Help! My newborn baby isn't sleeping at night time!

Baby lying awake in the arms of a man

Sleeping like a baby

Whoever said “sleeping like a baby” has clearly never met a newborn, right? Newborn sleep comes as a real shock to the system. If you have a newborn baby and you’re reading this, you are probably exhausted. Your newborn baby is probably awake till quite late at night, and waking frequently overnight. And then, they’re just REALLY noisy, all night long! Lots of little grunty noises and squirming. The exhaustion you feel at 3 am when you’re woken by a newborn baby is like nothing else. You will never be this tired again. 

So, why DON’T newborn babies sleep at night? And more importantly, is there anything you can do to make it better??

The nature of newborn sleep

We have two mechanisms that help us sleep:

Circadian rhythm – this is our body clock, which helps us sleep at night time. It’s driven primarily by hormones (melatonin and cortisol) in response to daylight and darkness. So… in the couple of hours before bed, as it gets darker, we start to make melatonin which makes us sleepy and helps us sleep through the night. We produce cortisol in the morning as it gets lighter – think of this as your “get up and go” hormone. (Douglas, 2021, Hookway, 2019)

Homeostatic sleep pressure  – this is a fancy way of saying how tired we are. As adults, our sleep pressure rises through the day, until it peaks at bedtime. As we sleep, sleep pressure falls. In babies and toddlers, their sleep pressure rises more quickly, which is why they take naps. When they take a nap, sleep pressure falls, they stay awake for a while, sleep pressure rises again, they take another nap, and so on. When they get to bedtime, they hopefully have both sleep pressure and their circadian rhythm at work to help them sleep over night. (Douglas, 2021, Hookway, 2019)

Newborn sleep is different

Newborn babies’ sleep initially operates on a different mechanism. They have an ultradian rhythm (Meyer et all, 2022), which just means that they have a cycle which is repeated frequently in a 24 hour period. It’s fairly normal for newborn babies to be on an hourly cycle initially. They have a short period of wakefulness, then they feed, they sleep and then they wake again – all within one hour (Bergman, 2013). You may see this stretch to 1.5-2 hours before they start to develop a more obvious day/night difference in sleep. Sleep pressure does work to help them sleep, but they do not have an established circadian rhythm at all. Babies don’t make melatonin from birth and it may take up to 3 months for them to make it. (Hookway, 2019)  This means that initially, it’s very normal for your baby to sleep as much during the day as during the night. Which also means, of course, that they’ll be awake during the night! 

Newborn babies also have very light sleep. They spend about half of their sleep cycle in REM sleep, so moving, squirming, grunting while they sleep is quite normal. (Hookway, 2019, Pantley, 2020) This higher proportion of light sleep is protective against SIDS. They need to be able to wake up frequently and easily. So, what we don’t want to do with newborn babies is introduce anything that is going to make it too difficult for them to wake up. They need to be able to rouse themselves for safety reasons. 1

Newborn baby lying on a bed, yawning

So, what can you do about newborn sleep?

Well, in order for your baby to sleep more at night, there are a few things you can try!

1. Slowly shift some of that sleep towards night time

Honestly, I wouldn’t try this too soon. If your baby is only a few days old, this isn’t going to work. You’re in survival mode for the first few days. I’d probably wait until your baby is at least a few weeks old. Perhaps somewhere around 3 weeks of age. Why do I suggest doing it around this stage? Well, two things happen around this age. One, you’ll start to notice your baby isn’t as sleepy during the day as they were in the first two weeks. You may also notice that your baby is a bit fussier in the evening, and if you’re breastfeeding, your baby may be cluster feeding. There seems to be a correlation between this onset of fussy behaviour in the evening with your baby starting to sleep for a longer chunk of time at least at the start of the night. (Brazelton and Sparrow, 2003) This is usually around the time your baby starts to shift away from that ultradian pattern of sleep (those short cycles that repeat frequently during 24 hours) and a pattern that is more linked to day/night. I don’t think this is an established circadian rhythm yet, but it is a move in the right direction. 

2. Think about how much sleep your baby needs

We all have a maximum amount of sleep that we can achieve in 24 hours, newborn babies included! Newborn babies average around 14-17 hours in total (see my chart below), and if they are spending the day curled up on your chest sleeping and getting a good 9-10 hours of that sleep during the day, and then you expect them to sleep in a crib at night time, then they won’t sleep as well at night! 

But here’s the dilemma – babies need LOTS of contact with an adult to help regulate their nervous system. Lots of contact and cuddles during the day can be really beneficial. It’s about finding a balance. Perhaps just start off your day with putting your baby down in a Moses basket for their first nap, once they are asleep. They probably won’t sleep as long as if they had been snuggled up on your chest but that’s ok. We don’t want to make all the naps too comfy or long – remember, it’s about gradually reducing the day sleep so that we push some of that sleep towards night time. You can still do some contact naps for sure, but it’s ok to move them off you if you need to pee, or empty the washing machine. If they wake up, take that as a sign that their sleep pressure has dropped enough that they no longer need to sleep. Don’t try to get them back to sleep if they stir. Don’t tiptoe around them if they are asleep. Make a bit of noise, run the vacuum cleaner, don’t get cross if the Amazon delivery driver bangs on your door. Trust your baby’s inbuilt ability to regulate their sleep needs. 

