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7 Newborn Sleep Tips for the Sleep-Deprived Parent

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Sleeping like a baby“, I remember thinking mutinously to myself as I rocked my crying child, “is NOT what I thought it would be!” Goodbye images of peacefully resting cherubs – hello fourth-trimester hell, where sleepless nights and screaming newborns take centre stage.

According to the founder of Precious Sleep and certified infant and child sleep consultant, Ho Wing Yan, babies in their first 3 months are ideally meant to sleep between 14 to 17 hours in a day. As most of us know though, this doesn’t always reflect reality. Newborn sleep patterns are often a chaotic mess, with unpredictable sleep/wake cycles wreaking havoc on already stressed-out parents.

Fear not, though – we’ve rounded up 7 evidence-based tips to help you get started on setting healthy sleep patterns for your little one (and hopefully, reclaim your sleep!):

Sleep Tip 1:

Create a conducive sleep environment

Your baby is bawling her head off and you’re wondering why she isn’t managing to fall asleep. Perhaps this could be because your child isn’t feeling comfortable.

Always do a quick check on certain factors. Does your child need a nappy change? Are they feeling gassy? Are they too hot? Too cold?

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Newborns are sensitive creatures and their sleep can often be improved upon by adjusting their sleep conditions. Keep in mind the following factors:

Lighting. In addition to rewiring your child’s circadian rhythms, dimming the lights also creates an appropriate atmosphere for sleep by helping to cut off external distractions.

Temperature. Always keep the climate in your child’s room at a temperate level. As a gauge, have a feel of your baby’s neck. If it’s too hot, they’re likely to feel sweaty; if they feel cold, add some extra layers for warmth.

Sleepwear and bedding. Some babies take a dislike to strong scents (e.g. the type of laundry detergent used) or might experience discomfort with what they’re wearing (e.g. a scratchy tag or zipper). Make sure to always use gentle cleaning products and check your baby’s sleepwear for wardrobe malfunctions before popping them in for the night.

Studies have also shown that newborns respond positively to the scent of their mothers, which in turn soothes them to sleep. Be creative and try sleeping with your baby’s pyjamas for a night or two to infuse it with that comforting yummy mummy smell.

Sleep Tip 2:

Recognise the signs of tiredness

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Some parents feel that tiring out their baby in the day often leads to better nighttime sleep – but did you know that over-tiredness can actually be counterproductive?

Between the first 6 to 8 weeks, your baby is unlikely to be able to stay up beyond 2 hours at a time. If you miss this sleep window, chances are, your baby might wind up being too tired to sleep! One way to help is to start being aware of your newborn’s sleepy cues as a preemptive measure.

Some common examples include:

  • having red or watery eyes;
  • rubbing their face or ears;
  • arching their backs and yawning repeatedly;
  • fidgeting or growing increasingly fussy; and 
  • losing interest in their activities or turning away from people and objects.

If your baby exhibits these warning signs, act promptly to get them ready for some much-needed rest.

Sleep Tip 3:

Adopt an eat-wake-sleep routine

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Be cautious about letting your baby fall asleep during their feeds. Although it’s tempting, this can end up hampering your child’s ability to fall asleep independently.

Take a cue from the pages of popular parenting book On Becoming Babywise and try following an eat-wake-sleep (EWS) routine instead. Instead of a play-eat-sleep cycle (where babies feed immediately prior to sleep), babies on the EWS routine will learn to eat first, followed by some awake time and finally, sleep.

Inserting some playtime in between eating and sleeping can help to break their reliance on nursing in order to fall asleep (and also trains them to get a fuller feed, versus a “snack and snooze”, says Wing Yan).

Sleep Tip 4:

Avoid overstimulation

It’s a great big world out there – and your little one has a hundred new things to process each day. Whilst it’s wonderful (and so important) to engage your baby’s growing senses, remember that overstimulating them can often have a negative impact on their sleep.

So dial down on the ‘Crazy Fun Mum’ antics in the lead up to naptimes and bedtimes. Reduce your child’s exposure to bright lights and loud sounds prior to their sleep and give them a bit of quiet time to help wind them down.

Sleep Tip 5:

Differentiate day from night

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As adults, our natural circadian rhythms help us to feel awake in the day and sleepy at night. Newborns, unfortunately, take up to 2 to 4 months to develop the same rhythms and proper levels of the sleep hormones, melatonin and cortisol.

Research indicates however that babies are able to adapt more quickly when their parents provide them with the right ‘zeitgebers (or environmental cues) to help them distinguish day from night.

During the day, therefore, make sure to:

  • expose your baby to natural daylight,
  • be playful and interactive with them; and
  • gently wake them if they nod off mid-feed.

At night, do:

  • downplay your interactions with your child;
  • keep the lights and sounds low; and
  • run a bedtime routine to indicate that sleep is approaching (see: Sleep Tip #6).

Soon, your baby will learn to appreciate the fact that ‘day =fun’ and ‘night = sleep’.

Sleep Tip 6:

Introduce a soothing bedtime routine

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Winding down your baby for the night helps to ease their transition from waking to sleeping. Some calming rituals include:

  • a warm bath;
  • giving your baby a gentle massage;
  • singing them a lullaby; and
  • reading them a bedtime story.

Also, if you’re breastfeeding, a feed before bedtime can also help to put your baby in a relaxed state. The melatonin in mum’s breastmilk can send a helpful sleepy signal to your bub (even before they’re able to produce their own melatonin), hopefully leading to a better night’s rest for everyone.

Sleep Tip 7:

Use gentle sleep aids

Many parents are concerned about creating unhealthy sleep associations at an early stage and shy away from using ‘sleep props’ to facilitate sleep. According to Wing Yan, however, bad habits are unlikely to develop this early (i.e. before the 4th-month mark). She adds:

“Parents should set realistic expectations. Newborn sleep isn’t mature yet, and your child might require some additional aids to help them fall and stay asleep. It’s a fine balance – but the important thing is to make sure your child gets the sleep they need.”

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To help, try using:

Swaddles. Newborns often inadvertently wake themselves due to their Moro or startle reflex (which, irritatingly, always seems to kick in just as you’ve gotten your baby to sleep!) Medical professionals often recommend swaddling as a way to provide the comfort and sense of physical support that your baby needs to combat this. Bonus: the snugness of a swaddle also mimics the cosiness of the womb, which in turn, helps babies feel more secure.

Sound machines. As adults, we’ve gotten so accustomed to sleeping in silence that we often forget…we didn’t start off this way. Babies in-utero are used to a reassuring symphony of sounds within their mums’ bodies. Often, the ambient hum of a sound machine (providing some gentle white noise or soft music) can prove oddly comforting to a newborn, reminding them of their former homes and helping them to sleep more comfortably.

Pacifiers. These handy little suckers often get a bad rap – but many sleep experts advocate their use. They can prove extremely soothing to newborns, helping to satisfy their natural suck reflex. Also, pacifier use during naps or bedtime has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

If your concern is eventually weaning your kids off the pacifier, don’t worry. When the time comes, our tips on pulling the plug on the pacifier should help!

As a litigation lawyer turned full-time mum, Kimberly Lee finds that arguing court cases never seemed quite as difficult as arguing with an obstinate toddler over carrots. She writes about life, loss, love and everything in between as she explores her greatest adventure yet- motherhood.

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