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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

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

By Amalah

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.

Published June 20, 2014. Last updated October 29, 2017.
Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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