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Newborn Sleep Patterns

What are the sleep patterns of a newborn?

The average newborn sleeps much of the day and night, waking only for feedings every few hours. It is often hard for new parents to know how long and how often a newborn should sleep. Unfortunately, there is no set schedule at first, and many newborns have their days and nights confused. They think they are supposed to be awake at night and sleep during the day.

Generally, newborns sleep a total of about 8 to 9 hours in the daytime and a total of about 8 hours at night. But because they have a small stomach, they must wake every few hours to eat. Most babies don’t begin sleeping through the night (6 to 8 hours) until at least 3 months of age. But this can vary a lot. Some babies don’t sleep through the night until closer to 1 year. In most cases, your baby will wake up and be ready to eat at least every 3 hours. How often your baby will eat depends on what he or she is being fed and his or her age. Make sure you talk with your healthcare provider to figure out if you need to wake your baby for feedings.

Watch for changes in your baby's sleep pattern. If your baby has been sleeping consistently, and suddenly is waking more often, there may be a problem such as an ear infection. Or your baby may be going through a growth spurt and need to eat more often. Some sleep disturbances are simply due to changes in development or because of overstimulation.

What are the different alert phases of a newborn?

Babies are also different in how alert they are during the time they are awake.

Quiet alert phase

When a newborn wakes up at the end of the sleep cycle, there is typically a quiet alert phase. This is a time when the baby is very still, but awake and taking in the environment. During the quiet alert time, babies may look or stare at objects, and respond to sounds and motion. This phase usually progresses to the active alert phase. This is when the baby is attentive to sounds and sights, and moves actively.

Crying phase

After the quiet alert phase is a crying phase. The baby's body moves erratically, and he or she may cry loudly. Babies can easily be overstimulated during the crying phase. It is usually best to find a way of calming the baby and the environment. Holding your baby close or wrapping your baby snugly in a blanket (swaddling) may help calm a crying baby.

It is usually best to feed babies before they reach the crying phase. During the crying phase, they can be so upset that they may refuse the breast or bottle. In newborns, crying is a late sign of hunger.

 

Caution on swaddling

Swaddling means wrapping newborn babies snugly in a blanket to keep their arms and legs from flailing. This can make a baby feel safe and help him or her fall asleep. You can buy a special swaddling blanket designed to make swaddling easier.

But don’t use swaddling if your baby is 2 months or older, or if your baby can roll over on his or her own. Swaddling may raise the risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) if the swaddled baby rolls onto his or her stomach.

When you swaddle, give your baby enough room to move his or her hips and legs. The legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips. Don’t place your baby’s legs so that they are held together and straight down. This raises the risk that the hip joints won’t grow and develop correctly. This can cause a problem called hip dysplasia and dislocation.

Also be careful of swaddling your baby if the weather is warm or hot. Using a thick blanket in warm weather can make your baby overheat. Instead use a lighter blanket or sheet to swaddle the baby.

Helping your baby sleep

Babies may not be able to form their own sleeping and waking patterns, especially in going to sleep. You can help your baby sleep by knowing the signs of sleep readiness, teaching him or her to fall asleep on his or her own, and providing the right environment for comfortable and safe sleep.

What are the signs of sleep readiness?

Your baby may show signs of being ready for sleep when you see the following signs:

  • Rubbing eyes

  • Yawning

  • Looking away

  • Fussing

How can you help your baby fall asleep?

Not all babies know how to put themselves to sleep. When it is time for bed, many parents want to rock their baby to sleep. Newborns and younger infants will fall asleep while breastfeeding. Having a routine at bedtime is a good idea. But if an older baby falls asleep while eating or in your arms, this may become a pattern. Your baby may then begin to expect to be in your arms in order to fall asleep. When your baby briefly awakens during a sleep cycle, he or she may not be able to go back to sleep on his or her own.

After the newborn period, most experts recommend allowing your baby to become sleepy in your arms, then placing him or her in the bed while still awake. This way your baby learns how to go to sleep on his or her own. Playing soft music while your baby is getting sleepy is also a good way to help create a bedtime routine.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
  • Godsey, Cynthia, MSN, APRN, MSHE, FNP-BC
  • Lee, Kimberly G., MD, MSc, IBCLC