As new parents, one of the biggest challenges faced is often sleep - or the sudden, shocking lack of it. Although it’s often talked about, not much can really prepare you for having a newborn and the disrupted sleep that goes alongside becoming a parent. It can be difficult adjusting and accepting that this is just how it is right now and to realise that things with a newborn evolve all the time. This period of little sleep won’t last forever!
Often parents worry that there is something wrong with their baby because they are not sleeping for long periods of time, or that they are alone in having a baby that doesn’t self-settle or sleep through the night. All too often, parents who cuddle or feed or rock their baby to sleep are told they are making a “rod for their own back” and that their child will never be able to sleep without them, let alone move from home one day. It’s a general belief that as a parent, you mustn’t make yourself too important in your baby’s life, as this will mean a ‘clingy’ child and ‘less confident adult’. (I have more to say about safe attachment but will leave that for another blog post.)
The popular media portrayals of what is normal baby behaviour has much to answer for, as does the multi-million pound “baby-sleep” industry filled with gadgets and sleep training experts who profit from having tired parents believing there is something wrong with their baby which can be fixed - at a cost, of course.
So, what is normal newborn sleep behaviour? What can you expect?
Babies have very different sleep patterns to you or I. Newborns do not develop a circadian rhythm (body clock) until they are around three or four months old, which means lots of frequent night waking. Their sleep cycles are also much shorter, averaging around 25 minutes (an adult is around 45 minutes), meaning many more opportunities for waking up. In short, babies wake regularly throughout the night and this is perfectly normal. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, having a baby who sleeps “badly” is in fact a good thing, suggesting they are more alert to dangers!
I find this infographic by Sarah Ockwell-Smith a helpful and concise summary of what is biologically normal for children at different ages:
(I recommend checking out her blog if you want to read more about normal infant and toddler sleep - this article is a great place to start).
A note on self-soothing: You may well hear people talking about training babies to “self-soothe”, but this is unfortunately a myth. Babies do not have the capacity for emotional self-regulation, meaning that self-soothing is biologically impossible - babies depend on their caregivers for everything, and soothing to sleep is just one area where babies are reliant on us. You cannot spoil a baby by cuddling them or picking them up too much!
Just knowing that it’s normal for babies to wake a lot can be reassuring, but it’s not going to make you feel any less tired. Here are some things you may like to try, to help you cope with sleep deprivation:
It can be absolutely exhausting to adapt to life with a newborn but bear in mind, this time that your child is so tiny is only now, and won’t come back again. Believe it or not, you will look back on these days and wonder where the time went. Make the most of these precious days as your baby is only newborn for a short time!
Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.