How is the baby sleeping through the night? That must be one of the most common questions new parents hear. It’s a question that comes from well-intentioned friends, strangers, and even your child’s healthcare provider.
Baby girl is 4 months old now, and I still get asked “are you getting any sleep?” or any of other form of that question, multiple times a week. I answer, “she sleeps great”.
That is an honest answer. She does sleep well. However, I also have realistic expectations and a few tricks that I use.
I have over 17 years of experience in pediatric and newborn nursing. In those 17 years, I have been working as a pediatric healthcare practitioner for over 11 years. I also have three children of my own.
My experience as a mother combined with my experience as a nurse and education as a nurse practitioner has helped me have a greater understanding of infants and their sleep habits. It’s through this understanding of newborns that I have been able to come up with my method to help my babies to sleep better at night.
My tips are not a cure-all. I can’t guarantee that, since each child and parent-child relationship is so different. But they definitely will help. By following these tips, baby girl has been sleeping through the night since she was less than 6 weeks old!
These are the same tips I give to parents of newborns as I complete the baby’s check-up. I’m sure they will help your family, just as they have helped many others.
Sleeping through the night
First, an understanding of what sleeping through the night is. As I said before, I have a realistic expectation of newborn nighttime sleep. This has helped us as we work to achieve a good nights sleep.
What is sleeping through the night?
Sleeping through the night for a newborn is sleeping five solid hours straight. If you’re still pregnant, this may seem like it can’t be enough. If you’re a new mom reading and you’re being woken every 2-3 hours all night long, then five solid hours probably sounds amazing right now!
As your baby gets older this five-hour stretch will get longer. Once baby is sleeping consistently for five hours a night, you’ll see this stretch to a 6-8 hour period. As you continue to help your baby build good sleep habits, this will increase to an 8-10 hour period of uninterrupted sleep. Then you’ll reach a 10-12 hour stretch of sleeping through the night.
When will my baby sleep through the night?
It’s important to know that until your baby is back up to their birth weight, you will be feeding them approximately every two to three hours. This is around the clock and includes night time.
However, once a baby is back up to their birth weight you can allow them to sleep at night until they wake. This is when we’ll hopefully start to see those five hour long stretches of sleep!
As babies grow bigger, they are able to sleep for longer periods at a time.
Why do babies wake at night?
There are multiple reasons why a newborn baby wakes at night. These reasons are different than those of why an older baby would wake at night.
The four main reasons why newborns wake at night are due to their sleep cycle, sensory changes, circadian rhythm, and calorie needs.
REM and Non-rem sleep
When we sleep at night we cycle through stages of sleep. Sleep is divided into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.
REM sleep is the state of sleep where our eyes move back and forth. It is during this stage that we dream.
Non-REM sleep is broken down into four stages of sleep.
- Stage 1 occurs when the baby is drowsy. Their eyes begin to close and they lightly doze off.
- Stage 2 is light sleep. In this stage, the baby may move or be easily wakened
- Stage 3 is deep sleep. The baby is quiet.
- Stage 4 is a very deep sleep, where the baby is quiet and not moving
The sleep cycle goes stage 1 where the baby is falling asleep, to stage 2, then stage 3, then stage 4, then back to 3, back to 2, and into REM. Once in REM, the baby will then cycle again, skipping stage 1 and replacing it with REM sleep.
Babies spend more time in REM sleep than adults. REM sleep is a more active time of sleep and is when we can easily be woken up.
Have you ever noticed that you seem to be woken easily when you are in the middle or end of a dream? That’s because you were in REM sleep when something woke you up.
the sleep cycle
Where adults typically cycle through sleep in 90-minute increments newborn babies cycle through sleep in 40-minute increments.
The shortened sleep cycle means that a baby spends more time in light sleep than adults do. It is during light sleep that baby can be easily woken up. Things such as sounds, lights, or even their own reflexes can cause a baby to wake up.
Sensory Changes & Circadian Rhythm
When babies are born they leave their nice dark comforting womb into a world of lights and new loud signs. While the baby is in the womb it can see light and hear the world outside. However, the light and outside noise is filtered. In the womb, it is primarily dark and loud. It is loud from the sounds of the mother’s heart and blood flow.
In the womb, they also tend to be gently rocked to sleep all day long as our bellies sway while we walk. Once we lay in bed at night, it may feel like a party in your pregnant belly as the baby is no longer being rocked to sleep.
Therefore when our babies enter our world their circadian rhythm is not aligned with ours. You’ll often hear parents or healthcare providers comment that the baby has their days and nights mixed up.
This can impact how well your newborn sleeps at night.
Notice that I’m not saying hunger but caloric needs? Babies, like children and adults, need a certain number of calories in a 24 hour period. It is common for babies to not meet all of their caloric needs during daytime hours. This can lead to night waking due to hunger.
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What to do to get your baby to sleep through the night?
To help promote nighttime sleep for your baby you’re going to need to combat the four primary things that are leading to nighttime wake-ups.
Those four things are waking during the sleep cycle, circadian rhythm, sensory needs, and caloric needs.
By combating those four things I had my first two children sleeping at least five consecutive hours at night by 2 weeks old and I had my third child sleeping consistently at least 8 consecutive hours by 4 weeks old. These results are not guaranteed, but I can confirm they’ve have worked for me three times!
It’s also important to note that all of my children were free from chronic illness or disabilities. They were all exclusively breastfed for at least their first six months as well.
How to swaddle your baby
As babies sleep they go through sleep cycles of REM and non-REM sleep. It is during REM and stage 2 sleep that they can easily wake up.
During the newborn period, babies have their newborn reflexes. One thing that commonly wakes babies up is their moro, or startle reflex. While the baby is dreaming during REM sleep, or during stage 2, their startle reflex may be triggered, which can result in them waking up.
