20 at 7:21 pm Reply Reply

    I have a 5 week old currently (she’s my fourth baby) and I’ll chime in that what you’re doing sounds normal and Amy’s advice is right on. One “rule” I follow with getting babies to sleep is to do the minimum necessary to help them fall asleep. Right now for my baby that means for some naps I just swaddle her, bounce her for a minute in my arms and lay her down. And other times I have to swaddle, give a paci or nurse, shhhhh in her ear, walk around, or let her sleep in the swing or on me. But I’m trying to encourage her to sleep with the least intervention, and I try for at least one nap in her crib, sometimes two or three depending on the day. The other piece of advice I would give you is to not rush to comfort your babe every time he fusses or squirms in his sleep. I did that with my first and it set up some bad habits. When #2, 3, and now 4 came along it was physically impossible to immediately respond to every fuss and squawk and I realized that much of the time the baby settled down on his/her own!

  3. Stina Jun 20 at 8:14 pm Reply Reply

    We followed the lead of our baby, and up until she was around 4 months or so she could only handle 45-60 min of wake time, then it slowly lengthened to 2-3 hours, now at 7 months she still has 3 naps, two that last around 90 minutes and a short cat nap in the late afternoon to ensure she gets through dinner and bath time without loosing it! We tried 2-3-4 routine but she’s not ready for 4 hrs wake time. And I’m in the ‘happy to nurse to sleep’ camp.. It’s so easy to get her to go to sleep and I don’t have it in me to mess up our calm, cozy routine.. I’m sure on day it’ll stop working and I’ll have to come up with something else but I’ll deal with it when the day comes, for now I’m just enjoying our cuddles:)

  4. Karen Jun 21 at 2:58 am Reply Reply

    I know this doesn’t really answer your question, but just want to add a little newborn science in… Breastmilk is easier and faster to digest compared with formula. This is why breastfed babies wake more often, they get hungrier more quickly after feeding and do not sleep as deeply. This is a main reason why SIDS rates are lower among breastfed babies than formula babies – the breastfed baby is more likely to rouse if breathing skips, for example, while the deeper sleeping baby does not. This effect wears off as baby gets older and his or her own breathing and rousing systems become more mature. So a very young baby that wakes often is a good thing! (Research source is Dr J McKenna at Notre Dame)

  5. Caroline Jun 21 at 1:45 pm Reply Reply

    Hello, it sounds like you’re doing really well, and your baby sounds like he’s shaping up to be a good sleeper generally, no colic or anything evident yet, which is great. Do you intend to co-sleep long term? I ask because when he is too big for his nest and sleeps in the bed ”proper”, it may become – MUCH LATER – an issue to get him into his cot / into his room. This may not even be a concern, and that’s fine if not. I have had 3 babies, all excellent sleepers, and I have learnt that in the first 6-8 weeks, you have to just go along with them. It’s hard to really mess it up badly, and you can change things with little trouble if something irritating develops. I would, in about 2-3 weeks, start doing as Amy suggests, delineating nap times a bit more ”formally” trying to not nurse into deep sleep and start to put him down ”awake” (if nearly asleep). It will establish very good habits for later, but there’s not a vast amount to be done when a small infant wants to sleep, they sleep! It’s just something to aim at and keep in mind. From about 10-12 weeks I’d start paying more proper attention, not in a mean, hardhearted way, just give it 2-3 mins before LEAPING when he moans. My babies make a racket when they sleep like you would not believe and yet they are fast asleep! Giving it a couple of minutes (proper minutes, on the clock!), means that if they don’t really need anything, they’ll settle back down. It’s a good habit to get into in a general way, especially at night, because later, much later, it will form one of the key differences between day and night. Day is for mom and attention and fun and chatter, night is quiet, sleep time, feeds when necessary, but that’s about it. It’s something that’s worked for me. Best of luck, you sound like you are doing very well!

  6. traci Jun 22 at 7:45 pm Reply Reply

    I have a question. I have a 10-week old. He does great at night. We nurse/diaper and can just lay him in his crib asleep or awake. If he is awake he will talk himself to sleep. He may fuss a little to indicate he needs to suck and then we give him a pacifier and he goes right to sleep. He wakes up 1-2 times a night for feedings and diapers. Here is where the oddness comes. As soon as it is daylight he will not stay in the crib. He will cry and scream bloody murder. This usually starts around 5:30am. My husband usually grabs him and let’s him sleep on his chest til 6am when he gets up for work. After that he’s wide awake and lays next to me while talking and giggling as my husband gets ready for work. He eats around 6:30-7am and usually naps after that in my arms. I cannot put him down sleeping during the day without him waking up 10 minutes later screaming. It is his compromise, I’ll sleep in my crib at night, but daytime I must be held (he doesn’t like to be put down for more than 10-15 minutes at a time whether awake or asleep). I’m not too upset about this arrangement bc he wouldn’t go down in the crib at night unless he was in deep sleep for the first month. So I would have to hold him for 20 minutes after nursing him to sleep before putting him down or he’d wake up and that sucked with 3-4 wakeups per night! For the daytime he has a joovy playyard (we have a 2-story house so the joovy is his downstairs/daytime bed). I’ve only gotten him to sleep in it more than 10 minutes once when I was vacuuming. I did get him a bjorn bouncer chair in hopes that he would like that and he has slept 30 minutes in it a few times, but that’s peanuts compared to the 2-4 hours he sleeps when on someone. This past week I decided he needs to learn to sleep in the joovy so I keep trying to put him in it. He wakes up immediately, but has been staying there content for 10-15 minutes, then screams. I figure if I just keep putting him in there he will get used to it and eventually give in to sleeping there. He’s still so little, so I have just been trying soothing in place and then picking him up if he starts to get really upset. Any thoughts/ideas?

