If I could singlehandedly revolutionize the idea of “sleep training” the very first place I would begin is with prenatal education about maternity and newborn sleep, no question. Interestingly, (and rather shockingly) expectant parents are inundated with information on topics ranging from prenatal yoga and what to take to the hospital, to breastfeeding and circumcision, but not the tiniest speck of information about what to expect that first night you are home, with regard to sleep.
We are simply told that we won’t have any once the baby arrives. We are told to “rest up for when the baby comes” (perhaps by someone who has never tried to sleep at the end of a third trimester).
We are told to sleep when the baby sleeps. Right. And I’ll cook when the baby cooks, and do laundry when she does too.
For many families, just laying around napping with your baby for several weeks is not a realistic option. Life goes on: Mom or dad goes back to work, grandparents fly home, and sisters return to families of their own.
This is one of, but certainly not the only reason, that establishing healthy sleep habits from day one is supremely important. Simply put … you need to eat, you need to shower, you need to heal, and you most definitely need to rest.
Sleeping when the baby sleeps is great in theory, unless your baby sleeps for 20 minutes at a time, which trust me, is very common.
Implementing a few simple things for your babies sleep habits now, can truly eradicate the need for any sort of traditional “sleep training” down the road.
Wouldn’t that change the face of parenting forever? I promise you, it is far easier to support your baby in learning healthy sleep habits now, than it is to change unhealthy ones later on.
For the first week or so, your newborn baby will hardly seem be awake, but after the first week or two, one key thing you can do with your newborn, is to keep wake times very short at first.
You should lay them down to sleep no more than 45 minutes after they have woken and often even less. If you wait until she is fussy, cranky or crying, you might actually be too late!
Watch the clock when she wakes, regardless of how long she slept for. The amount of awake time, if more important than the timing of naps and bedtime at first.
An overtired baby will have more trouble settling down and going to sleep (and staying asleep).
Naps will be short at first, but because of their short awake times, it is pretty easy to set the wake, eat, play, sleep routine in since they will likely need to sleep before they need to eat again. Which brings me to the next really important sleep shaping rule.
As much as possible, avoid creating a suck to sleep association.
This is my absolute number one tip, when working with expectant families and newborns.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, and having that special bond with your baby.
What we do suggest is that you nurse them when they first wake, and then they will likely “play” a little bit (also known as staring at things and pooping) and then go back off to sleep.
If you do nurse/feed them again before they conk out – just try to wake them a wee bit before you lay them down.
Laying them down before they are overtired, and before they are sleeping is the best early introduction to the self soothing skills they will need in life.
We want them to associate nursing with care-giving, having their needs met, bonding with you, being loved, and so on…but not necessarily to associate nursing with sleep. A suck-to-sleep association can be very difficult to break down the road, and is usually met with more resistance the older the baby gets.
Babies that do form that association tend to wake up after a single sleep cycle (30 to 40 minutes) so can have incredibly broken sleep and short naps too.
Because they are no longer sucking and so they wake to look for it, thinking it’s the only way they can sleep. This also creates the nurse all night (rather than out of need) phenomenon.
That being said, newborns fall asleep nursing or feeding all the time. So the best you can do at first is to try to feed after waking rather than before sleeping, and to rouse them a little if they do fall asleep eating, before you lay them down.
Two really common concern for many parents of newborns, is how best to know that their baby is safe, comfortable, and not in danger of overheating.
The best way to keep a sleeping infant safe is to ensure that they are on their back to sleep and that there is nothing in their bed but them. Even the tiniest of babies can squirm and kick enough to bring a blanket over their face.
For safety as well as comfort, sleep sacks are highly recommended. Using one eliminates the dangers of loose blankets in the bassinet/crib, and also reassures parents that the baby is warm through the night. You need all the sleep you can get too, so getting up constantly to cover the baby back up isn’t ideal.
Overheating can be a worry as well, and luckily sleep sacks are made of many different materials for all seasons. A general rule to follow with regard to being warm/cold is this: whatever is comfortable for hanging out in, plus one layer (i.e. a sleep sack). So, if she was playing all evening in a sleeper, she will be fine for the night in a sleeper, with her sleep sack overtop. If it’s particularly cold, use a onesie/undershirt under her sleeper, plus her sleep sack.
If she’s been comfortable in just a diaper all evening because of hot weather, then a diaper shirt with her sleep sack over top will be just right.
Day &night confusion
Although you might be tempted to keep things quiet and dark for your newborn to nap well through the day, it might prolong the day/night confusion that almost all newborns will have for up to six weeks.
Just think, when he was in his mom’s body, her movements lulled him to sleep through the day and when mom was resting, he’d have a party. Once he’s finally here, it takes awhile for him to learn he should sleep more at night than during the day.
To help him learn this as his circadian rhythm finishes developing, keep days bright and upbeat and nights, dark and boring; it will help your newborn sort out his days and nights faster.
Make sure to keep night time feeds quiet and dark, and lay them back down afterwards rather than wandering the house or watching television. Avoid diaper changes unless necessary or poopy, and if you do change, keep it completely non stimulating. Keep feeds in his room or near there in a chair, rather than in the living room or kitchen, where daytime activities happen.
In the morning, make a big deal about it being time to get up for the day by opening blinds, being extra peppy (you can pretend, it’s okay), and having daytime feeds somewhere other than his room.
Regan Forsyth is a Central Alberta pediatric sleep coach.