As a new parent, unless you get lucky with a naturally well-adjusted sleep-loving baby, bedtime is the most intimidating and unpredictable time of day. There's sometimes simply no way to find rhyme or reason in what will make your baby fall asleep, how to establish a healthy bedtime routine and keep your baby asleep once they finally nod off.
Recent studies into sleep have proven it to be massively important for the maintenance of healthy bodily function, brain development, and mental agility, as well as helping to prevent degenerative diseases.
Promoting a solid, healthy sleep pattern is just as important to our babies as it is to us as adults, as we lay the groundwork for their stable and continual development.
While babies sleep, their brains restructure and grow as they absorb the new information from that day and imprint them. Sleep is also vital to the immune system, especially for a newborn whose defence system is still in the early stages of its potency. Sleep is when their immune system is hard at work, restocking the ammunition stores of their body's defences.
With all this in mind, let's take a good look at how you can promote regularity in your baby's sleep pattern, how we can help them sleep through the night, and help put to rest any concerns you might have about your baby's sleep patterns.
How long do newborn babies sleep?
Newborn babies tend to average 16-17 hours of sleep a day, though ideally, they require 14-17 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Unlike you and me, babies don't reach their daily sleep quota in one solid block, as we all know. They will meet their quota in many small spurts throughout the day, maximising their time to feed and gather the external stimulation necessary for brain development between little, sporadic naps.
Typical baby sleep patterns in the early weeks
This number can vary inexplicably depending on the baby. Some newborn babies sleep 10 hours a day, and some will sleep 20.
Either way, it certainly won't feel as though they're sleeping much due to the random nature of the short bursts of sleep they'll be taking.
How long should my newborn stay awake for?
For their first ten weeks, babies will stay awake for several 45-60 minute intervals throughout the day.
Pushing your newborn to stay awake for longer than this can make it more difficult for them to nod off. So don't be tempted into thinking you'll get a better night's sleep if you keep them up for longer!
Setting a nighttime routine for your newborn
Humans thrive on routine. It makes us comfortable and relaxes us, letting us plan the day effectively and avoid any unwanted surprises.
Babies feel exactly the same way, and the sooner you can establish a stable bedtime routine, the better.
Distinguish between night and day
When your baby naps during the day, keep their room bright, don't draw the curtains, and allow the sunlight to structure their growing circadian rhythm.
Then when it comes to bedtime, the darkness will have a stronger soporific effect on them, as it does with all of us. Keep the room cool as well; if it's warm enough outside, maybe open a window slightly to allow airflow and prevent the room from getting stuffy.
Couple this with tapering off your rate of interaction during night wakings, and you will help enforce healthy sleep habits in your infant.
Have a bath and put on a clean diaper
Your core temperature is key to triggering your body's ability to access high-quality sleep. That hot toasty feeling after a warm bath is caused by massive pore dilation across your whole body, which essentially tricks your blood up to the surface of your skin.
At this point, your arms begin to radiate heat, lowering your body's core temperature to one much more conducive to sleep.
Taking a bath before bed will lower your baby's core temperature, bringing them down to a more relaxing temperature. Couple this with a fresh new diaper and clean pyjamas, and you're starting to imprint a bedtime schedule into your baby's life.
Read a book or sing a lullaby
Choosing a gentle, relaxing story before bedtime calms your baby, letting them listen to your voice on a soothing register at a slow and deliberate pace. It will give them something to focus on and calm any distracting thoughts they may be having before bed.
The gentle melody of a lullaby, regardless of the lyrics, has been proven to reduce the heart rate and slow breathing in premature infants, a response that occurs irrespective of the infant's previous experience of music.
Have a bedtime feed and cuddle
The unspoken, intimate act of feeding is deeply calming to you and your baby. Sharing this silent bonding act before bed is essential to promote a good night's sleep.
A full belly is a great way to encourage tiredness and sleep - the same is true for our babies. A newborn's stomach is only small, and their lower capacity for a big meal is likely only to keep them asleep for around 4-5 hours before needing another.
That being said, promoting a regular ritual of a cuddle and a feed is a subtle calming cue that bedtime is around the corner.
Why is it important to set a baby's sleep schedule?
Babies have no way of conceiving what rules and routines are. As with every other parental responsibility, you must establish your newborn's sleep pattern because they certainly can't do it themselves.
A baby's sleep pattern is sporadic and unpredictable. You have to help ground them into a routine to adjust to day-to-day life. Developing a structure will soothe babies by taking unpredictability out of their day.
Maybe the most fundamental reason to establish your baby's bedtime routine is for your health and wellbeing. Having a child is the quickest way to undo your good sleep habits, and, for the first months of their life, how much sleep you get is directly dependent on them.
Sleep is essential to maintain being an attentive, mindful, and loving parent. The less of it you get, the more short-tempered and unfocused you may become. Therefore, you must mold your infant's schedule with as much initiative as possible; the sooner you do so, the quicker you will be living in harmony with them.
Why won't my baby sleep at night?
Before we start to discuss this, let's make sure we understand that dealing with your baby not sleeping through the night is an immutable part of being the parent of an infant.
