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Newborn Care

Sleep and Newborns

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Newborns don’t yet have a sense of day and night. They sleep around the clock, and because their tiny stomachs don’t hold hold enough breast milk or formula to keep them satisfied for long, they wake often to eat — no matter what time of day or night it is.

How Long Will My Newborn Sleep?

A newborn may sleep up to 18 hours a day, waking every couple of hours to feed. Breastfed babies feed often, about 8 to 12 times a day. Bottle-fed babies tend to feed less often, about every 3 to 4 hours or so.

Because the need for food is stronger than the need for sleep at this age, babies who sleep for longer stretches should be awakened to feed. Wake your baby every 3 to 4 hours to eat until he or she shows good weight gain, which usually happens within the first couple of weeks. After that, it’s OK to let your baby sleep for longer periods of time.

Babies have different phases of sleep, just like everyone else. There’s drowsiness, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and very deep sleep.

The first months of a baby’s life can be the hardest for parents, who might get up many times at night to tend to the baby. Each baby has a different sleep pattern. Many babies start to sleep “through the night” (for 5-6 hours at a time) by 2 months of age, but not every baby does.

How Should Babies Sleep?

During the first weeks of a baby’s life, some parent choose to room-share. Room-sharing is when you place your baby’s crib, portable crib, or bassinet in your own bedroom instead of in a separate nursery. This allows your baby to be close enough to hear, smell, and sense you. This can help with baby’s feeding and sleep habits, and also helps new parents catch a bit more much-needed sleep. But room-sharing may not be for everyone; each family needs to decide what works best for them.

While room-sharing is safe, putting your infant to sleep in bed with you is not. Although many cultures endorse bed-sharing, there is a risk that the baby can suffocate or strangle, and studies have shown that there’s a higher incidence of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) in households where the baby slept in the parents’ bed.

Follow these safety precautions with your little one:

  • Place your baby on his or her back to sleep, not on the stomach or side. The rate of SIDS has gone way down since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) introduced this recommendation in 1992. Sleeping on the stomach with little-to-no ability to change head positions can block babies’ tiny airways and cause them to “rebreathe” their own carbon dioxide. In this position, babies also can get overheated (another risk factor for SIDS) and might have their mouths or noses blocked by bedding.
  • Make sure your crib meets current safety standards. Use a firm crib mattress with a sheet that fits snugly.
  • Do not put anything else in the crib or bassinet. Items that can touch a baby’s face — such as plush toys, pillows, blankets, and bumper pads — also can block breathing.
  • Watch out for other hazards. Avoid items with cords, ties, or ribbons that can wrap around a baby’s neck, and objects with any kind of sharp edge or corner. Look around for things that your baby can touch from a seated or standing position in the crib. Hanging mobiles, wall hangings, pictures, draperies, and window blind cords could be harmful if they are within a baby’s reach.

safe sleep infant illustration

Helping Your Newborn Sleep

Establishing a bedtime routine (bathing, reading, singing) will help your baby relax and sleep well. Even though your newborn may be too young to get the signals yet, setting up the bedtime drill now can keep you on track later. And putting your baby in the crib at night teaches your little one that it’s the place for sleep.

If your newborn is fussy it’s OK to rock, cuddle, and sing as your baby settles down. For the first months of your baby’s life, “spoiling” is definitely not a problem. (In fact, newborns who are held or carried during the day tend to have less colic and fussiness.)

It may take a few weeks for your baby’s brain to tell the difference between night and day. Unfortunately, there are no tricks to speed this up, but it helps to keep things quiet and calm during middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes. Try to keep the lights low and resist the urge to play or talk with your baby. This will reinforce the message that nighttime is for sleeping.

Also, don’t try to keep your baby up during the day in the hopes that he or she will sleep better at night. Overly tired infants often have more trouble sleeping at night than those who’ve had enough sleep during the day.

When to Call the Doctor

While most parents can expect their newborn to sleep or catnap most of the day, the range of what is normal is quite wide. If you have questions about how much (or how little) your baby is sleeping, or your baby seems overly cranky and cannot be easily soothed, talk with your doctor.

If it’s hard to wake your baby up from sleep and he or she is not interested in feeding in general, call your doctor immediately for reassurance or further medical advice.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: November 2014