Published on February 5th, 2021
In those first few months after birth, your newborn baby will sleep more than any other time in her life. But those z’s won’t be as simple as closing her eyes and counting sheep.
Baby sleep patterns are known for being a bit unpredictable. But with a little knowledge, parents can be ready to support the healthiest sleep pattern possible.
11 Things to Know About Newborn Sleep Patterns
Understanding why newborn sleep patterns are so unique can help prepare parents for a whole new world of sleep and feeding schedules.
#1 Newborns Need to Sleep A Lot…
From the time they’re born to about 4 months, newborns do plenty of snoozing. In fact, babies at this age will need to sleep 16-18 hours over a 24-hour period.
#2 …But Not for Long Periods of Time
If there was such a thing as the Sleep Olympics, newborns would take the gold in napping sprints but wouldn’t come close to qualifying for marathon sleeps. A newborn baby’s sleep duration—or how long a baby stays asleep—ranges from just 20 minutes to 2 hours.
There are a few reasons why your baby isn’t interested in long bouts of uninterrupted sleep:
- Babies need to eat – Your child’s tummy—and the rest of him—have a lot of growing to do. Because a baby’s stomach is so small and his growth rate is so fast, he’ll need to be fed every 2-3 hours. Plus, breast milk and infant formulas are easily digestible, so it won’t take long for your little bundle of joy to get hungry again (even in the middle of a nap).
- Evolutionary impulses – Humans are our most vulnerable in infancy. That’s why we have a failsafe built into our brains called the Moro reflex. The Moro reflex is your child’s startle reflex. It’s kind of like his “spidey senses.” When something goes bump in the night—or if Dad accidentally closes the bedroom door slightly too loudly—your baby’s brain will go on full alert and sound the alarm, crying out for parental help.
- Low tolerance for any form of discomfort – It takes time to develop a tolerance for discomfort. As adults, we’ve had a lot of practice being too cold, too hot, or having an itch we can’t quite scratch. But your baby hasn’t had these experiences yet, and his first times experiencing cold, hunger, or overheating can cause him to wake in protest.
In the first few months (and really, the first few years), your baby only has his experience of time in the womb. There, your child was always well-fed, warm, and comfortable. Outside, being uncomfortable in a diaper or hungry seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened to him —because it literally is! So for your child, it’s perfectly reasonable to wake up crying when things aren’t quite perfect.
More REM sleep, less deep sleep – REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is one of the lightest sleep stages. During REM sleep, the body is relaxed, but the brain is more active than any other sleep stage, meaning it doesn’t take much to stir a person out of sleep. Adults spend about 20% of their sleep time in REM. However, 50% of a baby’s sleep is spent in REM. This might be why your baby wakes more often than you do.
#3 Sleep Helps Healthy Development for a Newborn’s Brain
In the first three months after birth, a baby’s brain grows by 1% every day. And most of that growth occurs during sleep. The brain uses sleep to repair tissues, release growth hormones, and cement lessons learned from the day—important lessons like Mom equals food, warmth, and snuggle time.
#4 Newborns Aren’t Used to the Day-to-Night Sleep Schedule
In utero, your baby ran her own schedule. She could sleep when she wanted, “eat” when she wanted, and kick around whenever she felt like it. She had no concept of day or night in the warm, safe, dark womb.
What she didn’t have was a circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is the body’s built-in clock. It’s why you start feeling tired around the same time every night—even if your Netflix show is getting intense —and wake around the same time every morning. The circadian rhythm is based on a day-night schedule, so you sleep during the night and are awake during the day. That’s why your baby will sleep whenever, day or night. She hasn’t developed her circadian rhythm yet.
#5 An Abnormal Sleep Schedule is Totally Normal
For some parents, the term “infant sleep patterns” is an oxymoron. “Pattern” implies there’s a piece of your child’s sleep schedule that’s predictable!
Because infants are still adjusting to the world outside of Mom’s tummy and developing their circadian rhythms, their sleep schedules can be sporadic. That’s okay – in fact, it’s totally normal and healthy.
Try not to compare your child’s sleep schedule to others in your Mommy-baby playgroup. Every child’s schedule will start out a little differently before the circadian rhythm sets in.
#6 This Sporadic Sleep Schedule Won’t Last Forever
As you’re rocking your baby to sleep after a 3am feeding, you may find yourself wondering, “When will my baby sleep through the night?”
When do babies sleep through the night? Typically, babies sleep without interruptions (for 6-8 hours) at around the 6-month mark. Some babies take longer to adjust to sleeping through the night, some take less. But trust us, that time will come sooner than you think.
Hold on, Mom! You got this!
#7 Your Baby Has Two Awake Stages
Just like your child has different sleep stages, he also has three different modes of awakeness.
- Quiet alert phase – At the end of a baby’s sleep cycle, their senses are just waking up. He’ll be mostly still, but will observe sound and motion, stare at objects, and start to transition into the active alert phase.
- Active alert phase – The active alert phase is when your baby does most of his wiggling. He’ll react to sounds and sights, reach for things, and take in the world around him.