    • MR Jun 23 at 1:09 pm Reply Reply

      Sounds like you might need blackout curtains for his room so he can’t tell it is daytime. But, it also is probably that he is starting to work on his one year molars. A baltic amber teething necklace can work wonders for him wanting to lay down if teething is the issue.

      • Myriam Jun 23 at 3:40 pm Reply Reply

        You misread! he’s 10 WEEKs-old, not 10-months old. Pretty sure the molars are not the problem ;-)

    • Marienkafer Jun 23 at 3:55 pm Reply Reply

      Sounds normal to me. :)  I have a 5 month old that refuses his crib every night after his 5 am feed. If you can’t put him down for naps during the day you could try baby wearing for naps. I have a 2.5 year old as well that would not nap or sleep at night alone. I didn’t mind holding him because he was my only one then. Now, his baby brother often gets worn for naps so I can keep playing with the older one. 

    • Sheila Jul 01 at 10:42 pm Reply Reply

      Traci – I was doing the same thing as you: sleeping at night in the crib (awesome) and then naps in the pack and play downstairs during the day. Just like you, naps sucked and we often held him so he got adequate daytime sleep. Then we made a switch and had him sleep all naps and nighttime in the crib. He protested at first. But, now that he is so comfortable with his crib and surroundings, he naps like a champ. Even if he’s not quite ready to sleep, he’ll fuss for only a few mintues and then talk and play until he falls asleep on his own. My son is 5mo now, but we started this when he was around 3 1/2 mo.

  7. Myriam Jun 23 at 3:38 pm Reply Reply

    Don’t worry too much, it’s never “too late”. It might be “too late to be ultra easy”, but never too late. With my second baby, I started bed sharing at birth, with the intent of doing it 2 or 3 weeks. She would only fall asleep nursing or moving, And would only sleep next to me. At 6 1/2 MONTHS old, she started to wake up every hour, so the bed sharing didn’t work anymore. We went with the http://www.sleepyplanet.com method (the 5-10-15), and in less than a week, she’s now an amazing night sleeper and a pretty good napper. So, I say, if it aint broke, don’t fix it, but be ready to work fir it once it’s needed! Whatever method you end up choosing, if you need one, the key point they all have in common is consistency. So choose a method, read the book, and commit. Having a plan make it easier to stay consistant. Don’t worry, you’ll all sleep eventually!

  8. Marienkafer Jun 23 at 4:03 pm Reply Reply

    I’m typically right on board with amalah’s advice and this very much resembled my plans before I had my baby. Sleepy but awake. No nursing to sleep. Sleep only in crib. Get that baby on a schedule. Then my baby came along and boy! did he have other plans. My world changed quickly to co-sleeping at times, holding for naps, schedule? Ha!!  Sleep came however I could make it come. And whenever. I had a high needs baby….dum dum dum!!!  Point is… You can have all the plans in the world. Sometimes, your baby is going to have different plans entirely. Be ready to adapt. Or you’ll both be miserable. 

  9. Britt Jun 23 at 5:57 pm Reply Reply

    The very most important part of what Amy said is “Trust your instincts”.  I was able to put both of my kiddos down asleep in the beginning.  Then one day with my first, I found myself googling all kinds of acrobatic techniques for moving a sleeping baby into its crib, because every time I’d move my daughter, she’d wake back up.  That was when I knew it was time to start sleepy but awake.  Same thing for my son a year and a half later, despite the fact that they have very different temperaments.

    Cosleeping is totally fine, as long as you are fine with it, and able to sleep that way.  I unapologetically have no desire to cosleep.  I love to snuggle my babies, for sure.  But when it comes time for sleeping, they get a happier mommy if I can sprawl around the bed and not worry about smooshing them all night.  Definitely do what works for now, UNLESS what works is driving you crazy/preventing you from getting enough rest.  

    After food and shelter, babies need happy parents that are excited to see them more than just about anything else.  As the months go on, you’ll find that sometimes that means you really need to take care of yourself, too.

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