When your baby is a newborn, they usually rely on you to fall asleep. We hold, rock and soothe our babies to help them fall asleep. Learning to fall asleep independently is a developmental skill, but we can help our babies begin to learn this skill even from a young age. This is not sleep training, but it is a form of sleep coaching for your baby. The goal is to provide little bits of support and soothing to your baby to assist their ability to fall asleep independently. The more intervention that is needed means that your baby needs more time to practice this skill.
As they learn the skill, they begin to require less intervention from you, with the ultimate goal of being put down drowsy but awake and falling asleep independently without crying. No parent likes to hear their baby cry, but it is important to differentiate between your baby’s vocal behaviors. Fussing is not the same as crying, so if the baby is vocalizing and making grunts or moans, try not to intervene immediately. This is the baby's way of working through this skill of self-soothing and becoming calm enough to fall asleep. If the baby is crying, by all means pick up the baby and provide comfort and soothing!
Once the baby is calm, put them back down in the crib. If the baby still cannot seem to calm and settle without your soothing support, consider offering another feeding, as it may have been 1 hour or more since the last feeding. The more you consistently stick with this type of bedtime routine, your baby will keep getting closer to learning and mastering the skill of falling asleep independently.
Providing Sleep Coaching Cues
Over the first few months of your baby’s life, they will rely on you to provide cues and consistency that help them to understand the difference between day and night. A circadian rhythm, or our body’s ability to naturally wake to the morning daylight and become sleepy when the sun sets, is not present with newborns. In addition, newborns do not make the sleepy hormone known as melatonin until they are about 3 months old. Frequent daytime naps are essential for young babies because sleep is how their brains store information and how their bodies grow. They wake frequently because they have a shorter sleep cycle and small stomachs which require frequent feedings. Most babies will not start to consistently sleep for longer nighttime stretches until close to 6 months of age. It is for this reason that it is not recommended to formally sleep train babies until they are developmentally ready.
Sleep Advice for New Parents
One of the hardest things about new parenthood is the loss of sleep, and how devastating that can feel for an adult. If new parents understand more about their own sleep cycles and ways to adjust their own sleep schedules, they can make the transition to parenthood easier.
First and foremost, new parents should understand that their own sleep cycle is about 90 minutes in length. In a 24 hour period, most adults require 4-5 completed sleep cycles to feel rested and able to carry out normal daily tasks. Prior to having a baby, most adults get these 4-5 sleep cycles during their nighttime sleep. Seven to eight hours of sleep per night allow us to get these necessary sleep cycles and be at our best each day. Once we start losing sleep cycles within a 24 hour period, we immediately begin to feel the detrimental effects of sleep loss. Having a new baby at home means frequent nighttime wakings for the parents, which automatically prevents them from getting the necessary amount of completed sleep cycles at night. Therefore, it is essential that new parents try to make up for those lost sleep cycles with daytime naps.
Sleep Tips for New Parents
Instead of trying to manipulate your little one’s sleep patterns, instead try to track and schedule your own sleep. By making your sleep a priority and tracking how many completed sleep cycles you are getting each day, you will be contributing to your own health and well-being. Newborns sleep a lot during the day, so that means that for the first couple of months, you may also need to nap multiple times during the day and go to bed earlier than your pre-baby bedtime. You will most likely not be able to get enough sleep at night due to your baby’s frequent wakings, so it is advisable to try and sleep the way your baby sleeps in the early days. As your little one gets older, they will typically stretch out their nighttime sleep because their sleep cycle changes at around 3 months of age.
Did you know that the perfect length for an adult power nap, also known as a recovery nap, is about 20 minutes? You can lay your baby down for a nap, lay yourself down for a 20 minute nap and then get up before your baby does! If there are opportunities for you to nap longer during the daytime in the early weeks at home with a newborn, we highly encourage you to do so! But even if you aren’t able to take a long daytime nap, it is important to know that even a 20 minute nap can help you to feel more rested.
The bottom line here is that although we may not be able to control how and when our baby sleeps in the early days, we can try to make our own sleep a priority by adjusting our sleep routines and patterns. There is a great deal of sleep learning that happens when you bring your baby home, and much of that is learning relates to your own adult sleep routine. If you are willing to make the necessary changes to your own sleep habits and prioritize getting 4-5 sleep cycles each 24 hours, you should not experience severe sleep deprivation that is often associated with new parenthood.
As your baby grows and matures, they will usually begin to sleep for longer periods at night. This will allow you to resume your nighttime sleep patterns that provide you with your completed sleep cycles during the night. If your baby is still not sleeping well at night by 6 months of age, it can be helpful to consider trying a more structured sleep learning program at that time since it usually aligns with your baby’s developmental sleep milestones.