Have you ever had a dream that you are falling and you startle yourself awake by accident? Essentially the same thing is happening to your newborn baby.
To help prevent baby from being woken up by their startle reflex I swaddle them. However, I use a very specific swaddle!
When I worked as a nurse in the newborn nursery I learned how to tightly swaddle up babies. I did it at records pace using the hospital swaddle blankets that so many of us are familiar with. However, swaddling baby in that traditional way, in a blanket, is not necessarily the best for their development nor is it the safest.
Swaddling with a blanket or swaddle sack
When swaddling in a blanket you choose whether to pin babies arms down by their sides or keep them up by their chest with their hands by their face.
Babies tend to keep their hands by their faces. If you had an ultrasound during your pregnancy you likely saw your baby with their hands right by their face! This is what your baby is familiar with.
When babies are in a relaxed state, commonly jokingly referred to a “milk coma”, they typically have their arms up with their hands next to their head. They will not be in their natural, relaxed state if you pin their arms down by their side.
In regards to safety with blankets, at some point, your baby will figure out how to break free from a traditional blanket swaddle. That often occurs while you are sleeping. Once the baby breaks free, their blanket can move and cover their mouth or nose. It is not safe for a baby to have a loose blanket in their sleep space.
Using a swaddle sack to help your baby sleep through the night
Those are two of the reasons that I use this swaddle with my baby. It positions their arms in the natural position, so their hands are next to their head. The arms are able to be moved so the baby can get their hands to their mouths and comfort themselves. Additionally, it is loose by the legs allowing for complete mobility. This mobility is important for proper hip development.
By using this swaddle blanket, the babies arms move naturally when they are startled during their sleep. But due to the design, their hands don’t hit their faces. Therefore they are more likely to have fewer wake-ups during this cycle of sleep.
How to adjust your baby’s Circadian Rhythm
I take deliberate steps to help my babies adopt a circadian rhythm that is more in line with my own. Considering babies need more sleep than adults and do require daytime sleep, naps are important.
It is counterproductive to try to keep baby awake during the day so that they are tired at night. A tired baby will only be overtired and cranky at night. A cranky baby is not easy to console and get into a drowsy sleepy state.
Instead, I encourage daytime napping. However, I purposefully have the daytime sleep environment different than the nighttime sleep environment.
Daytime sleep environment for babies
To encourage my babies to change their circadian rhythm I leave lights on and allow noise to occur during the day. When the baby wakes from their nap I engage with them. I will smile and talk to my newborn during daytime awake hours.
nightime sleep environment for babies
However, the nighttime environment is quiet and dark. When my baby wakes up from sleep at night I leave all lights off. I have a Himalayan salt lamp, like this one, by our bedside that produces a nice warm pinkish-orange glow. This glow provides enough light for me to see the baby and attend to their needs.
I keep everything I need in arm’s reach. This includes my baby who sleeps in this co-sleeper which is right next to me. (disclosure: My co-sleeper is 10 years old. If I was purchasing a new one, I would strongly consider buying this one. It is made from non-toxic materials.)
When my newborn wakes up, I will sit up in bed and bring the baby onto my bed. I don’t talk or smile at my baby. Though I definitely do sneak in cuddles and kisses to the head.
I will change their diaper there, on the bed. I use a small flashlight if I need to check that everything has been wiped clean. I’ll then nurse my baby and gently rock them back to sleep, all while I stay sitting in bed.
I purposely do not get up out of bed, turn on lights, or talk to my baby during nighttime wake-ups. By maintaining a quiet dark space, with minimal movement, I am encouraging their brain to understand that it is a quiet dark time.
How to meet Your babies nighttime Sensory Needs
When babies leave the comfort of their womb they yearn to be back in the dark, tight, loud space that our belly provided for them.
Another thing that i do with all of my babies to help transition them to a comforting sleepy state is to use white noise.
This is my favorite sound machine. Each of my babies has had a sound that they found soothing. To help encourage sleep as they transition to life outside the womb, I play the sound machine through the night.
why you should wake your baby to feed during the day
Babies, like adults, need to eat a certain amount of calories each day or they feel hungry. If they eat the calories during the day, then they often sleep better at night.
I visited one of the most respected and trusted IBCLC (lactation consultants) in my city when my oldest was a newborn. She encouraged me to feed my baby every two hours during the day and allow him to sleep for as long as he would at night (he was already back up to birth weight). So I followed her advice.
With each of my babies, when they are newborns, I watch the clock, and them, during the day. I encouraged each of them to nurse every two hours unless they showed cues of hunger more frequently. Sometimes going three hours between feeds, if they were not interested in nursing more frequently. But never more than three hours.
Why cluster feeding can help babies sleep
Then at night, during the “witching hour,” I let them cluster feed. The time of day that each of my kids’ cluster fed has been different, but all of them cluster fed.
My oldest cluster fed later in the evening, around 8 pm. He also had his longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep from 12am-5am. My younger two cluster fed earlier in the evening. Both of them had their 5 hour period of uninterrupted sleep earlier in the evening.
This cluster feeding provides both calories and comfort to your baby as they transition into the night time hours.
helping your newborn sleep through the night
I’m confident that you and your baby will achieve better night sleep once you implement these tips.
One last tip I would leave you with is to try to remind yourself that this stage is fleeing. Your newborn will only be in this stage for a short amount of time before they move into an infant stage. I know how tough it can be.
I’m always available by email if you ever want to reach out! You can also find Simply Well Family on Facebook and Instagram.
One last reminder, you are doing an AMAZING job, mama!
Is your newborn sleeping through the night? What gentle approach tips worked or didn’t work for you?
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