Finding your feet
Hopefully by about four weeks, you’re starting to find your feet a little. That’s not to say that having a four week old baby is easy, by any means! But hopefully, you’ll find yourself getting a few hours of sleep at night time, or at least more than you did with a newborn. Hopefully, you’ll feel like you’re starting to recover from the birth, and breastfeeding is starting to feel a bit easier.
However, for some parents, the period between 4 and 8 weeks can be particularly tough, especially if your baby is fussy or has colic. This often is worst in the evening, when babies are very unsettled, and perhaps want to feed constantly. For most babies, this fussiness peaks at around 6 weeks and then gradually starts to improve. There are a few things that can help with fussiness. While I cover fussiness in more detail in my Caring for Your Baby course, there are a few things in this module that can help – the sections below on sensory diet and soothing your baby.
With regards to sleep, hopefully you’ve addressed the potential roadblocks mentioned in the last module, and are now ready to look at improving sleep in a bit more detail!
Setting your baby's circadian rhythm
Let’s look at your baby’s circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is that pattern we have of being awake during the day, and sleeping at night. When your baby is born, he or she does not have an established circadian rhythm. As a newborn, you probably found that your baby woke up as often during the night as they did during the day. This is because most babies don’t make melatonin until they’re at least 8 weeks old. Melatonin is the sleepy hormone that helps us sleep at night time.
During the day, it’s a really good idea to expose your baby to lots of daylight, as this encourages the production of melatonin at night time. NOTE: I’m NOT suggesting you expose your child to sunlight! We need to keep babies out of direct sunlight. But daylight is good. How do you do this?
- Wake up at the same time every day, open the curtains or switch on the lights.
- If you’ve been up a lot during the night, and you are able to, get someone else to get up early with your baby and you go back to bed.
- Spend as much time outdoors as possible, but at the very least, get out for an early morning walk, ideally before 10 am.
- If you are indoors, keep your baby near a bright window, and keep blinds and curtains open.
- Make sure naps happen in the daylight. Naps happen because of homeostatic sleep pressure (how tired your baby is), not because of melatonin (the sleepy hormone). Melatonin is made at night time in response to dimmed light. You don’t want your baby to make melatonin during the day!
Establish a difference between day sleep and night sleep. Don’t tiptoe around your baby during the day. Normal noise and hustle and bustle means that your baby will sleep differently during the day to night time. Short naps are not the end of the world.
A couple of hours before bedtime, it’s a good idea to dim the lights and avoid using screens. Melatonin is produced in response to darkness, so you want your baby to start making melatonin in the evening. At night time, you want your bedroom to be really dark. A lot of parents like using a night light at night time, especially for feeds. If you can, only use it when you are up with your baby during the night, and keep it as dim as possible. A red toned light will ensure that the production of melatonin isn’t inhibited. Anything with a blue undertone might inhibit the production of melatonin (even a white light can inhibit the production of melatonin).
Homeostatic sleep pressure and wake windows
Sleep happens because of two processes: the circadian rhythm (mentioned above) and homeostatic sleep pressure, which is basically just means that when you get tired, you have to sleep! When babies are very little, this sleep pressure builds very quickly, which is why they nap frequently. As they get older, the sleep pressure rises more slowly and naps spread out.
Wake windows are a notion that have become very popular in the last few years. To be honest, there is very little scientific basis for them. They are based on the concept of sleep pressure, but they can be very prescriptive by suggesting that your baby HAS to sleep after a certain time awake.
All babies are individuals, and while we have some rough estimates for how long babies can stay awake at different ages (see my chart, above), the truth is that there is no one schedule that all babies fit into. If a baby has a short nap (say, they woke after 20 minutes because the Amazon delivery driver was bringing all those parcels you ordered at 3 am), then you may find that the sleep pressure hasn’t completely fallen and your baby may be ready for their next nap a little bit sooner. Alternatively, they may have spent 3 blissful hours snoozing on your chest while you caught up with the latest Netflix series, and then go for quite a while before needing their next nap, because that sleep pressure has completely reset to zero during that long nap.
What we’re trying to achieve with time (say, after 10 weeks) is that by bedtime homeostatic sleep pressure is high, and your baby has a strong circadian rhythm and then sleep happens easily, and your baby sleeps for a block of sleep.
Provide a rich sensory diet
As a former midwife, I always recommend women take it easy for the first few weeks. So I don’t want you to feel like you need to get out and about straight away, especially if you don’t feel up to it. It’s good to spend time with your baby and learn to read their cues, focus on breastfeeding and recover from the birth. However, you will probably feel a lot better if you CAN get out of the house regularly after a few weeks, even if it’s for a walk, or going to your local breastfeeding group, or other parenting group.
It’s worth bearing in mind, that babies aren’t really designed for being stuck in doors, lying in a Moses basket or bouncy chair, with a tv on in the background. That isn’t a great sensory experience for them. As an accredited Neuroprotective Developmental Care (NDC) practitioner, I often recommend parents spend more time outdoors with their babies. One of the principles of NDC is that “Daytime is for living, night time is for sleeping”, so being out and about with your baby often helps to consolidate night time sleep.
But aren’t routines good for babies?
Probably not. (Sorry!) Your newborn baby has immediate needs and these can be quite erratic. Meeting those needs spontaneously and responsively will result in a much happier baby. Furthermore, what your baby does in week one might be completely different from what they do in week 5. So any routine you impose may work one day, but not a few days later. The truth is, being a new parent will make you feel like you’re always playing catch up, trying to impose some order on your life.