Infant sleep can be like a magical, mythical unicorn in a new parent’s world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked something like “How can I get my baby to sleep at night?” or “Is my baby sleeping enough/too much?” or “I saw a sleep trainer online that said they could get a baby to sleep through the night by a few months old, am I doing something wrong?” Let’s be honest, the reason we care so much about infant sleep is that as parents, we need sleep! So let’s talk a little bit about sleeping babies.
You may have heard of something called a circadian rhythm, or biological clock.
It’s a 24-hour pattern that all living things cycle through, including bacteria, plants, and animals. It’s influenced mostly by our hormones and our environment. Why does this matter to your baby? Well, it helps our brains know when to feel alert and when to feel sleepy. Except that babies don’t have an established rhythm for the first four months or so of life. A baby under three months old can sleep anywhere from 11 to 19 hours in a 24 hour period, but that may come at seemingly random times, or it might mean your baby sleeps all day and is alert and fussy when you really wish they could let you sleep.
This means a couple of things for us as parents:
- It really IS ok during the postpartum period to listen to some of those old clichés like “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”, or “It takes a village.” Suddenly having a newborn in your life, can be a rude awakening to your own biological clock. Naps, gentle boundaries for visitors, and prioritizing self-care, can all go a long way in making us feel less zombie-like. Establishing a support system, like hiring a postpartum doula, can bring relief.
- Setting goals and being aware of healthy sleep habits early on can help in the long run, but this takes time. Sleep shaping is less about making your baby sleep, and more about teaching you what’s biologically normal, and how you can help your baby through this time.
What do I mean? First of all, babies eat frequently, go through developmental growth spurts, and can get overstimulated or overwhelmed. They need a lot of support during this “fourth trimester.”
Be wary of anyone who promises large stretches of sleep or strict sleep schedules for young babies.
Secondly, our sleep patterns are largely influenced by light and dark. We naturally have an easier time being awake during light hours, and sleeping during dark hours. We begin to increase melatonin levels when the light is decreased, which is a hormone that helps us sleep. But a baby isn’t born associating light and dark with sleep. A baby’s body is also still learning self-regulation after receiving hormones both from you and the placenta.
Babies are influenced mostly by activity and noise. Picture this: During pregnancy, your baby listens to the constant noise of your circulation, digestion, and the outside world. You are active during the day, but your activity almost seems to lull him to sleep. Then you lay down for the night, and BAM! Baby party time!! I hear this a lot from clients prenatally.
Then they give birth, and what do I hear when I follow up with them? “last night was rough, none of us slept very much, but he’s sleeping GREAT today!”
Newborns almost seem to sleep better during noisy daytime activities, and then startle at the slightest noise in a quiet room.
These things make sense when you picture your baby keeping the same pattern from before birth and trying to learn a new way.
After your baby is eating well and has regained birth weight, your postpartum doula can help you practice simple habits. Your baby can transition away from activity and noise based calming patterns. You can learn to watch for signs of overstimulation, and help encourage your baby to associate the day with wakeful activities, and night with quiet & calm.
All in all, remember to be gentle with your entire household during the postpartum period.
Change can be hard, but in time, everyone can be sleeping. Like a baby.