Sleep chart with averages from newborn to 18 months

3. It’s ok to wake your baby during the day

If your baby has been asleep for longer than three hours during the day, then it’s perfectly ok to wake them gently. Change a nappy, make a bit of noise… This is especially true if you’re breastfeeding. While night feeds are important, it’s also important that they get plenty of feeds during the day. Most breastfed babies feed around 10-12 times in 24 hours, so it’s important to get around half of these feeds in during the day.

4. Make night time sleep irresistible

Think of your bedroom environment – perhaps you need to warm their sleep space before they go into it. Some babies are very sensitive to temperature changes and if they’ve been snuggled in your arms to fall asleep and then go into a cold crib, chances are they will probably stir. You can use a hot water bottle to keep their crib warmer in between feeds. JUST ALWAYS (and I cannot stress this enough) take the hot water bottle out of the crib while your baby is in it. Some parents will play white noise or womb noises as well to help their baby feel safer. A lot of parents opt to co-sleep, and as long as you can do this safely then it is a valid option. In fact, safe co-sleeping is probably the one thing that will help your newborn baby sleep the best at night time. Both the Lullaby Trust and BASIS have really good information on safe co-sleeping.

Woman sleeping with a newborn baby lying next to her on the bed

5. Keep everything low key at night time

Babies make A LOT of noise at night time! Lots of little grunty noises, squirming, wrigging. (Pantley, 2020) They often settle and sleep a bit better when tucked in next to you if you can co-sleep safely. However, these little noises and squirms often happen just as your baby is coming out of one sleep cycle and linking into the next sleep cycle. Don’t jump in straight away with cuddling, patting, shushing. Just wait and see what happens. Some babies will be able to resettle without much support (especially if they’re in contact with you) and what we want is for babies to be able to link their sleep cycles without help if they are able to. Of course, if your baby is hungry or uncomfortable, they will wake anyway. I always, ALWAYS advocate responding to them, so it’s not about ignoring genuine hunger signals or signs that they need a cuddle. Just wait and see if they will resettle on their own between sleep cycles, and if not, respond!

6. Experiment with NOT winding at night time

Honestly! Just try it. Feeding to sleep tends to keep babies quite calm and sleepy, and sometimes winding them just interrupts their next sleep cycle. (Douglas, 2021) Then they want to feed again because they’re half awake, and then their tummies are uncomfortably full. Just experiment with feeding to sleep and then putting them down. You might be surprised! If you can master a side lying position for feeding AND you co-sleep (safely) then there is next to no disruption at all – you feed, they unlatch, they fall sleep.

7. Start your day at the same time every morning

This is a tough one, and I wouldn’t recommend it straight away. However, once you feel like you’ve got over the first few weeks, it can be really helpful to get up at the same time every morning. (Douglas, 2021) It doesn’t have to be 6 am – pick a time that works for you! At this time, you’ll turn on the lights, open the curtains, and if you have been co-sleeping, transfer your baby to the crib. This usually will start to wake them up. This consistent wake up time can be really helpful for helping your baby establish their circadian rhythm. Don’t worry about a bedtime just yet. You’ll probably find that it’s easiest just to take your baby to bed at the same time that you go to bed. Bedtime routines come later. 

Woman pushing a pram in a park

8. Try to get outside with your baby early in the morning and again in the evening

Our circadian rhythm is most sensitive to the rising and the setting sun. (Foster, 2022) Clearly this will not always be practical, especially if you live in the UK where we have very short days in Winter and very long days in Summer. However, if you can get out for an early morning walk and/or a walk later in the day when the sun is setting, this will help your baby’s circadian rhythm develop quicker. 

9. Rule out anything that might be affecting sleep

A big one for breastfed babies is making sure that they are gaining weight well. A baby that is struggling to get enough milk during a feed will definitely feed more often and for longer. Other issues that can affect sleep include allergies, skin rashes (that make them itchy) and reflux. I often look at all these issues during a Newborn Support Session

10. The path of least resistance

Don’t worry about creating bad habits. Feed your baby to sleep. Cuddle them. Newborn babies need lots of contact and support from adults. Relax. Sleep is a biological function. Your baby HAS to sleep. Provided they are comfortable, they have a full tummy and they are reassured that you are nearby, they will sleep! They absolutely will not sleep all night, but after a few weeks you’ll start to notice that they are consolidating their sleep at night time, and not waking quite so often. 

Newborn baby sleeping on a woman's shoulder

Need some help with your newborn's sleep?

I have a super-gentle sleep course which helps you maximize your baby’s sleep and your sleep too. You can also book a newborn support session, and we’ll take a holistic comprehensive approach, not just to sleep but everything that’s going on with your newborn baby. 

References

Bergman, N (2013) Neonatal stomach volume and physiology suggest feeding at 1-h intervals, Acta Paediatrica, https://doi:10.1111/apa.12291, accessed 14/3/23

Brazelton, T and Sparrow, J (2023) Calming Your Fussy Baby The Brazelton Way, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge

Douglas, P (2021) The Discontented Little Baby Book, University of Queensland Press, Queensland

Foster, R (2022) Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health, Penguin Life, London 

Meyer, N et al (2022) Circadian rhythms and disorders of the timing of sleep, Lancet, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(22)00877-7, accessed 15/09/2022

Pantley, E (2020) The No-Cry Sleep Solution, McGraw Hill, New York 

Hookway, L (2019) Holistic Sleep Coaching, Praeclaurus Press, Armadillo

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.