How can you help your newborn develop good sleep habits? How can you do it gently? It's something that a lot of parents worry about. You don't want to use “cry-it-out” – nothing that feels coercive.
Topics I Cover in This Episode
There's actually been a lot research done on sleep, so we know that newborns DO have very different sleep patterns from adults.
However, their sleep pattern changes drastically to become very “adult-like” by around 16 weeks. It's only for the first four months that something different is going on – and you can work on encouraging good sleep habits even then. After that, you can work on establishing sleep habits that help for all of life.
Breastfeeding is another issue. You may hear sleep-trainers talking about breastfed babies – saying that they don't need to nurse through the night. Studies show that breastfed babies generally do need to nurse through the night. By about 9 months, most babies don't need to nurse at night anymore (at that point, it's for comfort more than nutrition). But it's completely reasonable for babies to nurse at night throughout the newborn period.
I've always been okay with my babies nursing at night. Honestly, we've always co-slept (to a certain extent – I'm not a fan of toddlers in my bed, but we've always co-slept with babies) because I don't like being up a million times in the night! We have a bunch of kids and a busy schedule – so I value sleep.
The first step was actually listed above – having reasonable expectations for your newborn's sleep cycles, and for when those will mature. Then you know what you're working with, and what you can move your baby towards.
Before we jump into the tips I also want to remind you: your baby comes as part of a family.
It is true that you are there to serve your baby's needs at first, but the family needs to function as a family. So, gently guiding our children into habits that help them be part of the family is a good thing.
That doesn't mean you have to do anything harsh, or cry-it-out, but it does mean you can intentionally think about sleep habits. Ask yourself “how can I move this new person towards our family's sleep habits?” Those are good things to think about.
Let's dig into specific tips now:
The very first tip that I can give you is make nighttime, nighttime!
In the first couple of days, especially if this is your first baby, or it's been a while since you've had a newborn, you might be tempted to turn on all the lights…
…Turn on lights for the diaper change…
…Turn on ways to figure out how to get this kid latched on…
Honestly, I think that's okay at first.
But my goal is to move away from that as quickly as possible.
So I don't want the lights on.
So at first I might turn the lamp on, and I would recommend have a lamp or night light or something that's got an adjustable setting, just as much light as you need. NBBC reader Ita emailed me with this cool little lamp – it allows you to open as little or as much as you'd like, so you can control and get only a little bit of light when your need at night!
Then gather everything you're going to need right there. For example, have:
Stock up wherever you're going to be, either by baby's bed or by your bed.
In my own house this is by my bed. My bedside drawer has a little shelf that can slide to make it an extension of the bedside table. When we have a newborn, I always have that pulled out, and I've got a little wipe warmer. Honestly, I totally like pooh-poohed wipe warmers, no pun intended, when I lived down south. But now that I live in Northern Michigan where you think “Oh my gosh, we're gonna freeze” in the middle of the winter – I use a wipe warmer, at least for a newborn.
So I have the wipe warmer set up, have the diapers set up, anything else I'm going to need for the baby right there.
I recommend that you do that.
Even if baby is in their own bed near you, have a little changing center of some sort right there. Everything you need should be in a little basket. That way you don't have to get up in the night. If you think you're going to need extra changes of clothes, burp cloths, think through it all, everything that you could possibly need for that little one, have it right there.
The plan is that when baby needs something in the night, you can quickly take care of those needs right there. There's no walking to the changing station, no going to another room. No bright lights.
Keep everything really really low-key. Have everything right there for you and the baby.
That's a big one.
I try to stop nighttime diaper changes as quickly as possible.
We've used newborn cloth diapers with our last two babies, which worked very well for us. We used disposables before that. It might be a little bit easier with disposables, just because they soak up more, but if you're using newborn cloth, that can work. We actually ended up using flour sack towels at night with a wool cover, because they worked so well at absorbing everything!
Here's a hint if you are using cloth diapers: What I did was literally cut pieces of fleece and laid them inside. That forms a “stay dry” barrier for the baby, which is similar to what a disposable diaper does. The diaper can get soaked but the baby's bottom stays dry, which helps you stop doing nighttime diaper changes.
We're also an EC'ing family, but, I've never really done nighttime elimination communication. If you are doing EC at night, again, I would recommend having everything right there with you.
One of the things I've heard recommended is a large bowl or even a dishpan that you can hold the baby over, so you're not worried about aiming in the middle of the night. You're just going to potty baby and then quickly wrap baby back up and go to bed.
With diaper changes, I try to totally cut those out.
But if you're EC'ing, and you feel like your baby is cueing in the night, and that's why their waking up, that can actually help you get more sleep. Need more info on EC? Check out my elimination communication pages.
If it's a dirty diaper, I always change it. Typically after newborns pass all their meconium and breast-feeding is well established, they stop pooping at night.
They might poop first thing in the morning, so as soon as you notice your baby stirring in the morning, get him up to prevent that.
But otherwise, try and cut out those nighttime diaper changes, because that's a lot of movement, and a lot of activity that can really stimulate a newborn and get them awake!
Here's a review:
Obviously, if your baby is having problems with rashes and things, you might have to make allowances, which might ultimately mean less sleep, but those are some tips that you want to try.
