The baby’s sleep
A newborn spends most of the day (about 20 hours) sleeping, but there are also individual differences in how much sleep a baby needs. During the first few months, the baby’s uninterrupted periods of sleep can last from 20 minutes to 6 hours. A newborn is not aware of the time of the day. An adult would prefer to enjoy a good night’s sleep with no interruptions, but the baby’s longest stretch of sleep may just as well happen during the day as the night.
At the beginning, you should simply accept that the baby has no daily rhythm and avoid planning any exact schedules during the first few months. The newborn baby is still developing a daily rhythm, and the small stomach needs food frequently throughout the day and night. However, you can soon start teaching your daily rhythm to the baby by influencing the signals the baby gets from the surroundings.
Babies’ sleep quality and cycles are different from adults
A baby’s active sleep corresponds to an adult’s REM sleep which is when dreaming happens. Adults experience REM sleep at the end of each sleep cycle, close to the moment of waking up, but when newborns fall asleep, active sleep begins immediately. During active sleep, the baby may suck, snort, make sudden movements, roll over and wiggle. Their eyes may be open even if they are asleep. The parents may mistakenly assume that the baby is sleeping restlessly or poorly or is still partly awake, even though the baby is sleeping exactly as they should. During quiet sleep, the baby can sleep very heavily.
The baby’s sleep cycle only lasts for about 50 minutes, while an adult’s sleep cycle is 90 to 120 minutes. For this reason, the baby often wakes up just as the adult is reaching their stage of deepest sleep, causing the adult to wake up confused and often irritated. Understanding the difference between the sleep cycles of a baby and an adult often helps the parents cope with nightly wake-ups. Waking up repeatedly can feel very tiring to an adult, but the parents can find comfort in the knowledge that the baby has had enough sleep when they wake up according to their own sleep cycle.
Some babies are able to self-soothe and resume sleep without waking up fully in between, while some babies wake up crying. The ability to move from one sleep cycle to the next is both an innate ability and a learned skill. The baby’s temperament also affects the way their sleeping habits and habits of falling asleep develop.
How to improve the baby’s sleep
During the baby’s first few months, you are laying the groundwork for the baby’s future daily rhythm and sleeping habits. In Finland, actual infant sleep interventions are not recommended to children under six months of age. When the baby is small, you as parents can nonetheless use several rather easy methods to try to make the baby sleep longer.
Daily rhythm and regulating the amount of light
In addition to regular care, the baby also needs to spend time, interact and go outdoors with the parents. Your baby will sleep better at night if you have spent time together during the day playing with the baby and showing them enough affection. Spending time outdoors in the bright daylight will keep the baby alert during the day and helps them recognise the difference between day and night. Do not interact much with the baby at night. Only give the baby the necessary care. Keep the lights as dim as possible and avoid giving the baby too much stimulation.
Different stages of growth and development, travel that disrupts your routine or illnesses, for example, can easily cause your baby to lose their daily rhythm. Even if you spend a night awake with the baby, it is recommended to start the new day at the same time as usual. This way, a bad night every now and then will not turn the baby’s regular daily rhythm upside down.
Regular evening routines
Even when the baby is just few weeks old, it is a good idea to put them to bed at the same time every night. This will help the baby tell days and nights apart. Regular evening routines always in the same order and in the same place also let the baby know that bedtime is near. An evening routine may for example include feeding the baby, washing or bathing the baby, changing the diaper and putting on pyjamas, turning down the lighting and finally a nursery song. As unnecessary stimulation or noises make it harder for the baby to fall asleep, you should turn off the television before starting your evening routine.
Letting your baby fall asleep on their own
Watching your baby will teach you to recognise signs that tell you when the baby is tired. The baby may for example yawn, rub their eyes, be fussy or not interested in play. In this case, place the sleepy baby in the bed and leave them there so that they can fall asleep on their own. You can leave a toy or a blanket, a dummy or a shirt that smells like mum in the bed to comfort your baby. If the baby is calming down on their own, there is no need to disturb the baby by lulling them to sleep. However, if the baby sometimes needs to be comforted just a little, you can massage or stroke their lower back or bottom.
Leave the baby to fall asleep in the place where they should sleep through the night. If the baby wakes up in an environment that is clearly different from where they fell asleep, they will wake up fully in order to pay attention to the surroundings. If the baby wakes up fully, going back to sleep is difficult.
