What's the hot topic of conversation when there's a newborn about? You got it, sleep. ' How's he sleeping?', ' Is he sleeping through the night yet?' etc etc and straight after that all the advice that follows ( which is said with the best of intentions I have no doubt). But what do we really know about the sleep patterns and requirements of newborns and is it all true what our grandmothers and mothers tell us?
So let's get back to basics; babies are born, around about 40 weeks so that they can be released from their mother before they get too big! Too be honest they could do with a little longer in there to be more developed for the outside world but then we wouldn't be able to get them out naturally. As a result our babies are born reasonably well developed in their senses; they can see, hear, feel etc, but they cannot walk, they cannot regulate their body temperature, heart rate and breathing fully. The first weeks after birth see a rapid increase in brain development. This rapid development requires food and sleep. Human milk is high in calories and low in fat, it provides a high sugar content to fuel the brain's rapid growth. Human milk, i.e. breast milk is easily and quickly digested and combined with the fact babies have tiny stomachs this means they need to feed frequently.
All of this rapid development is exhausting and most of it occurs when the baby is asleep, so it's no surprise that newborns might sleep up to 18 hours a day. Here's the catch, because of a few reasons they will only sleep for 2-3 hours at a time. One reason they only sleep for short periods of time is their tiny tummies and the constant need for re-fuelling. Another is for safety, human babies have evolved to wake easily to ensure they don't stop breathing. In fact 50% of a newborn's sleep is REM sleep and the length of their sleep cycle is only 45 minutes, compared to an adults which is 90 minutes long. So, with a shorter sleep cycle and lighter sleep there's more opportunities for baby to be aroused from his slumber.
Sleep is a developmental process and changes over time, so babies of a year old tend to sleep around 15 hours a day and the main concentration of this sleep will be at night, also their REM will be 35% of the total sleep.
Babies don't have a circadian rhythm when they arrive in this big wide world. So they don't have that I need to sleep lots at night rather than the day thing going on. This starts to happen around 3-4 months old and you should see a slight change in sleep around this time.
Where baby sleeps
As we have discovered babies are still very much biological creatures who haven't evolved much since cave man times. Considering how early humans used to parent, where did babies sleep then? Next to their mothers, very close by, and why? For safety,so they weren't snatched by predators just as other primates keep their babies close and carry them everywhere. So, to put a newborn baby in a separate room to sleep means we can't hear them, we can't see them, we can't react quickly to their needs. When a baby sleeps close to its parents the parent can actually help regulate baby's breathing and stabilise their heart rate, baby feels secure and cared for. It's very important in terms of SIDS for newborns to be in their parents' room at night for this very reason. For daytime sleeping a sling is invaluable as most babies need to be close to their parent to feel secure enough to sleep.
When baby needs to sleep
In the daytime, when baby needs to sleep, they will let you know. Spend some time watching your baby begin to get tired, what do they do? They might not make eye contact with you and give blank stares and turn their head, pull on their ears, rub eyes and become fidgety. Watch out for these signs and allow your baby to sleep then and they should fall asleep quickly, but wait too long and baby will find it more difficult to drop off to sleep. In our modern world we try to fit baby in around our own schedules and create a routine for them. Babies don't understand your schedules, they've got their own biological rhythm they're working to. So, baby will sleep when baby is tired. So they might not fall asleep easily at 7pm when you think they should, but might find it easier at 9pm or 10pm. Maybe keep a note of when they fall asleep everyday for a week and this might help you understand when your baby needs to sleep. Sleep patterns in babies change throughout their first year and you may not see a regular sleep pattern emerge until they're one or even two years old. Just be aware this is normal.
So, how about this sleeping through the night that everyone mention? So, this idea came from some studies on a small amount of babies during the 1950s. They termed ' sleeping through' as a five hour stretch of non-waking sleep. We also need to be made aware of the fact that all of the babies in the study that slept for those 5 hours were fed on formula milk. Therefore we cannot use this study when considering breastfed babies.
What a baby needs before they can sleep?
Babies need to feel secure and safe, they need to have been fed, they need to feel calm and relaxed. Without these needs being met they will not feel happy dropping off to sleepy land.
What can you do?
We have to have an understanding of how our baby operates, like I said just watch him/her carefully for a week, try to spot to sleeping cues and react quickly, allow your baby to feed to sleep, make sure their nappy is clean, carry your baby in a sling and the warmth and security and movement of your body will help him/her drop off. Create a calm and safe environment. At nighttime try a little later bedtime and maybe go to bed at the same time as your baby. This way you will get the deepest part of your sleep at the same time as your baby which should,hopefully, make you feel better the next day. Try and stay relaxed about sleep and be led by your baby.
I hope by knowing some of the biological facts of the how and whys of baby sleep you will feel more confident in yourself and have the information you need to help you approach your baby's sleep in a positive way.
sleep well xx
Btw, I am not a baby sleep expert by any means, I read a lot of papers and keep abreast of new studies and read lots of books on the subject as it fascinates me and I like to share that information with new parents as I feel our expectation of baby sleep is very different from reality. I know I was very unprepared and unsure when I had my first baby. I only wish someone had told me before I had my first child all of this information and I would have been in a better place to handle the sleep deprivation!