You’re over the moon! You brought your newest addition to the family home and you’ve been basking in the newborn bliss. Cute outfits, swaddles, and baby diapers are everywhere. The only thing you’re really missing is, well, sleep.
You know this is part of having a baby. Everyone talks about it. But the only way to truly understand that newborn sleep deprivation is to go through it. As they say, “the nights are long, but the years are short”.
Yes, the nights can be quite long when you’ve got a new baby, but that doesn’t mean they have to be completely miserable. I’ve found over the years that managing expectations around newborn sleep and a few tips I’ll share for getting a newborn to sleep go a long way!
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Understanding Newborn Sleep
It’s first important to understand newborn sleep. For starters, their sleep cycles are much shorter than ours — only 20-30 minutes, whereas adult sleep cycles are anywhere from 60-90 minutes.
Second, it’s important to know that newborns don’t make melatonin just yet. Their sleep needs are high, and that’s one function your baby’s body won’t start doing until around 4 months.
Third, what is normal for baby sleep is for there to be a lot of irregularity. There may be the occasional unicorn baby who sleeps at the same time every day, but this is most definitely the exception to the rule. Newborn sleep can be all over the place! 20 minute naps, 2 hours naps — all normal!
The last thing I think is really important to understand about newborns is that they don’t have the ability to self-soothe yet. So when you talk about getting a newborn to sleep, you have to consider the fact that they will still need help up until about 4 months of age.
Tips for Getting Your Newborn to Sleep
When babies are younger than 6 weeks old, they need about 20 hours of sleep per day. Their awake window is only about 45 minutes long. This means they will only be up for a short time before needing to go back to sleep. I find that younger babies will fall asleep just about anywhere you let them. Barring any health conditions, this period is usually pretty mild in terms of your baby’s ability to fall asleep.
1. Using a Feed Schedule to Help Your Newborn Sleep Better
Your newborn will need to eat fairly often, about every 2-4 hours, and their bodies will certainly let them know when they’re hungry. Watch for those hunger cues, like bringing their hands to their mouth or rooting to know when your little one is hungry.
A feed schedule doesn’t mean you can’t feed your baby if they’re hungry and it’s not “time”. It’s simply watching the clock and using their last feed time as a guide for when they may be hungry next.
If you see hunger signs, but it has only been a short time since they last ate (say, 45 minutes), you may try putting them down for a nap first. Hunger cues and tired cues are almost identical in babies!
Another benefit of aiming for feeds on more of a schedule is this will allow your little one to get full feeds in, which will help as you encourage those longer stretches of sleep.
2. Avoid Overtiredness
Younger newborns may become overtired very quickly if they aren’t getting adequate sleep. Crying, arching their back, and balled up fists may all be indicators that your baby is overtired. If this happens, it will be harder for your newborn to fall asleep, which is when you’ll see them “fight” sleep. You know they’re tired, but they just cry instead of going to sleep.
Watch for earlier tired cues like yawning, rubbing eyes or ears, and red-rimmed eyes or eyebrows. When you see those signs. you’ll want to get your baby down for a nap sooner rather than later to avoid that overtired stage all together.
3. Use Light to Help Your Newborn Sleep
All humans sleep best when it’s dark. I recommend Blackout Window Covers to create that ideal dark sleep environment. Make sure the room your newborn is sleeping in is cool, dark, and free from distractions (like mobiles or toys in the crib). The AAP recommends a completely bare crib for the safest sleep environment. This will allow your newborn the best opportunity to get restorative sleep all day and night.
If you’re worried about them being too cold, download our Baby Dressing Guide to ensure they have enough layers, but not too many!
When it’s time to wake up, take your newborn out of the dark room, and expose them to sunlight as much as you can, depending on the weather, of course. Even having blinds and curtains drawn in the living room will help.
Sunlight tells our bodies it’s time to be awake, among many other health benefits (like stimulating vitamin D production and strengthening bones). Aim to expose your newborn to sunlight for about 15-30 minutes, preferably in the morning.
4. Place Your Baby Down Drowsy But Awake
Placing your baby down drowsy, but still awake, is the precursor to self-soothing. Remember, newborn aren’t able to self-soothe yet. So helping them get to that drowsy state with some rocking, swaying, or patting will often help your baby become drowsy. Many parents do these things without even realizing, as it’s a natural response when holding a baby.
Your baby may become drowsy during feeds, which is completely normal at this stage. Do your best to avoid letting them fall asleep completely while eating to prevent the formation of a feeding-to-sleep association. Is it going to happen sometimes? Sure. But you’ll want to avoid this being the only way your little one gets to sleep, if you can.
Allowing your baby to actually transition from being awake (drowsy) to asleep while in their crib or bassinet is one of the best ways to get your newborn to sleep better. They’re somewhat aware of their surroundings when you place them down, so it’s not as much of a “shock” when they wake up in that same place. When they fall asleep in your arms and wake up somewhere else, this can be a little scary for your newborn.
Download Your Free Newborn eBook Sleep Guides
5. For a Fussy Baby, Try S.L.E.E.P
If you’ve tried everything above and you’re still having a hard time getting your newborn to sleep, try the S.L.E.E.P. Method. This is a very effective way to calm your overtired baby down and help get them to that more drowsy place so they can fall asleep.
Let’s walk through the S.L.E.E.P. Method:
S: Swaddle your newborn rather tightly around the arms. Keep the legs and hips “free” to avoid discomfort. The swaddle mimics the tight quarters of the womb.
L: Lower your newborn and turn them away from you. We like to be face to face with our babies, but this can be overstimulating for them as they’re trying to get to sleep. Mimic the womb by lowering your baby away from your face, and turn them on their side facing away from you.
E: Ease into a gentle jiggling motion. This mimics how they felt in the womb as Mom walked around. This is a very gentle rocking where you can see their head bobble slightly, or it may simply be you rocking them as you walk around.
E: External noise to mimic the womb (like white or brown noise) can be very comforting to an upset newborn. You can shush as well, and it doesn’t have to be too loud, you can simply match their level of crying.
P: Pacifiers help your baby meet their needs for sucking which releases endorphins and helps them relax. This is the final stage of S.L.E.E.P. because it’s the last thing you’ll offer after going through the steps above.
You can try implementing these steps one by one for a minute or so if your newborn is upset. Once they’ve calmed down, you don’t need to move on to the next step.
All of the above tips are appropriate for newborns over 6 weeks as well, but I have found that the S.L.E.E.P. Method is less effective after about 6 weeks.
I usually tell parents to switch to the Pick Up Put Down (PUPD) Method around this time to help with calming a fussy newborn who won’t sleep.
The PUPD Method entails picking your newborn up to comfort and calm them down, but placing them back into their crib or bassinet once they’ve calmed down to try to allow them to fall asleep from that drowsy state in their own sleep space.
This method does take some persistence, but can be very effective for older newborns fighting sleep.
Try Implementing Some of These Tips
Overall, for newborn sleep, the biggest thing to remember is that it is irregular, but it will get better! My challenge for you this week is to try implementing some of these tips for your newborn, for even just bedtime or that first nap of the day, and see if you don’t notice some improvements!
If you think you’ll need some more support, feel free to reach out and schedule a call with me. I been in your shoes and know your exhaustion very well. I’m here to help you get to the other side, which is where you’re rested and truly able to enjoy motherhood!