What is normal infant sleep?

If you haven’t had your baby yet, perhaps you have an idea of “normal” infant sleep. If you’ve had your baby already, perhaps you’re finding that your preconceptions about “normal” infant sleep are being challenged! 

What is the reality?

Newborn babies have a very short sleep cycle. It may be as short as half an hour in the first weeks of life. As a species we’ve evolved to feed our newborns milk that is very quickly digested. This milk is high in carbohydrate and low in fat and protein. A very normal pattern for newborns is to feed, sleep and wake, all within an hour! Additionally, our babies are designed to be held and carried. This close contact with a parent helps to regulate their nervous system. 

The reality of newborns is a far cry from what the baby books tell us: that babies should only feed every 3 hours and sleep peacefully in a cot in between. Often the books imply that our babies should be sleeping through the night as quickly as possible. However, when baby is born, he or she does not have an established circadian rhythm. You’ll probably find that your baby wakes up as often during the night as they do during the day. This is because your baby doesn’t make melatonin until they’re at least 8 weeks old. Melatonin is the sleepy hormone that helps us sleep at night time. Certainly, for the first few weeks, you’ll find that your baby is awake as much during the night as during the day.  

My intention isn’t to scare you or depress you. However, normal infant sleep is a huge shock to the system for most new parents. So, if you find that your baby will only sleep on you, or is waking every 30 minutes or so, there is nothing that you are doing wrong. It really is just very, very hard for the first couple of weeks.

However, it can, and will, get better! This course is going to help with that. 

General overview of your baby’s behaviour and sleep in the first three months

Newborns

Most newborns spend a lot of time sleeping and feeding. Some babies are prone to being quite fussy, and will only settle on you.

2-3 weeks

Around this age, you may notice that your baby becomes a bit more alert, looking around more, and they may have a bit more awake time. Often babies at this age sleep more often in the morning, and become increasingly fussy as the day goes on. Cluster feeding and fussy behaviour in the evening is quite normal. Often babies will want to feed very frequently, before sleeping for a longer block of sleep (2-3 hours).

4-8 weeks 

Fussiness peaks at around 6 weeks, and babies are often a lot more alert during the day. You may notice your baby starting to sleep for longer periods of time at night time. 

9-14 weeks 

You may start to notice that your baby has a definite night time, and they may sleep for a block of 5-6 hours at night time. Naps become a bit more spread out during the day and your baby may start to develop a pattern of wakefulness and naps during the day. Fussiness usually starts to settle, and babies become a little bit happier lying on a mat on their own, or in a bouncy chair. 

Sleep happens

Sleep is a biological function. 

What do I mean by this? Well, we have to sleep. It’s essential for our survival. Like peeing, or drinking, our bodies HAVE to sleep. This is no different for babies. In order for babies to sleep they need four things:

  • They need to be tired
  • They need to be calm 
  • They need to be comfortable
  • They need to feel connected to you

If you can provide an environment that is calming, you can meet their needs, and they feel safe and secure, then they will get enough sleep. 

It’s as simple as that. 

As you get to know your baby, identify their cues, and understand just how much (or how little) sleep they need, you’ll become more confident and calm in facilitating sleep. 

Their sleep may not look like what you expected it would look like! However, if you remove any obstacles and roadblocks to sleep, then you can be confident that your baby is getting enough sleep to meet their needs. 

The next section will start to look at the roadblocks to sleep, and how you can identify when your baby is tired.