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Five Tips to Help Newborns to Sleep

Adult holding newborn hand during sleep.

When parents bring their newborns home from the hospital, they are often craving some sleep for themselves. That leads to plenty of questions about how to sleep when the baby is sleeping. Here, I’ll give five tips for how to get newborns to sleep a little longer.

But before I do that, let’s review what we know.

First, science has shown that during the first several weeks, babies have not yet established their sleep/wake patterns to coincide with day/night hours.

Second, newborns sleep in 30- to 80-minute cycles (or some would say longer) in the first few weeks. That means we adults can help them to sleep at intervals on the longer end of that range.  

1. Make sure your baby gets a good feeding

Many parents — and professionals, too! — assume that when babies have been at breast for an arbitrary number of minutes, they have had a good feeding. Not so.

I’ve seen many babies who can fill their tanks in 5 minutes or so, while others fiddle around for more than 45 minutes and are still hungry. As my good friend Debi Bocar, RN PhD, IBCLC, often says, “Mouth on breast does not equal breastfeeding. Audible swallowing equals breastfeeding!”

So, as we all know, a hungry baby will be awake and fretful.

But what’s a lesser-known effect of a good feeding? Well, multiple studies have shown that human milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, and the fatty acid DHA. Both have a sleep-inducing effect which helps newborns to sleep longer.

2. Help your baby to self-comfort and adapt

Newborns cannot completely comfort themselves, but we can help them learn to do so.

We can help babies find and suck on their fists; this is an early self-soothing mechanism. And, now is a good time to start establishing some consistent before-sleep habits. (Admit it; you have your own before-sleep habits, right?)

Create a predictable cue for sleep. A just-before-going-down habit can be something as simple as singing to your baby or giving a kiss on the forehead.

3. Reduce stimulating or overstimulating triggers

Babies are highly sensitive to stimuli in the environment. Anything that triggers one or more of the five senses can be irritating or soothing. The trouble is, we adults don’t always recognize those triggers.

Try to eliminate or minimize triggers that bother you, for example, the many banging, clanging noises of the environment. Other sensory stimuli might be less obvious, but nonetheless, irritating. Two common examples include perfume or underarm deodorant.

Help newborns to sleep longer by creating a night-time approach that’s different from the daytime approach.

At night, keep the lights low, and encourage business-like, no-playing-around feedings.

During the day, exposure to light is good, but avoid bright lights shining directly into their eyes. (They will reflexively close their eyes when that happens.)

Watch “patting”. Unless the baby is crying, there’s no need to pat a breastfed baby’s back to elicit a burp after eating. I see well-meaning parents mimic what bottle-feeding parents do: thunp thump thunp. (Would you go to sleep if someone was doing that on your back?)

Limit visitors. Too many loving, well-meaning visitors who pass the baby from hand to hand can be overstimulating. (Try to imagine yourself in a crowd where strangers are constantly grabbing, hugging, or touching you.)

Maybe skip the diaper change if your baby nodded off; it’s likely to wake the baby!

4. Re-create intrauterine events and experiences

For nine months, the little one was in a round-the-clock, world-class spa. He felt the gentle rocking, heard his mother’s soft voice, and was lulled to sleep by the sound of her steady heartbeat.

Skin-to-skin contact is the best way to replicate that familiar “home.” If skin-to-skin contact isn’t practical at the moment, use soft music, use a repetitive “heartbeat” sound (on your smart phone, or a metronome), or do babywearing.

I’m a big fan of infant massage. Studies have shown that increased levels of melatonin (the hormone that increases sleep states) creates a soothing effect. (Don’t you sleep better after having a massage?)

5. Read and respond to your baby’s cues

Like adults, newborns communicate with their loved ones. They just don’t use words! Watch for early signs of hunger to help newborns to sleep.

Ideally, respond swiftly, but not instantaneously. Instead, wait one full minute; that little grunt or twitch is a classic sign of light sleep in newborns, and they are likely to go back to sleep momentarily.

Yet, don’t wait until “hungry” becomes “ravenous.” Otherwise, they tend to be too frantic or too weak to suckle well enough to get a full feeding.

Sleep is critical for brain development. At first, you may not have it all figured out on how to help him sleep, but your “antennae” will get better and better. Trust yourself. The aim is to help your baby go with his biological needs.

What’s your favorite tip for getting newborns to sleep?

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2 Comments

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Pauline, thank you for your real-life confirmation of this. I’ve recommended white noise for years. In fact, I’ve occasionally used it for myself! It works!

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