If someone could figure out a surefire way to get a newborn baby to sleep, they’d be a millionaire or a Nobel Peace Prize winner. While a “one-size-fits-all” baby sleep solution doesn’t exist, there are some tried and true tips that can help your baby—even a colicky baby—sleep.
Newborn Sleep Patterns
Newborns do sleep—just not eight hours a night like adults. Newborns sleep eight to nine hours during the day and about eight hours at night—a total of about 16 hours per day. But their sleep is generally in short bursts. Why?
Because baby’s brain isn’t fully developed, they do not follow the same sleep patterns as adults—they don’t enter deep sleep and they don’t have a functioning circadian rhythm until about 3 to 4 months. (source) What’s more, babies stomaches are about the size of a golf ball, so they need to eat more frequently. These combined factors are a recipe for disaster when it comes to sleeping for long periods of time.
Tips to Help Baby Sleep
Because of these nuances, it can sometimes feel like you’re not getting any sleep at all. And if your baby is suffering from excess gas, acid reflux, or colic? Well, that kind of sleep deprivation is real. So how do you get baby to sleep when you want them to?
1. Watch wakefulness time
You might think that forcing baby to stay awake during the day would lead to longer stretches of sleep at night, but this strategy isn’t recommended. This comes as a surprise to many parents, but newborns (0-3 months) really can’t stay up longer than 45 minutes to 1 hour (2 hours at most!) without getting overtired. And the problem is, once they get overtired, they become harder to put down to sleep. Give your baby the space and time they need to rest.
2. Set morning wake time
If baby gets up before 6 a.m. and seems up for the day, try nursing and rocking him back to sleep—even if they sleep in your arms. Starting the day too early can set up a bad cycle for the day. Hopefully, you’ll help to set their internal clock to eventually sleep till 6:30-7:30 a.m.
3. Get the first nap right
Sometimes, if baby gets overtired before you put them down for that first nap, it messes with your whole day. Getting that first nap right—getting baby to sleep 45 minutes after they first wake up—you can set the tone for the whole day. Because of this, you might feel like you’re basically changing baby, feeding baby, burping baby, swaddling, and rocking right back to sleep. That’s totally normal in the early days.
4. Change baby’s diaper before feedings
Adults get sleepy after a big meal, and so do babies. It’s not uncommon for little ones to fall asleep at the breast or bottle, or start getting drowsy. Interrupting that with a diaper change can stimulate baby, delaying sleep.
Change baby’s diaper before each feeding to take advantage of their natural desire to close their eyes and nap when their belly is full.
5. Limit stimulation
Everything is new to baby. Because of this, babies get easily overstimulated. Since too much stimulation can make it hard to get baby to sleep, limit visitors and keep bright lights and noise to a minimum. (Check out these tips to limit your own stimulation sources like blue lights!)
- Start winding down 5-10 minutes before naps and 15-20 minutes before bedtime
- Develop some sort of routine, whether that includes turning on soft music, singing a lullaby, or simply swaddling and turning on a noisemaker prior to sleep time. Babies are creatures of habit, and this can help signal that it’s time to rest.
- Don’t schedule any activities close to baby’s bedtime. Ending the day with infant massage or reading a baby book are both excellent ways to gently stimulate and calm baby before their big night’s sleep.
6. Watch for cues
Learn to read your baby’s signals. Baby may be tired if they are:
- Tugging at their ear
- Fussing excessively
- Staring off into the distance
7. Try swaddling
Babies have a startle reflex or Moro reflex, which means they can startle themselves awake. Because they also don’t have good control of their limbs, they can scratch themselves too. Swaddling a baby recreates that womb-like feeling where they were definitely cramped. Here’s how to swaddle a baby the right way. Just remember: Baby will have to stop being swaddled when he/she can roll over, around 3 months of age.
8. Use white noise or a baby shusher
It’s also loud in the womb, so use some kind of noise machine. I actually use two because we live in a loud house with a bunch of kids running around. I have one that’s lower in tone and one that’s higher. Any kind of low rumbling noise is good, because it washes out background noise. Here are some you can try:
- White noise machine: There are a number of machines specifically designed to create white noise. Some also have options for waves, rain, and other soothing sounds.
- Baby Shusher: This little device gently shushes your baby to sleep. Alternatively, you can use the app by the same name—just be sure to turn your phone or device onto airplane mode to limit EMF exposure.
- YouTube videos: There are also a number of online videos that have sushing sounds on loop. As noted above, just be sure to use a hardwired device and turn your WiFi off to limit EMF exposure while baby sleeps.
9. Use movement or vibration
Again, in the womb, there’s lots of motion. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, the rhythms experienced in utero trigger a reflex that helps keep babies relaxed. Once baby is earthside, there are some babies who simply won’t sleep without that same movement.
