I often wish I had known what I know about sleep now when I had my first baby. I would have felt a whole lot more peaceful about being a new mom.
Postpartum hormones seem to have this way of tricking us into believing we are invincible, and we don’t rest as much as our bodies need in those early weeks. We also tend to lack the support and care we need after having a baby, all resulting in exhaustion. New parents often reach out to me because their baby is a few weeks old and they have hit a brick wall of tired. A feeling I too experienced when my children were new. Don’t get me wrong, parenting is exhausting even when your child sleeps well, but it is easier if you’re getting more than 15 minutes of sleep at a time.
The tricky thing about newborn babies is that they do need to feed throughout the night, and they have short sleep cycles. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) sleep train a newborn. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your newborn’s sleep and yours.
Avoiding an Association Between Feeding and Sleeping
Learning that new babies can only tolerate approximately 45 minutes of wake time came as a surprise to me. What about you? 45 minutes is not a lot of time considering you generally need to feed baby, burp them, change them, have a little play time, and then that’s it, back to sleep. Where the trouble comes in is that a lot of parents and caregivers keep babies up until they are fussy. Then, they wonder what is wrong with the baby. Confusing as it is, the cues a baby gives when they are hungry, and the signals they give when they are sleepy are very similar, and so tired babies are mistaken for hungry babies. The fussy baby is then fed to sleep. This happens over and over and before you know it the baby associates eating with going to sleep.
Creating an association between feeding and sleep means that the baby becomes dependent on a bottle or breastfeeding to go to sleep. Babies have very short sleep cycles, naturally stirring as often as every 50-60 minutes. If your baby has developed an association between feeding and sleeping, they will expect to be fed each time they wake between sleep cycles in the night, leading to night feeding even when they no longer require it.
You can prevent creating an association between feeding and going to sleep by feeding your baby when they first wake up. I suggest you feed, play, sleep. If your baby has fed since they awoke and you notice that they are starting to get cranky, check the clock. Has it been about 45 minutes? They may be tired instead of hungry.
Let Your Baby Learn to Fall Asleep
I wish someone would have told me it was okay to put my oldest daughter down and let her fall asleep on her own. It seems to be pretty standard among new moms to believe we need to rock our babies to sleep, and who are we kidding, most of us feed them while we rock. We tend to do whatever we feel is necessary to get them asleep, and then make sure they are very, very asleep so that they don’t wake up when we put them down. If we step back though and think about it, we know this is not the ideal way to create healthy sleep habits. I suggest you give your baby opportunities to put themselves to sleep throughout the day. If you’ve fed, changed, and played with them and it’s reaching that 45-minute mark, go ahead and put them to bed. Sometimes they will drift off to sleep and sometimes they won’t. The times that they do just show that they are learning to go to sleep on their own.
Confusing Day and Night
I don’t think that newborn babies have days and nights as mixed up as we are led to believe by old sayings. There is a fair amount of rhythm while baby is in the womb between their ability to see light and hear what is going on outside the womb and a mother’s production of cortisol and melatonin. Some babies do need more help than others to adjust their sleeping patterns. You can help your baby sleep on a more ideal schedule by ensuring their sleep space is very dark and exposing them to sunlight during the day (try feeding them near a window with the drapes open). You can use Blackout EZ Window Covers or a similar product to keep the light out at sleep time. Avoid using bright lights when caring for your baby at night.
These three tips will help your newborn build healthy sleep habits right from the start!