by Dr. EeVon Ling, ND, YDD Sleep Consultant
Sleep is one of the top struggles that parents have with their baby. This is mainly because the baby’s natural sleep patterns are biologically very different from our adult sleep patterns and needs and the clashing of the two results in exhaustion and frustration. Understanding why your baby sleeps the way they do may help temper unrealistic expectations and help parents find the appropriate strategies to deal with sleep challenges.
Your baby’s brain at birth is just one quarter the size of an adult brain. It’s not just a miniature version of the adult brain but really an underdeveloped human brain that is equipped with just the basics to ensure survival. Here is some information to help you understand the basics of newborn sleep:
They have no circadian rhythm for the first 3 months: “My baby has their days and nights mixed up!”
Initially the baby’s brain doesn’t differentiate between day and night because their needs for proper growth and development require them to eat frequently. The newborn needs to eat 8-12 times per day, which works out to every 2-3 hours (with cluster feeds here and there). This means that the baby needs to wake up just as frequently in order to get all their calorie and nutritional needs met.
For the breastfeeding parent, frequent feeding is required to help the body make more breast milk.
The newborn brain is not designed to go into long periods of deep sleep.
As much as we would love for our newborn to sleep the same hours we do, it is actually against their biology to do so. I already mentioned the need to feed frequently as a major reason. The other big reason your baby doesn’t sleep deeply for long periods is because frequent wakings increase blood circulation to the brain. This increase in circulation is needed to help the brain grow and develop.You could take some comfort in knowing that your baby is getting smarter with each waking!
Certainly there are devices and ways to make a newborn sleep for longer stretches, but long deep sleep is not something your newborn truly needs.
“There is no such thing as baby… it is a baby and someone” – D. Winnicott
I love this quote because its truth is multilayered. First, it is a great reminder that babies are 100% dependent on another human being. Without someone taking care of them, a baby cannot exist. Western parenting culture pushes babies towards independence in ways that are developmentally impossible and possibly detrimental for the child.
Did you know that your newborn doesn’t have a sense of self? They also don’t understand that something or someone still exists even if they can’t see it (this is called object permanence). Nor are they aware that they are a separate person from you. For 9 months the baby was literally attached to you, constantly held, rocked, nourished and comforted by you. After they are born, they still want these things from you, and thanks to the hormones of pregnancy, labour and childbirth, your new parent brain has been rewired to want to provide comfort to your baby.
By the time they are 7-9 months, the baby starts to realize they are their own person and that you exist even when out of sight. However, your baby will constantly seek physical and emotional attachment, not just as an infant, but throughout their lives. During the first 12 months of life, the baby specifically wants to be physically close to you and this is how they form their attachment to you.
Your baby is not capable of self-soothing. They need help with regulating from being stressed back to being calm.
The greatest myth of much sleep advice is the idea of teaching or leaving a baby to self-soothe. Remember that the newborn brain is only one quarter the size of the adult brain and is only capable of basic survival. The human brain reaches full maturation somewhere between 25 – 30 YEARS OLD. Your baby can experience basic emotions, one at a time, but the brain is not capable of dealing with them in any meaningful way. Your baby cannot reason, self-reflect, plan or learn consequences. They certainly can’t tell themselves that they will be OK and just need to calm down (The reality is many adults have trouble with this!).
When a baby gets upset (because they are hungry, uncomfortable, tired, lonely etc), the stress response has been triggered. Once triggered, the immature baby brain is not capable of settling itself or regulating itself back to calm. The baby is 100% dependent on another person to help regulate them back to calm (this is referred to as co-regulation).
You may know that sucking is a soothing activity for a baby and sucking on their thumb or a soother can provide some immediate comfort to an extent. But if your baby is very upset, sucking alone is not enough to comfort them.
How do I cope with newborn sleep?
From your baby’s point of view, they are fine to sleep the way they do. But for parents, this is very challenging, especially for those who don’t have additional childcare help.
Certainly in the beginning, parents are in their own survival mode, getting the baby to sleep in whatever way they can. You are figuring out how to get the baby to sleep. But sometimes the methods are unsustainable and parents may find themself in a place where the baby will only fall asleep in one specific way and that one way is becoming more and more difficult to keep up with.
First, there is no such thing as a bad habit. Breastfeeding, bouncing, holding, driving around in the car are all effective ways to get a baby to sleep and the baby doesn’t mind at all, but these patterns might become something you no longer want to keep doing and that is completely valid.
With a bit of forethought, it is possible for your family to set up good sleep patterns and routines for the future. Being proactive while your baby is a newborn may help with your baby’s ever changing sleep landscape, rather than wait until a sleep struggle becomes a desperate situation.