Rocking baby in a glider or gently bouncing them on a birthing ball are great ways to help baby fall asleep. And, if baby needs constant motion to stay asleep, there are many chairs, swings, and even bassinets that can help. Some glide, some vibrate. Some have timers, some don’t. Research and find the best one for your baby.
10. Make the room dark
It’s also very dark in the womb! Use blackout curtains, or drape thick fabric (like towels), up over the windows so that the room is dark to encourage better sleep rhythms. This is especially helpful during long, bright summer days. At night, use amber night lights if needed, as these aren’t as stimulating as other lights.
11. Check the temperature of the room
The ideal temperature for newborn sleep is cooler than you think. The recommendation is 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit. If your baby is obviously tired but refusing to fall asleep, check the room’s thermostat. Dress baby in natural, breathable fabrics (like organic cotton or muslin) appropriate for the temperature.
12. Do baby massage
Baby massage is not only a wonderful way to bond with your little one, but it also helps them sleep. Research shows that baby massage lowers cortisol levels, the stress hormone, and stimulates melatonin production, the hormone that promotes sleep. It also lowers stress hormones and helps baby relax. Read about the how and why of baby massage here.
13. Use light pressure
Speaking of massage, using touch and light pressure when putting baby to sleep can help. When you set baby in the bassinet or crib, keep your hand on baby’s chest for a few moments for added comfort and to still the startle reflex. You can also use special swaddles that have a very lightweight sack sewed inside that may soothe baby throughout entire sleep session.
14. Try a pacifier
Similarly, some babies have an innate need to suck. Breastfeeding can certainly fulfill this need, but if baby’s tummy is full or mom’s nipples are sore, a pacifier can help comfort baby. In fact, this study found that sucking on a pacifier helped reduce anxiety and even pain.
Of course, there are some disadvantages to using pacifiers. Learn more about the pros and cons of baby pacifiers.
15. Go outside!
Research suggests that babies who are exposed to sunlight in the afternoon sleep better at night. WOOT! Daylight can also help get baby into a better day/night sleep pattern. (Keep in mind that a child’s circadian rhythm doesn’t truly emerge till 3-4 months of age.) Here are some tips to use light to your advantage:
- Expose baby to natural light first thing in the morning.
- Keep the blinds open during the day.
- Get outside as much as possible.
- Dim the lights and limit blue light exposure (TV, cell phones, etc.) after sunset.
16. Watch for the 45 minute cat nap
A baby’s sleep cycle is about 45 minutes long, so you may notice that your baby starts waking up from naps almost exactly 45 minutes after you put her down. That’s fine for a morning or late afternoon nap, but ideally baby’s midday nap will incorporate more than one sleep cycle.
Try turning the rocker back on right around that 45-minute mark. Or, if baby wakes up, dream feed her back to bed, if possible. Even if you have to rock baby in your arms and nurse for awhile to get her to extend that nap, it might help the rest of the day go well.
17. Keep naps shorter in late afternoon
This is a great time to do a nap in a swing, in the car, or in a baby carrier—you don’t want a super long late afternoon nap, as this can interfere with a good bedtime hour. Wraps and structured carriers both work well for naps.
18. Once baby hits 6 weeks, aim for an earlier bedtime
The more sleep baby can get before midnight, the better. Babies will naturally want to go to bed for the night earlier and earlier as they get older. I found all of my babies settled for nighttime sleep between 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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More Baby Sleep Tips for Nursing Moms
19. Drink tart cherry juice
Melatonin is a wonderful sleep aid, but it’s not approved for babies to take directly. A breastfeeding mama can drink tart cherry juice, a beverage proven to be naturally high in melatonin, to pass some of the sleep benefits onto baby through milk.
20. Watch caffeine intake
Although caffeine is considered relatively safe while breastfeeding, babies, especially those under six months, may be sensitive to mom’s caffeine intake. (source) Caffeine levels in milk peak approximately 1-2 hours after consumption, so plan your beverage accordingly. And if baby’s having a hard time sleeping, consider eliminating caffeine altogether.
Know that there will be crazy days!
There will be days where all you’re doing is swaddling, rocking and soothing a baby to sleep, only to have them wake again. Do what you can to help baby sleep, but don’t beat yourself up if nothing works. Think you’re dealing with the witching hour? Read more here.
Laughing at the situation can help diffuse frustration. (Watch the below video for a giggle as we try to get our firstborn to “sleep.”) My subsequent kids were much better sleepers, probably because I was so much more relaxed and confident.
So breathe deep. Remember: This is just a phase—you will sleep again.