If the baby makes noises while falling asleep or when they wake up at night, you should not rush to the baby’s side immediately. When babies are falling asleep, they often turn from side to side, gurgle, let out melancholic sighs or cry a little. You can let the baby do this. This way, the baby will have the opportunity to learn to fall asleep on their own. You can visit the baby once in a while to check on them. Do not let a small baby cry alone for a long time. If the baby’s fussiness clearly turns into crying, you should not wait to calm the baby down.
You can also decide not to let the baby spend any time crying alone before you try to comfort them. You can very well decide that the time to teach the baby to fall asleep alone will come later. In this case, you can teach the baby to fall asleep while breastfeeding or in your arms.
A dummy (a pacifier) may help the baby fall asleep but it may also cause problems during the night. The baby may easily fall asleep while sucking on the dummy but when it falls out of the baby’s mouth, the baby wakes up and demands the parents to bring the dummy back.
Swaddling and sleeping bags
Swaddling, or wrapping the small baby snugly in a blanket, helps many babies fall asleep and wake up less frequently during the night. If the baby wakes up, being swaddled helps them fall asleep again. The cloth also prevents the baby from waving their limbs hard enough to wake up.
If the baby tends to kick away their blankets at night, a sleeping bag may help them sleep more calmly. It guarantees an even temperature and reduces the baby’s movements at night.
Breastfeeding in the evening
If a baby who is breastfed gets used to falling asleep while nursing, soon they may not be able to go back to sleep if they wake up at night and the mother’s breast is not there. You can try to prevent the baby from developing this sleep association by not nursing the baby immediately before bedtime. Instead, feed the baby first and then change their diaper or change the baby into pyjamas. The mother can also feed the baby in a room other than the bedroom. If the baby falls asleep while nursing, gently wake them up a little bit. Then the other parent can put the baby to bed for a night’s sleep. This also applies to bottle-fed babies.
A smart nursing schedule
The baby often gets hungry right after the parents have gone to bed and fallen asleep. You should adopt a smart nursing schedule where you feed the baby right before you go to sleep. This may enable the parents to enjoy several hours of uninterrupted sleep. In this case, the baby can feed even half asleep and then go back to sleep, content with a full belly.
A safe place to sleep
Always put the baby to bed on their back! Do not let the baby sleep on their belly because this increases the risk of suffocation. The air in the room should be fresh. The baby does not need a pillow in their bed. Having a lot of toys in the baby’s bed may be a safety hazard. If your family has pets, make sure that the animals cannot get into the baby’s bed or pram while the baby is sleeping.
The place where the baby sleeps often depends on the family’s culture, situation and habits. The baby can spend their first month sleeping in the maternity package box, in a crib or in the parents’ bed with the parents.
You can create a safe sleeping spot for the baby for example by placing the crib next to your bed with one side lowered down to the level of the parents’ bed. If you place the crib snugly against the parents’ bed, the baby will sleep close to you and you can easily lift the baby to you for a moment for breastfeeding. This way you can also avoid the risk of one of the parents accidentally rolling over onto the baby. If the baby shares the parents’ bed, make sure that the mattress is not too soft, the blankets and pillows are not too thick and your nightwear has no ribbons. If one of the parents is exceptionally tired or has taken a sleeping pill, the baby must sleep elsewhere for safety reasons.
Babies often take their best and longest daytime naps outdoors in the pram. If your baby was born in the summer, you can usually start taking the baby outdoors right away. If you had your baby in the winter, wait for a couple of weeks and then start taking the baby outdoors gradually. If the temperature drops to or below –10 degrees Celsius, stay indoors. Make sure the baby’s clothing is sufficiently warm, particularly if the baby is sleeping outdoors. Do not let the pram sit in the sun because it might get too hot inside. Also protect the pram from wind.
If your baby sleeps poorly, get help early on
Lack of sleep has an impact on all aspects of life, which is why it is not a small matter. Being tired affects how your day goes and the interaction between the child and the parent. It can easily cause disputes between the parents. If the lack of sleep continues long enough, it may lead to depression and even expose the child to mistreatment. The baby’s sleep–wake rhythm and possible disturbances in it may also affect the baby’s emotions. If your baby has trouble sleeping, it is a good idea to get professional help early on.
Ask your friends and family to help. Bring the matter up at the child health clinic. Family Work can help you with housework and childcare. Sometimes it is also possible to take the baby to a sleep school at a hospital.
Things to consider
- What kind of sleepers are you?
- Have you thought about your sleeping arrangements at home since the baby was born?
- If the baby keeps you awake at night, what are the things that help cope with little sleep?
- Can you take turns to wake up at night?
- Do you have family members or friends that you could ask for help if you are too tired to take care of the baby?