Here are my tips for coping with newborn sleep:
- The more the merrier: Get your baby used to going to sleep in many different ways. If a baby can fall asleep in differents ways, then they don’t become dependent on only one way by one person (ie. falling asleep exclusively at the breast means only the breastfeeding parent can put the baby to sleep)
- Being held in arms
- Being put down
- Being pushed in the stroller
- Being held in a carrier
- With motion (bouncing on a ball, walking, swaying)
- Without motion (sitting on the couch, standing over the crib)
- Patting a body part (back, tummy and bottom are popular)
- Swaddle and unswaddled
- Different people putting the baby to sleep (make sure to involve both parent and anyone else who might be helping with the baby)
- Have the baby sleep in different places for naps
- Stroller bassinet
- Bassinet in nursery
- In pack-n-play
- In crib
- In a bright area
- In a dark area
- On a crib mattress on the floor in the middle of the room
Some parents tell me that they’ve been told that the baby should nap in the same place all the time or else they get confused. Let’s give babies a little more credit than that! They don’t get confused, but they can develop a preference towards where and how they sleep.
When a baby can fall asleep in different ways, it helps provide parents with options. For example, if a baby can sleep in the stroller, that allows parents flexibility with going out during nap time.
What about swings, baby loungers, carseat, baby bouncer chairs etc? Officially they are not designed for baby sleep and are not considered safe. The main reason is the baby is sleeping on an incline before they have good head and neck strength and control. On an incline the head can flop over or lean sideways and block the baby’s airway. The other reason is the material of the device may be too soft or there are other suffocation hazards for the baby. That said, these are very common places that babies end up sleeping in. It is very important to note that if a baby is sleeping in a place that is not specifically designed for baby sleep, then the baby should be supervised by an awake adult. If you think you are going to fall asleep, then the best action is to transfer the baby to a baby safe sleep location.
- Use lots of sleep associations:
Generally speaking, babies and young children thrive on routine and predictability. Knowing what to expect helps with regulation, builds trust and attachment.
Sleep associations might include using additional devices, sounds and props that are used to signal to the baby that it is time to sleep. On their own, some sleep associations won’t make a baby sleepy per se, but these cues help the baby predict what to expect next.
Here are some common sleep associations:
- Pacifier, sucking
- Cuddling, holding
- Smells of parents
- White noise machine
- Lullaby music
- Audio of boring bedtime stories
- Reading books
- Sleep clothes
- Sleep location
- Dimmed or dark room
- Loveys and blankets
- Bouncing, rocking, motion
- Patting, rubbing, massaging
- Being swaddled
- The bedtime routine should be consistent: While it is less important for naps to be super consistent, it is more important for bedtime routines to be pretty consistent.
- Make sure the elements you include are calming. For example, many parents want to include a bath as part of the nighttime routine, but a bath can be very stressful or stimulating for a baby which might not be great right before bed. Pay attention to how your baby responds!)
- Include elements that you want to continue with. You might be OK sitting and holding the baby until they fall asleep, but bouncing on a ball with your baby for 45 minutes might be beyond what you want to continue.
- Evening fussiness is normal – you may notice that your baby is more fussy in the evenings. Also referred to as the “witching hour” (which can occur between 4 – 10 pm), the baby may be fussier because of accumulated tiredness from the day and breast milk production usually slows down towards the evening. This combination of factors may cause your baby to seek more comfort and increase the need to feed. In a way this can help with night time sleep because the extra comforting will help calm the baby and prepare them for the potential separation from you overnight. The increased feeding helps to fill them up to last longer stretches overnight.
- Observe your newborn and get to know your baby’s own sleep cues and patterns. New parents worry alot about not knowing what to do to the point that they rely more on what an “expert” wrote about newborn sleep and don’t allow themselves to observe and learn from their baby. Get to know your baby’s sleep cues. Get to know how long they can stay awake between naps (hint: it’s not very long). Get to know what your baby finds stimulating and what your baby finds calming.
It can be a little tricky to catch sleep cues in a very young baby. The following are possible signs of tiredness:
Early signs of tiredness:
- Glazed look in his eyes
- Eyes appear smaller (versus his “wide eyed” curious look)
- Looking away (no longer interested)
Late signs of tiredness:
- Head leaning back – not able to hold his head up as well
- Bopping their head on you
- Mouth forms an ‘O’ shape
- Face becomes red
- Rubbing eyes
- Sucking on hand (this can be a hunger or tiredness sign as sucking is one of the very few ways a baby can soothe themself)
If you are struggling with sleep and your baby, reach out and get help! I offer free virtual meet and greets so that you can see if I am a good fit for your family. My sleep consulting service services may be eligible as naturopathic services under your third party health insurance.