Sleep is one of the hardest adjustments when bringing a baby into the family. Not only do newborns have more demanding sleep expectations than we do, but each baby has their own needs, and they often change with growth spurts and stages of life.
But with a basic understanding of baby’s sleep needs and a willingness to listen to your mama and papa instincts, you can make it through the sleep challenges of baby and toddlerhood. Really, it can be a beautiful time to bond with your little one as you learn to listen to their cues.
Manage Sleep Expectations to Sleep Like a Baby
The most important part of surviving the odd sleep patterns of babyhood is setting realistic expectations for both yourself and your little one. And some of that means not expecting anything other than listening. Aren’t we all parenting experts before we become parents? Leaving room in your heart and plans for your baby’s nuances will make a difference in your ability to adapt.
The truth is that none of us really sleep through the night. Even if we don’t realize it, sleep comes in waves. In healthy adults, our sleep hormones are triggered by the waning light in the evening, and they let up when the light returns in the morning. In between, the intensity of sleep comes and goes in cycles. These rhythms change during pregnancy, likely to prepare us for the shift when baby comes. (Sometimes, it feels like and extends to pregnancy insomnia, which is a problem.)
Just-born babies haven’t acclimated to the day/night patterns yet. Instead, their very tiny tummies call the shots. (This is an interesting article on the subject.) Before we can expect them to conform to our sleep patterns, we have to let them adjust to eating patterns. The constant nutrition the placenta provided kept them satisfied in utero. Now, they have to be frequently replenished.
Your newborn might also wake to be changed, to get warm or cool, or to simply feel close to you.
As they get older, these needs will be less frequent and prominent, but only because they are growing and changing. Trying to train these needs out of your baby can neglect important needs like nutrition, hydration, comfort, and connection.
Usually, in the 6-12 weeks range, you’ll begin to see your baby be more awake during the day and start to sleep for longer stretches at night. The circadian rhythms are taking over – a glimmer of hope! But the same needs persist, and there’s a wide range of normal, as always.
You may have one child who sleeps long stretches of night from just a few months old, and the next will wake every few hours until toddlerhood. Both will be normal, and both will be healthy.
The bottom line? Sleep expectations should include waking with your little one to help meet their needs, as long as they wake to have needs met.
Adjusting to Baby’s Sleep Patterns
Even when we adjust our sleep expectations so that we are prepared to wake frequently with a baby, it won’t always be easy to cope. The counterpart to good expectations is good adjustments. When we know to expect less sleep at night, for example, we can plan to sleep more during the day or to go to bed earlier in the evening. We can lower the expectations on ourselves to have perfect houses or high-level obligations while we meet the increased sleep/wake expectations from baby.
Some strategies that may help while you “sleep like a baby” include:
- Napping (instead of cleaning) when baby naps – you need to nourish your body with sleep whenever you can get it
- Keeping the room dark and quiet during nighttime feedings – associate sleep and rest with dark, as it will be when baby’s pituitary gland gets adjusted
- Establishing a calming bedtime routine (one for baby, one for you) – train your body and your baby’s body to know when it’s time to slow down and rest
- Minimizing screen time (phones, tablets, TVs) when it’s time to wind down for bed – the lights and flashes interfere with our own light-triggered sleep rhythms
- Accepting night wakings as cyclical and rhythmic – acceptance can help us to match the ebb and flow of interrupted sleep with less frustration
- Sharing sleep with your baby, either through safe co-sleeping or having baby sleep in your room
Not every family chooses to co-sleep, but it’s important to at least keep little ones near you. They benefit from being near your sleep patterns, and you benefit from being near them to minimize the effort expended during wake-ups. You’ll hear them sooner, able to respond before they wake fully, and you may not wake as much without moving to another room. Many families find it easier to adjust to sleep expectations when everyone is adapting to it in the same space.
Sleep is a precious commodity. How do you cope with a lack of sleep during the infant months?
If you'd like some help getting settled at night, my sleep tincture blends herbs that help little ones calm for bedtime and better sleep. And as always, with an herbal purchase for children, you'll have access to the Herbs for Kids course, to learn how to use herbs on your own.