- Crying phase – If you have a newborn, you’re probably very familiar with this stage. Healthy newborns can cry quite a bit—it’s their way of communicating their needs to their parents. Your newborn may cry because he’s hungry, ready for a diaper change, too cold, too warm, tired, or just wants to be held. Sometimes, he may enter the crying stage when he’s overwhelmed by the world around him.
During the crying phase, your baby’s body will move erratically while he cries. If your child’s physical needs are taken care of and he’s still crying, you may try:
- Shushing noises, which mimics the sounds he’s used to hearing in the womb
- Swaddling, which mimics the closeness of the womb and can be reassuring
- Holding your child close – touch is the best reassurance!
#8 You Can Spot a Sleepy Baby Before The “Crying Phase” Time
Crying may also be a late sign of sleepiness, so try to help your child fall asleep before the crying phase. In fact, tired babies may be so overwhelmed and upset, they may refuse to sleep—even if it’s the one thing they want!
How do you stop the so-sleepy-I’m-crying phase in its tracks? Keep an eye out for signs of tiredness in your child. These may include:
- Rubbing of the eyes
- Disinterest in looking at you or objects of interest
#9 Try Implementing a Sleep Schedule
Another way to work around the too-tired-to-sleep conundrum is by keeping your child on a sleep schedule. Although a baby’s sleep cycle patterns can be erratic during those first few months, setting time ranges for nap and wake times can help you better predict when your child’s eyelids will start drooping.
Typically, newborns cycle between feedings, periods of wakefulness, and naps. During the day, your baby will need a nap after 45-90 minutes of wakefulness. These naps can last from 20 minutes to 2 hours.
Based on these cycles, here’s a sample schedule you can try with your family (feel free to adjust to help streamline the events with your schedule:
In the morning…
- 7:30 – 8:00 AM – Wake up and feeding time
- 8:30 AM – Put your child down for a nap so you can have some breakfast and a nap for yourself!
- 10:30 AM – Feeding, diaper change, and active time
- 11:10 AM – Nap time (plus a little lunch and nap break for parents!)
In the afternoon…
- 1:00 PM – Feeding, diaper change, and active time
- 1:40 PM – Naptime
- 3:30 PM – Feeding, diaper change, active time
- 4:10 PM – Naptime
In the evening…
- 6:00 PM – Feeding, diaper change, active time, and a bath
- 6:30 PM – Naptime and dinner for the parents!
- 7:30 – 8:30 PM – Diaper change, feeding, and bedtime
- 10:30 PM – Feed and diaper change, repeating every 2-3 hours as the baby wakes up
#10 Strategic Lighting Can Help Your Baby’s Circadian Rhythm Development
Your baby’s circadian rhythm is still in the works—but that doesn’t mean you can’t help it along!
- During night activities be sure to keep your child in as much darkness as possible. Even if it’s daylight outside, make sure your child is placed in a dark room for a restful and quiet sleep. This will help her associate darkness with sleep time. It will also encourage the production of melatonin—the body’s sleep chemical—in your child’s brain.
- When it’s awake time keep your child in the light. Sunlight blocks your child’s brain from producing melatonin, signaling to your baby that it’s time to be awake and enjoy the day.
#11 Recreating a Womb-Like Environment Can Help Your Baby Sleep
Your baby’s first favorite place to sleep is in his mom’s belly, and you can help recreate that paradise of snoozing. The three most important characteristics of a womb-like atmosphere are:
- Dark – Keep your baby’s sleep areas dark using light-blocking curtains.
- Warm – Make sure your baby is wearing the appropriate amount of clothes so he can drift off easily.
- Soothing – Try turning on a white noise machine to help simulate the calming noises of Mom’s belly.
Support Your Child’s Sleep Health with SneakPeek Traits
In those first few months, it’s crucial to develop your child’s healthy sleep habits. Every catnap on Mom’s lap, long snooze in her carrier, and z’s she catches in her car seat all contribute to the amazing person she’ll become.
Right now, your baby’s sleep pattern may be unpredictable. But with a little help from SneakPeek Traits, you can learn your child’s sleep habits based on her unique genetic profile.
You can discover:
- Her ideal sleep duration, or how long her body needs to sleep to feel her best.
- Her sleep latency, or how long it takes your child to fall asleep based on her genetics.
- Her sleep chronotype, that is, genetic inclination to being a Night Owl or an Early Bird.
- Her sleep efficiency, meaning how much time your child spends trying to fall asleep versus how much time she actually spends asleep.
Using SneakPeek Traits is as easy as:
- Ordering your SneakPeek Traits kit.
- Rubbing your child’s inner cheek with a swab to collect DNA.
- Shipping the sample to SneakPeek Labs in the prepaid package.
- Getting your results shortly after through a secure portal.
Don’t hit the snooze button on this opportunity to understand more about your child. Order your SneakPeek Traits kit today!
Healthline. What’s My Baby Dreaming About? https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/baby-dreaming
Sleep Advisor. 7 Baby Sleep Facts Every Parent Should Know. https://www.sleepadvisor.org/baby-sleep-facts-for-parents/
Stanford Children’s Health. Newborn Sleep Patterns. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=newborn-sleep-patterns-90-P02632
Healthline Parenthood. Help! When Will My Baby Sleep Through the Night? https://www.healthline.com/health/when-do-babies-sleep-through-the-night