Having difficulty getting your newborn to sleep? What to expect.

by | Dec 8, 2022 | Improving sleep, Newborn, Top tips

When I was pregnant with Élodie I read, I watched and I learnt. Despite originally training as a Children’s nurse, my anxieties about having a little one rely on me for everything and what to expect when she arrived were sometimes overwhelming. How was I going to get my newborn to sleep?

I think I lost track of how many different articles I read about what I should pack in a hospital bag (and still managed to forget the cotton wool). I attended a lovely NCT class and met a great bunch of people, we discussed all sorts relating to the ‘big’ day and immediate aftermath of labour.

On reflection, it was all geared to supporting us through a 12-36 hour period that would later be masked by a fuzzy hormonal (and sleep deprived) haze.

And now, I have a baby who is clearly overtired, fussy and fractious…hmmmm help!

newborn to sleep, baby sleeping, Gemma Coe, Sleep Consultant

Getting a newborn to sleep. Are you prepared?

I’m so pleased we covered safe sleep. Tick. We also spent time laughing and musing over the inevitable ‘no-sleep, sleep deprivation horror-show’ we’d somehow signed ourselves up to. We didn’t talk about when this may end. We didn’t discuss what to do when it gets too much.

We didn’t talk about what is realistic for newborn sleep and your baby to achieve. We didn’t talk about how to make it better. You just blindly walk through a bleary, foggy wilderness of 1-2 hourly stints, with a vague American sitcom and canned laughter in the background at 3am to keep you company.

Normal baby sleep – How long should my newborn be awake?

So how much does a newborn sleep? In total, they’ll probably be sleeping about 15-17 hours a day. Although there will be no rhythm and the baby bedtime routine may be late at night (10-11pm).

A newborn baby will only manage to stay awake for 60 to 90 minutes at a time. Possibly even just 30 minutes before you see them drift back off. They may fall asleep in their bouncer (then transfer them to a firm, flat sleep space) or out in the car or pram easily. Sometimes they may get so overtired they need a lot of input from their parents (such as rocking and bouncing) to sleep.

In the newborn phase, daytime naps are commonplace. As for nighttime sleep, 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep is pretty good going in the early days. Night feeds are regular as those tiny tummies can only hold so much.

Can I sleep train my newborn baby?

I hear too many worried clients thinking cuddles, contact napping and closeness are making a ‘rod for their own back’. Perhaps this advice to leave them alone has been given ‘helpfully’ by a friend or relative.

Hands on settling strategies are great in these newborn weeks, babies love comfort and closeness, motion and music. Compared to our animal counterparts we’re born far too soon, too underdeveloped and too needy. The first 12 weeks have also been referred to as the fourth trimester.

Closeness, touch, smells, motion and voice soothes a little one into a slumber reminding them of the comfort they had in the womb.

Feeding to sleep, rocking, walking and baby wearing are all great strategies in the early weeks.

By 4-5 months you’ll start to see more predictability and routine. Now it’s a great time to start thinking about finding opportunities and ways to help your baby fall asleep unassisted. Work slowly, they’re still young and this is the ‘practice zone’!

breastfeeding, newborn, baby

How can I get my newborn to fall asleep?

The newborn stage is tough. Parents are tired. Really tired.

It’s also the time I hear so many clients say ‘but we’ve tried EVERYTHING!’, they don’t give themselves enough credit for how much influence they have over their little ones ability to sleep.

Somehow it’s become an expectation that it will all be ok in the early weeks, you’ll pop them down and they’ll magically drift off (with all the associated sleep props you’ve spent huge amounts of money on – of course).

The reality is that newborn sleep is variable and unpredictable. Advice to sleep when baby sleeps is pretty unhelpful (tell that to the stack of dishes in the corner).

Think about helping your baby to fall asleep if it’s clear they’re becoming overtired. If you think they may fall asleep independently then go for it! Don’t shame yourself for helping them though.

Melatonin – hurrah! Will it help them fall asleep?

By about 12 weeks the little one will start producing their own melatonin, the sleepy hormone.

This is often a turning point for most families as their days and nights become a bit more regulated. Night sleep starts to improve and sleep cycles become more regular with spaced wakes for feeds.

The 12-16 week period sees huge developmental leaps occur and the baby becomes more aware of their outside world. Their ability to stay awake has doubled in time and some lucky parents will start to see the little one sleep for up to 8 hours at night (although typically it’s anywhere between 4-8).

(Annoyingly this stage also coincides with the 4 month sleep regression – discussed here)

Bedtime routine

By 12 week (plus) your baby is still young but their reliance on you is starting to decrease and it’s a great time to instil wonderful lasting bedtime routines, sleepy cues and enable them to practice their skills as an independent sleeper.

Bath, massage, milk, get dressed, sleep sack and a lullaby, or any varation of these can help your baby to sleep and act as great sleep cues.

Whilst intervention may still be needed to get them off to sleep, the time spent in their cot learning to self-soothe at this age will always be worth it in the end.

Improving babies sleep

I’ve said it before, sleep science and consultancy isn’t akin to sending man to the moon. Biology, physiology and psychology are core principles, but we’ve been putting babies to sleep forever. It’s just what we do as parents.

There’s a huge amount to be said for expectation management in the early days. Yes it’s tough, it’s frustrating and at times it’s incredibly lonely, but it makes such a difference when you know what is normal, and when it will begin to improve.

If we don’t talk about sleep positively as a subject in the prenatal period we hide the reality and parental expectations become unrealistic. It’s not the end of sleep forever, it will get better.

The more we talk about sleep, the more we will ask for help when it doesn’t start to improve and the more we will support each other when it gets tough.

SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)

I can’t possibly write a blog post about newborn sleep without mentioning SIDS.

SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome/sleep related infant deaths) is extremely rare, but absolutely devastating. The good news is that over the years we have seen huge progress in reducing death rates by doing small things.

Since the ‘back to sleep’ campaign was launched (rather than newborn babies sleeping on their fronts) the death rate has fallen by 82%, but we still don’t know what really causes it. Some babies are at a higher risk, such as those with a low-birth weight or born prematurely.

Safe infant sleeping environment – baby sleep tips

  1. always place your sleeping baby on their back
  2. place your baby in the “feet to foot” position – with their feet touching the end of the cot, moses basket, or pram 
  3. keep their head uncovered, blankets should be tucked in no higher than shoulder level
  4. let your baby sleep in a cot or Moses basket in the same room as you for the first 6 months 
  5. use a mattress that’s firm, flat, waterproof and in good condition
  6. breastfeed your newborn baby if you can
  7. do not smoke during pregnancy or let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby – both before and after birth 
  8. do not sleep on a bed, sofa or armchair with your baby
  9. do not consider bed sharing with your baby if you or your partner smoke or take drugs, or if you’ve been drinking alcohol
  10. do not let your baby get too hot or too cold – a room temperature of 16C to 20C is ideal with light bedding or a lightweight baby sleeping bag
baby, smile, portrait

I offer both a prenatal package and a first steps (up to 12 weeks) package, taking you through sleep science, age-appropriate settling strategies, awake times, routines and more.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your child’s sleep at night or sleeping patterns, please get in touch, reach out via instagram.

You can also check out more of my blog posts and printed media articles here.

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Hi, I’m Gemma, your sleep consultant

I am a certified baby and child sleep specialist who works with families all over the world.

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