Often, no matter the lengths you go to help your baby fall asleep through the night, they will wake up consistently. This, of course, doesn't make it any less draining.
Either way, it's no reason to panic and is likely caused by temporary issues like teething, developmental changes, and illness.
Let's look at some strategies to get them back to the land of nod and reinforce their sleep cycle.
Check if they need anything
Bouncing between napping and waking up is natural and part of the baby's sleep cycle. But it's still worth checking if something is stimulating them and keeping them from sleeping through the night.
Maybe the room is too hot or cold; you can fix this by opening or closing a window or adjusting the heating in the room.
They might have been to the toilet and need to be changed, or maybe the final feed has worn off and is ready for another.
Look out for sleep regressions
For the first four months of your baby's life, they will be a cozy, sleepy bundle, nodding off every hour at will and sleeping soundly. Then all of a sudden, this can change. This phenomenon is known as sleep regression.
Sleep regression is a sign that your baby is becoming more aware of this shiny new world they've found themselves in. With so much to see and do, new people to meet, and ideas to explore, sleep just isn't that interesting anymore.
The best way to get through a sleep regression is to persevere with your routine. Stick the bathing and the bedtime feed and cuddles, keep singing lullabies, and encourage your baby to fall asleep.
Sometimes it might feel like you're hitting your head against a wall, but remember that sleep regression is a temporary developmental milestone, and it will soon pass.
Ensure they have enough attention during the day
Separation anxiety is a neurosis that starts very early in our lives and is particularly prevalent in the newborn mind that lacks the ability to rationalise bedtime.
We can counteract this by ensuring our babies get enough quality time with us during the day. Physical contact and socialisation are essential for development at this crucial stage in a baby's life. A healthy amount of it during the day will keep them relaxed and well-adjusted and help dispel any anxiety when it comes to bedtime.
How to help your baby get to sleep
Tiredness can be confusing for a baby. They'll feel grouchy, irritable and low on energy, but often they won't want to sleep.
With that in mind, it's your responsibility to encourage their sleep schedule and help guide them to sleep when that's the last thing on their mind.
Once you begin to pick up on the cues they give off when they're feeling sleepy, you'll learn to have them sleeping through the night in no time.
If you’re looking for ways of getting your little one to sleep, read on or check out our other guide on how to put a baby to sleep in 40 seconds.
Work on a feeding and sleep schedule early on
Establishing rituals is key to human comfort. Even as adults, many of us have a bedtime routine to get us ready for sleep, and it's crucial to establish this early in a baby's life.
This can be complicated by the fact that your baby's sleep cycle will look nothing like yours, lacking any real rhythm for the first few months. However, it's important to build a sleeping and feeding schedule to help your baby understand the cues that let them know it's nearly bedtime.
Look out for sleep cues
Picking up on your baby's sleep cues is part of getting to know your baby. Early in your baby's life, they will be too busy either feeding or sleeping to have a chance to show you any sleep cues. However, once they start becoming aware of the world around them, they are more likely to show you these cues.
Some sleep cues can include:
- Staring off into space
- Weaker nuzzling
- Less movement and being still
- Heavy eyelids
- Thumb/finger sucking
- Irritable and fussy
- Crying, though this is a late cue.
These are all hints that your baby is starting to feel drowsy and should be good markers to build a bedtime routine around.
It's essential to spot their cues as early as possible because the precious window between an infant being sleepy and overtired can be very short.
Avoid keeping them awake for too long
This point has a lot in common with the previous one, so let's discuss what happens when a baby becomes overtired.
Once a baby starts fussing, this is a sign that they are already overtired. This will occur after they've given off subtle cues that they are ready for bed, and if you missed those cues, you might have set yourself up for a tricky bedtime.
An overtired baby has begun to produce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and with these in their system, it can be challenging to get to sleep. Over tiredness acts like a spiral; the longer they cannot sleep, the more stressed they become.
Up to three months, babies are just not equipped to handle long periods of wakefulness. It's important never to let them be awake for too long, or you'll pay the price at bedtime!
Don't be afraid of 'spoiling' them
First off, let's start by saying that there is simply no way you can spoil your baby by holding them and rocking them. Research shows that up to 6 months, there is no such thing as spoiling.
Meeting a baby's need to be held, comforted, and fed in a routine fashion lays the groundwork for a loving relationship between child and parent. Babies who are shown attention more quickly develop into more confident and secure kids.
There are many ways you can give your attention to your little one to help ease them off to sleep. You can rock them either by hand or in a rocking chair, or perhaps take an interest in the toy or blanket they might be trying to soothe themselves with.
It's important to remember that babies are masters at picking up on behavioural cues, and they can read our moods much better than we give them credit for.
Make sure you are in a good mood when you cuddle them and not frustrated by their unwillingness to nod off. It's okay to take a moment to calm yourself and ensure you are your best self when you tend to them.
Bear in mind that if your baby is crying, this doesn't necessarily mean they are distressed or require your immediate attention. Crying is a baby's only form of communication and can be used to express many different things, not just distress. It's okay to leave them to it for a few minutes to help them learn to handle frustration by themselves.