Learn to nurse in a side-lying position!
You don't need to do this if your baby is in a different bed, and you always get up to nurse. In that case it would be more important for you, or it will feel more important for you, to stop nighttime feeds so that you don't have to get up at night anymore.
That's honestly a situation I haven't been in so I can't speak to that – but I will say that the generally accepted rule is that about nine months is when you don't need to have that nighttime feed anymore. You can reduce nighttime feeds gradually before then.
I have step-by-step guidelines to cut down on the number of nighttime nursing sessions gradually in my 3-class series on sleep (covering newborn, baby, and toddler sleep): Click here for more information on Go to Sleep!
I talk about some options for phasing out feeds in the class. If your child is getting up three times a night, I discuss how to phase that down to just one. Up until nine months old, I would probably stick with that one feeding a night – you can let that one go after nine months.
If you're cosleeping, and you're feeling like you're rested, I don't think it matters – keep nursing!
Back to lying down 😉 One my secrets for staying rested while night nursing is to learn to nurse lying down. I have a cousin who who never learned to nurse lying down with her first, and when she did with her second, she was amazed… “I don't know how I did it without lying down with my first baby!”
You and baby can just fall asleep nursing 🙂
Funny story about my kids – they'll see Sadie fall asleep nursing (almost 20 months at the time of this article). She's not in my bed anymore. Like I said, I don't really like toddlers in my bed, and she is definitely at that take-up-the-whole-bed stage! But she'll fall asleep nursing in the recliner with me, and my kids will ask in amazement “How is she sleeping and eating at the same time, that doesn't make any sense?!” It blows their minds that a baby can do that 😉
But really babies can do that!
What if you just don't feel comfortable with nursing lying down, or having your baby in bed with you? You might have your baby close by you in that case, but you'll sit up to nurse the baby. Don't sit up in bed where you're more likely to fall asleep yourself – get up and nurse, but go back to the tips I gave before.
Keep everything low key
If you can nurse lying down, go ahead and remove barriers to helping baby get his or herself latched on! Sleep skin-to-skin with your newborn (nothing on your top). I actually start wearing a t-shirt to bed again when I want to encourage night weaning 😉
If you really need to wear pajamas, choose nursing pajamas that give baby easy access.
Because again, what you're really going for with a newborn is teaching them that nighttime is nighttime. “If I'm to eat at night, it's good to be totally low-key. Mama is not getting up!”
I don't burp at night. Now again I'm coming from the perspective of having always breast-fed my babies. If you need to bottle feed a baby in the night, maybe burping is more important – I honestly don't know.
If that's the case again, you want to keep it low-key.
Really the key to teaching newborns good sleep habits is being low-key with everything at night. So if you must burp, pick the method of burping that's most efficient and the least likely to wake your baby. Over the shoulder is often good for that, or across your legs (with baby on his/her belly).
The other big tip is pay attention to what you do with your newborn during the day – a big key with newborns is that they can only stay awake for two hours or so at a time.
Once you're getting close to that two-hour point, your newborn is overtired.
Some newborns can't even make this – my babies have not been able to really even stay up for two hours early on. They'll start getting cranky and overstimulated and especially Honor and Sadie, both needed to go back to sleep earlier. I guess my boys have had a little more staying power, but they still couldn't really go longer than 2 hours.
When you're hitting the point you know they'll start getting cranky, start a sleep routine to help them get back to sleep. Remember, they're up for two hours or more, they're getting overstimulated.
With a baby overstimulated doesn't mean that “Ah, I've got bright stuff all around, and I'm overstimulating you.” That's not what it means – overstimulated really means overtired.
There is so much going on in front of their eyes that they just can't disconnect, and they can't go to sleep.
Guard against that during the day.
When your child hits that 16-week point, around that four-month mark, that sleeping pattern starts to fade and you can move towards the traditional way that we think about baby sleeping:
But up until that 16-week point, you're really looking at awake time, more than nap time.
So, “Oh, he's been up for an hour and a half. I'm seeing signs of sleepiness, that sort of thing.” It's time to start the sleep routine.
Then they get up.
They sleep for two, three, maybe four hours. And then they're up again, and again they're up for only a short time.
So if throughout the day, you guard, watch for those sleep signs, help your newborn settle and sleep for a little while, then, by the time it's bedtime, they don't get overtired.
Newborns may have a later bedtime.
If you have toddler he's going to bed at 7:30 at night.
But newborn may have taken a long nap in the afternoon, so they're up from 6 to 8, and then they go to sleep.
Some newborns are up from 8:00 to 10:00, so it's normal for a little bit of a later bedtime for newborns.
That's something to keep in mind too – but once you hit the newborn's nighttime, it's “light's out!” “Okay, it's 11:00, you're tired, we're going to go down for bed, we're not going to get up again little one, we're going keep things dark and quiet.
Hopefully those tips help you get your newborn off to a good start.
Doing these things, being conscious of these things, can help set the stage for good sleep habits later on.
Again, I have a three-part course: one for newborns, one for older babies, and one for toddlers, called Go to Sleep – click here to check it out!
I would love to see you there. If you've got any sleep questions for you and your little one after you watch the class be sure to email me 🙂