Newborn sleep can be erratic and leave parents questioning what normal sleep should look like for their little ones.
Carolyn Marshall, a Registered Nurse and owner of the private practice for Northeastern Ontario at The Mama Coach, said it's important to remember that newborn sleep differs from adult sleep.
"Newborns don't have circadian rhythms, which controls when we wake up and go to sleep at night, they also don't make any sleep hormones like melatonin, and they don't sleep in cycles, so their sleep looks different," she explained.
Newborn babies — which are no older than 12 weeks —switch between Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and a quiet, restful deep sleep. When experiencing REM sleep, adults go into body paralysis to prevent them from acting out their dreams, but babies kick, coo, and thrash in this cycle because their bodies do not go into paralysis.
Often parents will observe this thrashing and assume their baby needs soothing; however, Marshall said sometimes it works better to let them settle on their own because the babies are still sleeping when this happens.
Parents should also know that sleep can vary from 30 minutes to two hours in newborns, and they should not expect a consistent sleep pattern at this age, she said.
"People will assume the two-hour sleep was better and try to recreate that scenario, and it may never be recreated," she said. "Just know that it's normal for the length of sleep to vary until they're close to six to seven months of age and having two consistent naps per day."
Parents may also have to adjust their sleep routine to meet their newborn's needs, and it’s normal for infants to wake during the night because they’re hungry. However, Marshall noted that newborns often like to go to bed late and sleep in.
"Forcing a newborn to try and go to bed at seven o'clock is incorrect," she said. "They're usually not ready for bed until between 9 and 10 p.m., so that can match up to when adults want to go to sleep."
Although there are a variety of sleep training methods parents may try, Marshall does not use or promote the often-harsh cry-it-out approach, which dictates that parents do not respond to their baby's cries and instead lets them figure out self-soothing techniques to fall back asleep.
"People often can't handle how much crying is happening and give in, and then it [the sleep training] goes backwards," she said. "It's not for the faint of heart."
The Mama Coach method is based on sleep science and setting expectations for biological norms, like recognizing that it is normal for babies to wake during the night and want milk. Using a bedtime routine can also help newborns understand the difference between the day and night, which consolidates their sleep.
Marshall recommended that the routine include a bath, which boosts melatonin levels and prepares them for sleep, then applying lotion, which reduces their cortisol levels, then diapers, pyjamas and a sleep-sack or swaddle. This can be followed by what Marshall describes as "love-routines," which may include a story or song, followed by feeding and transferring them to their sleep space.
For parents wanting some extra support, Marshall recommends the Mama Coach newborn support package, which helps develop these important sleep hygiene habits.
Marshall added that it's also important for parents to focus on only their baby and not compare their experience to other parents or take unsolicited advice.
"Know that you'll figure out what you need to do with your baby," she said.
To learn more about The Mama Coach and all of the programs they have to offer, visit them online.