Baby sleep safety
A common and well-reasoned fear among new parents is the quiet danger of what can happen to your baby in its crib while asleep and unattended. The risks a baby can face while asleep are very slim, but they exist nonetheless.
Thankfully doing your best to ensure they’re sleeping safely is straightforward.
Put them on their back
It's key to ensure that your infant sleeps on their back to decrease the chance of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the leading cause of death in babies from 1 month to 1 year old and shows clear links to babies sleeping on their stomachs.
You may find that your baby is naturally inclined to sleep on their stomach. But by placing your baby on their back, you'll see they can't roll onto their tummy.
Once you've observed your baby repeatedly roll from their front to their back, you can then leave them to find their preferred position to sleep in.
Humans always sleep better in a cooler room, and a stuffy room will generally lead to poorer sleep. Not only can a hot room make your baby uncomfortable, but it can also lead to SIDS.
The ideal bedroom temperature for your baby is 68° F to 72°F, but if you don't have a thermometer, it should be at a temperature that isn't too cold or warm for you.
Some ways to tell if your baby might be overheating are:
- Their skin is red.
- They have a fast heartbeat.
- They are warm to touch.
- They are unresponsive or lethargic.
- They seem dizzy or confused.
Contrary to what you might think, babies are at higher risk of SIDS in winter. This is due to parents worrying their babies might get cold, so they overdress them. If you’re struggling with how to dress your baby for sleep in winter months, our guide may be helpful.
Don't be afraid to dress them lightly during the summer months. It's fine even just to let them sleep in a diaper and a very light swaddle.
If your baby gets too hot in bed, they might become restless. This means less sleep for them and you. To avoid this, don't bundle them too tightly with extra clothing or hats. Hats are especially dangerous, as they can slip down their heads and cause breathing difficulties.
Don't use blankets in your baby's crib, especially not electric blankets. The key to keeping your baby's crib safe is avoiding any unnecessary objects.
If your baby is too warm, take them to a cooler room for a spell while you air their room, dress them in lighter clothing, or give them a quick sponge bath in lukewarm water.
Avoid unnecessary items in the crib
Your baby's crib should be empty, barring your baby and maybe a pacifier if they sleep with one. This might spoil the image you had in mind of a crib full of cuddly toys, but needs must.
Your newborn is still at a stage where they might be able to roll over but not turn themselves back, so you'll want any obstructions, like soft toys, gone from the crib when it's time to sleep. You might think the toys are a good way of bringing comfort, but it's strongly advised that a clear crib is a safer sleep environment.
You can stretch to allow them one small toy; just ensure that it has no buttons or ribbons that can be popped off and swallowed while you're not in the room. Make sure if you do choose a toy, it's one that promotes relaxation and not stimulation.
Choose the correct mattress and sheets
When you picture your baby's crib, it's easy to imagine it full of plush comfy bedding. However, the reality is a little more minimalist. A safe sleep environment has a fitted sheet on a firm mattress and nothing else.
The SIDS First Candle Alliance warns that crib bedding can pose a significant increase in the chance of SIDS. You will be able to keep your baby perfectly warm with clothing alone, so don't feel the need to smother them in covers. Baby sleeping bags are another popular choice - just make sure your baby won't be able to wriggle down inside the bag.
A good bedsheet will stick to the mattress like glue, with elastic the whole way around. They will ideally be 100% cotton, which holds up well to repeated washing. This is important, as regular washing can shrink your sheets, and if you start to struggle to fit them around the mattress, they're no good.
Should I be concerned that my baby isn't sleeping well?
Every baby is unique and will present entirely new sleeping challenges.
There are a few cues to look out for to diagnose why your baby might not be sleeping.
If they nap for short periods and then wake up crying, they might be overtired. This might be because they were awake too long between their naps; you can fix this by timing their naps around their biological rhythm.
If your baby is constantly waking up early in the morning, you can adjust your bedtime to suit theirs, so their early wake-up doesn't disturb you. But bear in mind that a 6 AM wake-up is not considered early!
If your baby is not sleeping, no matter what you do, you may want to consider consulting your paediatrician.
How can I get my newborn to sleep longer at night?
Before we consider this question, it's important to remember that the erratic sleep patterns may seem like they're not sleeping, but there is no one magic pill to solve this problem.
As you get nearer bedtime, try to limit the distractions available to your baby and lower light levels around them. Fewer screens or bright lights can encourage them to sleep. You can also try playing white noise to help your baby sleep.
The key is also to be patient. Your baby will sense a higher level of stress, so it is essential to persevere and trust the consistent repetition until your baby has settled into a routine.
When will my baby start sleeping through the night?
Around 6-12 months is when babies learn to sleep through the night and self-comfort without needing to cry for your attention.
Remember that adults often wake during the night, which is also true of babies. 11-12 hours of sleep is generally considered a full night's sleep for babies.
Every baby is unique and will learn to self-comfort at different ages, so don't panic if they're not sleeping through the night even at 12 months.