Newborn Sleep: What Influences Night Time Sleep in Babies?

Key Points

  1. Expectant parents often underestimate the exhaustion that comes with caring for a newborn, with sleep being frequently disrupted in the first six weeks
  2. Establishing a routine and creating a conducive sleep environment are crucial
  3. Swaddling, following proper instructions, and transitioning to a sleeping bag when appropriate are recommended strategies for improving newborn sleep

“Catch up on your sleep now”… How many times have we heard these words uttered to expecting parents? Nothing prepares parents for the hours of sleep deprivation that accompanies the joy of a newborn child. And of course catching up on sleep is hardly an option for expectant parents. There is so much to do. Planning the new baby’s room, and buying the cot, pram and all the other necessary items can be a full time job. Of course having a 3.5kg baby in a mum’s stomach hardly makes for a comfortable night’s sleep! Maybe that is nature’s way of preparing her for the many night time feeds to come.

The first six weeks are the worst. For many parents this period is a haze of exhaustion. Sleep is often broken into two to three hour stretches depending on the feeding requirements of the new baby.

A recent study by baby sleepwear company Love To Dream of 600 parents across Australia has produced some staggering results. Nearly 90% of respondents said they suffered from exhaustion due to lack of sleep and that this was the single hardest thing about having a baby. The lack of sleep resulted in significant problems, such as an inability to bond with the new baby, low self- esteem, depression and poor physical health. 44% of new mums reported falling asleep whilst feeding their baby! Not surprisingly 40% of mums also said that the milestone they most looked forward to was their baby sleeping through the night. It seems mums of newborns will do almost anything for a single night of good quality sleep.

I think many parents underestimate the effects of cumulative sleep deprivation. Another recent study from America has shown that after three to four broken nights’ sleep; a parent’s ability is similar to a driver with a high range blood alcohol! It is amazing how much easier parenting seems after a good night’s sleep.

There is no good predication from your pregnancy or previous children that will give a clue as to whether the new baby will be a good sleeper or not. Sometimes you strike it lucky with the first two children only for the third to be a nocturnal monster that never sleeps at night.

Many factors can influence newborn sleep at night time. It is important to remember that for the first six weeks babies do not have a regular day night cycle like the rest of us. This means that they can’t distinguish between day and night.

They may sleep peacefully during the day and remain awake during the night. Gradually this improves and by six weeks of age most babies are in a reasonable day night sleep cycle. However for some parents this remains elusive. Sometimes babies are over stimulated, hungry or have a dirty nappy. Occasionally they may be in pain with reflux. It is important to rule these factors out first. It is also important to have a good routine with structure around feeding time, bath time and awake time. The babies room should be quiet, dark, well ventilated and at the appropriate temperature, not too hot or too cold. Also, a number of studies have shown the benefits of infant swaddling.

If you do use swaddles make sure that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions correctly and once your baby starts showing signs of rolling it’s time to transition him/her into a sleeping bag.

And for all those expectant parents, remember of course – catch up on your sleep now!

About the Author:

Dr Johnny Taitz is a distinguished Australian paediatrician. He is currently a Consultant Paediatrician at The Children's Clinic in Sydney and prior to this he spent many years in paediatrics at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick.

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