Baby sleep is hottest topic at our CubCare Postnatal group. Besides their bowel habits…!
It can often be a source of concern for new parents. We need to remember that small babies wake when they are hungry and sleep when they are full. It is also important to remember that sleep is a developmental process. All babies will develop at their own rate, in their own way, in their own time.
Please do not stress if (when) your baby is doing something completely different to another. They are all individual with different sleep and feeding needs.
Baby sleep biology
Human babies are biologically evolved to sleep near to their mother’s body during the first months and years of life. In the past, we could not have survived without doing so.
So therefore, it is biologically normal, at least in the first few weeks of life for baby to only be happy settling on, or near to a parent. If we think about the fourth trimester and the huge brain development that is going on for baby during this time you can imagine that it would be quite unsettling for a little one. The world is so different from the womb. They need parental support. They need it 24 hours a day.
When researching into baby sleep, circadian rhythms will always come up as important. They are physical, mental, and behavioural rhythms or changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark, but also to hormonal regulation. This is sometimes called your body clock.
Circadian rhythms do not start to emerge until baby is around 8 weeks. But there are several things you can do to encourage this circadian rhythm to emerge and remain in sync.
Sleep hygiene and circadian rhythms
Establishing good sleep hygiene from the start can make your life easier in the long run.
- Exposure to daylight – particularly in the morning.
- Naps in the light – this works alongside the hormonal aspect of sleep and can be important in setting sleep rhythms. Past 3 months of age it gets more complex with distractions…! So from then on a dimly lit room might work better.
- Have a predictable wake time in the morning
- Normal noise and activity levels during day sleeps for the first couple of months
- Keeping environment darker and quieter at night
Newborn sleep needs
Newborn babies may sleep up to 18hrs a day at first but only in 1.5-3hr blocks initially. This is just an average though, there are some babies with high sleep needs and others with less sleep requirements. Also, their tummies are tiny and will need filling often, hence they wake, or ask for food often.
When they are small, the general rule to live by is if they are stirring, give them a feed. They will either go back to sleep afterwards or wake for some play time. As they grow, their sleep pressure (that builds the longer they have been awake, essentially forcing sleep) takes a little longer to build. They can tolerate more awake time.
Two months plus
As baby grows, from around 2 months their circadian rhythm starts to emerge, and their sleep will slowly start to consolidate into a longer block at night. This likely creates more periods of awake time during the day. But it is common for babies to wake regularly in the night until age 1, and even completely normal way beyond that too.
When thinking of implementing some sort of routine for your baby (and by routine, I mean a regular pattern of daily activities, not a strict feed, play, sleep pattern), before the two-month mark often everything is a little too unpredictable.
When the evening cluster feeding has settled, you can sense when baby is getting a regular bedtime. At this point bringing a pattern of activities or events as you wind them down for bed creates that sense of familiarity.
It might be that baby is not ready for a stretch of sleep until 10 or 11pm. That is perfect if that works for you. Often you can then get a stretch of sleep at the same time, when if they go to bed at 7pm their longer stretch of sleep happens when you are awake!
Wake Maintenance Zone
You may notice that your baby is more active, playful or even hyper in time that you’d be thinking of starting the bedtime routine. This behaviour is often mistaken for ‘overtiredness’. But it is a natural time of alertness and it will be very difficult to fall asleep during this time. This is called the ‘wake maintenance zone’ (WMZ). You are better off waiting for this wakeful time to pass and then try to put your little one down.
Eventually that familiar routine of nightly activities e.g. bath, massage, pyjamas, story, milk, sleep can be brought earlier if their initial natural sleep time doesn’t work so well for you. Around 3-4 months, as their day time sleep starts to lessen their natural bedtime starts to get earlier. When thinking about a time that would work for you, start with their natural bedtime, and also work with what time is acceptable for you to get up in the morning and work backwards! A regular wake time is much more beneficial for predictability than a regular bedtime.
In our CubCare Postnatal Course, we talk about when babies might be “sleeping through” the night. We emphasise the importance of having those realistic expectations in our mind. It can help us through the difficult times to know that baby is acting completely normally!
By the time babies are 3 months old some (but by no means all) begin to start sleeping through and potentially missing a night-time feed. This results in sleeping a stretch of up to 5 hours at a time. By the time they are 5 months old half of babies may have started to sleep for an eight-hour stretch on some nights. Notice the word “some” – there are so many reasons why baby might wake and need help or reassurance. It could be they are too cold, hot, uncomfortable; their dummy fell out and they cannot find it, a breeze, an itchy foot… The list is endless as to the reasons they might wake, and as the trusted adult they often need your help.
There are two types of sleepers.
Generally, babies do not sleep all night-every night, regularly, until they are close to a year old. One study investigating infant sleep duration found that 27% of babies had not regularly slept from 10pm to 6am by the age of 1 year. That is almost 1/3 of small humans waking frequently by age one. That is incredibly common! We also know that around 13% of babies had not regularly slept through for 5 hours or more by the age of 1 year. That is around one in seven babies; considering that our baby classes hold around 9 babies that is at least one in every class
The key thing to understand is that baby’s sleep cycles are approximately half the length of an adults, at around 45-50 min. So, if something is bothering them when they enter their light stage of sleep (hunger, cold, hot, uncomfortable etc.) then they are more easily disturbed – and that means they could potentially be disturbed more than an adult might be.
It is also worth understanding whether your baby is a ‘self-soother’ or a ‘signaller’ i.e. do they wake in the night and largely get back to sleep with little adult input. Or do they require adult help and support settling back to sleep after every wake? Knowing which temperament your baby has can help your understanding of them and can make dealing with night-time parenting a little easier.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith has some wonderful information on this topic. Her book “The Gentle Sleep Book is good, and here are two really good articles that she has written.
And Lyndsey Hookway also takes a brilliant approach and is passionate about gentle sleep solutions and responsive parenting.
You can get more information, education and support on infant sleep on our Postnatal Course. Book Here.