Normal newborn sleep and unicorn babies
So many times as a sleep-deprived new mother, I asked myself the question “how can this possibly be normal newborn sleep?”. Dr.Google told me that my baby waking up every 1.5-2 hours for the first few months of his life was absolutely normal (babies need to eat frequently during the first few months) while also completely abnormal (babies should be on a schedule and should be sleeping through the night by 12 weeks).
I have learned so much since those early days, as a mother of three and a Gentle Sleep Coach, and I would like to share with you today what normal newborn sleep actually looks like.
Babies who wake up as soon as they are transferred to their bassinet.
When babies are born, they come with instincts. These are in place to keep them safe (you know – from the bear that lives in your bathroom). They know that when they are cuddled up on your chest, not only do they feel cozy and secure, but they also feel safe. And not so worried that the bear from the bathroom will come eat them. Obviously, there is no bear in your bathroom, but your baby instinctually knows that their best chance of survival is when their big human is close by. And so, many babies ask to be in their “safe place”. Some all day AND all night.
I can assure you that this does not last forever. I have never worked with a five-year-old who refuses to move from his mama’s chest. As babies grow and develop, they begin to feel more safe and secure in their world, especially as it becomes more familiar to them.
In the meantime, if your baby wakes shortly after placing them in their bassinet, you can try a few things to encourage them to sleep longer in their sleep space:
- Babies go through a partial arousal approximately 20 minutes after falling asleep. Transferring a baby before they go through this partial arousal isn’t as likely to be successful.
- Partial arousal means “partially awake”. This is the time when babies transition from the lighter part of the sleep cycle to deeper, more restorative sleep. If they fell asleep in your arms, they may notice the change in sleep space and fully awaken.
- Try holding your baby in your arms until they enter a deeper sleep (ie. when their limbs become “dead weight”).
- A good test for this is to gently lift your baby’s arm. If there is no resistance, they are likely in a deeper sleep. If they startle, you may want to wait a few more minutes.
- When you place them in their sleep space, apply some gentle pressure on their torso, holding their arms in place.
- This can help to minimize the likelihood of them noticing the transfer from your arms to their own space, especially if they are not quite in the deeper sleep cycle.
- If you have them sleeping independently, you can also use these tips for when your baby stirs mid-nap to encourage a longer slumber.
Babies who wake up every 2 hours to feed for weeks and weeks.
There is a wide range of normal in the first few months of a baby’s life. By 6 months, there are more similarities between sleep and nap patterns among babies. Waking every 1-4 hours is much more common than babies who sleep 8 hours a night from birth (I like to call these super sleepers “unicorn babies” – I have heard of them, but have never experienced one myself!). And just because your friend’s baby slept 8 hours at a time from the get-go does not mean that your baby has this ability or even should have this ability. Waking frequently throughout the night has even been shown to act as a protective mechanism for babies. Babies spend much more time than adults in REM sleep than deep sleep (your newborn’s brain has a higher activity level when in REM/active sleep vs. deeper sleep/slower brain waves).
If you have concerns that your baby seems uncomfortable when they wake or if they are waking even more frequently than every 1-2 hours, you may want to have a chat with your doctor to rule out medical issues such as GERD (reflux) and OSA (obstructive sleep apnea).
Babies who were sleeping 5-hour stretches who suddenly are waking up every 60-90 minutes.
Babies go through numerous leaps in their cognitive development in the first few years of life. Every time they go through one of these developmental leaps, the entire way they perceive and
experience the world changes. They are constantly processing as they master their new abilities and perceptions. This, unfortunately for parents, also means that babies often wake up when they go through a partial or full arousal during the night to continue this processing. To find out more about the leaps your baby will experience (when they happen, how to help your baby get through them, and how to cope) I strongly recommend the Wonder Weeks book or app.
Along with these developmental leaps, are motor milestones. Whenever your baby tries to master a new motor skill, you will likely notice that sleep becomes a lesser priority for them. The best thing you can do is help them to master whichever skill they are working on during the daytime so they don’t feel the need to practice at night.
Babies who like to party in the middle of the night.
I’m sorry, but this too is par for the course in the first few weeks with a new baby. You may have noticed in your pregnancy that your baby had a very active period as soon as you lay down to sleep for the night. If you think about this from your baby’s point of view, they are being rocked ALL DAY LONG by your movements. When the movements stop, party time begins! It is quite common for babies to have their days and nights mixed up. The best way to normalize their sleeping patterns is by helping them set their circadian rhythm. You can do this by exposing them to plenty of natural light during the day (either by being outside or by opening as many windows as you can). Keep the light bright during the day and the room as dark as possible from bedtime to awake time. And remember to be the most boring parent you can be throughout the night. Interaction is exciting and stimulating for babies – save this excitement for the daytime!
Many babies adjust within several weeks, and they should know the difference between days and nights by 12 weeks of age.
Ok. So now that you know that you are likely experiencing normal newborn sleep, how do you survive?
Here are my survival tips:
- Don’t rush in the second you think your baby is awake
- Help your baby’s circadian rhythm to develop
- Outside time during the day
- Natural light
- Follow their cues/sleepy signs
- Protect their daytime sleep
- Sleep or rest when baby sleeps
- Set up a sleep inducing environment
- Don’t compare your baby to “unicorn” babies
- Sleep in the same room as your baby
- Avoid artificial lighting at night
(ie. phone screens)
- Get plenty of natural light and
outside time yourself
- Eat a balanced diet
- Clear your schedule
- Call in backup (aka grandma, husband, etc.) to hold your baby while you sleep
- Prioritize sleep
- Delegate your “to-do list”
- Trust your intuition
- Remember that every sleepless night is one sleepless night behind you – it will get better!
Andrea Galambos is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach, and founder of Blissful Nights. As a former exhausted parent and mom of three busy little kids, Andrea fully understands the toll extreme sleep deprivation can take. As a Gentle Sleep Coach, Andrea works with tired parents of infants and small children, helping them gently and lovingly teach their children invaluable sleep skills. As the children learn to sleep, parents are reunited with their own long-lost and desperately missed uninterrupted sleep.