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Realistic Newborn Sleep Expectations

Newborn swaddled asleep

We can sometimes expect TOO MUCH from our new babies. Especially when it comes to realistic newborn sleep expectations.

We expect they’ll:

Quickly adapt to sleep like us

Instantly know that night time is for sleeping

Cut the night feed quickly

Sleep in big blocks overnight

The reality is, none of this is realistic when it comes to newborns. Having these expectations only sets new parents up for stress, disappointment and even more exhaustion than necessary.

So, let’s set some REALISTIC newborn sleep expectations!

First of all, we need to understand how our babies’ sleep works and changes over the course of their life. This is important to help you understand why their patterns are changing, and how we can help them.

How your newborn’s sleep works:

You can learn more about this in-depth in my sleep programs. But to keep things super simple: your baby is born unable to distinguish the difference between night and day.

This is because they don’t come into this world with fully operating circadian rhythms. As adults, our 24 hour circadian rhythm is strongly influenced by our exposure to light and dark. When it starts to get darker in the evening, it triggers our bodies to produce melatonin (the sleep hormone) while the morning light helps us to produce cortisol which helps us to get up and start the day.

The image above shows how the melatonin and cortisol hormones work together to regulate sleep and awake times. You can see that melatonin starts secreting and increasing around 6pm then drops in the early hours of the morning with cortisol increasing until our babies eventually wake.

Initially our baby’s cycle is not like this. It takes time for them to develop these rhythms. For instance, in the beginning it is thought baby receives melatonin from their mother that lasts up to a week and then after that their body takes time to develop this rhythm. Research shows it can take up to 6 months to fully form but starts to emerge around 2-3 months. Usually around the 8 week/2 month mark we start to notice baby distinguishing day from night and sleeping a bit longer at night. This can help us understand why our babies wake so much in early morning and need help resettling and learning to go back to sleep. Unlike an adult who rolls over and realises it’s too early, a baby still has no idea and is still learning.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there are many other biologically normal reasons our babies wake frequently, including:

  • To feed: our newborns have very small tummies and they therefore need to feed frequently to grow and thrive.
  • To feel safe, calm and secure: our babies have come from a warm, watery and tightly confined world (the womb) where they have known nothing of cold, hunger or loneliness. Thye’ve always been surrounded by love and nourished by our body. Earth-side, they are cold, hungry and over-stimulate. They have an innate desire to be with us all of the time, and often they wake because they need the comfort and presence of our arms.
  • They’re uncomfortable: perhaps they need a nappy change, or maybe they’re too hot/cold? All things that would certainly wake us if we were experiencing them too!
  • Sickness: if you newborn is exhibiting any signs of sickness (which may also include being more unsettled than usual), it’s important to get them checked out as soon as possible. You can find more info on signs of sickness here

So, what is are realistic newborn sleep expectations?

The reality is, having unreaslitic newborn expectations only sets new parents up for stress, disappointment and even more exhaustion than necessary. So, it’s important to have some idea of what CAN be reasonably expected:

It’s normal for your baby to want to feed every 2 hours throughout the day and night

It’s normal for those feeds to take up to an hour. Yup, that means only an hour sleep before they may wake hungry again!

It’s normal for them to have no concept of night and day

It’s normal for them to sleep a lot - 14-17 hours a day (average only), including 4-5 naps, but it’s very broken up by feeds!

For more help with your baby’s sleep, I have created a Newborn Sleep Program that covers 0-12 weeks in-depth. I answer all of your questions and give you a realistic understanding of your baby’s sleep needs. You’ll learn gentle settling techniques that work with your natural instincts to cuddle and comfort your little one. Find out more here!

It’s important to note that your baby’s sleep should be discussed with a healthcare provider to ensure safety and suitability for individual circumstances. This blog is general education only. For any personal based advice regarding you or your baby please seek advice from your own healthcare professional.

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