Understanding Infant Sleep - The First 6 Weeks

“I slept like a baby”  

When I hear this saying, I immediately envision sleeping deeply, soundly, and for 10 hours straight.  Whoever came up with that saying clearly didn’t have children!  All of the babies I know definitely do not sleep soundly for an extended period of time until at least toddlerhood… and even then sleep can be disrupted by teething, colds, and just regular night waking. With current infant sleep recommendations stating that babies should learn to sleep on their own, all night, by 6 months, I have to wonder how much of this information is hearsay and old-wives’ tales and how much is evidence-based (using good research models).

So, let’s break this down using the most current research.  

What does research tell us about infant sleep patterns?

 

Today I am going to discuss sleep patterns and behaviors for infants during the first 6 weeks.  I will continue to share information about sleep patterns for older babies throughout the next few weeks.

 

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

How much does a 0-6 week old newborn typically sleep in a 24 hour period?

  • Newborns sleep in short spurts, both day and night.

  • Most babies this age sleep between 9-19 hours over a 24 hour period (that’s a huge variation!)

  • Newborns have extremely small stomachs, which means they need to eat small, frequent meals, at least 8-12 times per day (as a minimum).  These feeding sessions can take anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour, on average.  

  • Newborns eat about ⅓ of their food during the night.

  • Some babies may take one longer stretch of sleep at the beginning of the night (maybe 4 hours), but then may spend more time eating throughout the rest of the night and day to make up for the food intake they missed while sleeping longer.

Take home message: It is biologically and developmentally normal for your baby to sleep in only 1-3 hour increments during the first 6 weeks because they are unable to eat enough at a feeding session to go for longer.  

 

Why do newborns wake often?

  • Besides having a small stomach capacity, newborns are hard-wired to wake frequently during the day and night.  This is one of the ways their bodies are protected from SIDS.

  • Newborns’ sleep cycles are different than adults: when they fall asleep, they spend more time in active (REM) sleep rather than quiet sleep (which means they wake more easily), their temperature doesn’t drop in the middle of the night (which means that they cannot distinguish daytime from nighttime), and they have no circadian rhythm.

  • Newborns are often unable to join multiple sleep cycles together.  This takes a few months for their bodies to figure out.  A newborn sleep cycle is 45 minutes long.  You might get two sleep cycles strung together for 90 minutes of uninterrupted sleep, but then they are right back up again.

Take home message: Babies are programmed to wake frequently and sleep lightly.  This is developmentally normal infant behavior.

 


What are realistic sleep expectations for your 0-6 week old newborn?

  • Your baby’s sleep patterns are going to be all over the place.  Unpredictable. Some short spurts (20 minutes).  Some long spurts (3 hours).  This is normal and will become more predictable over time.

  • Your baby is going to wake frequently during the day and night until he/she develops a circadian rhythm around 3 months.  At 3 months, your baby may still wake frequently during the night, but will at least be able to fall back asleep fairly easily and quickly.

  • Your baby is also going to eat all of the time.  This is what builds and maintains your milk supply.  This is also what helps your baby gain weight and grow.

  • Sleep patterns will be disrupted during growth spurts.  Growth spurts happen around 2 weeks, 4 weeks, and 6 weeks.  What this means is that your baby will sleep less for a few days and want to eat more.  Once these growth spurts pass, your milk supply should be even more robust than before and your baby will slow back down to eating slightly less frequently.


 

What are some tips for parents feeling really overwhelmed and sleep deprived with baby’s frequent waking?

  • Sometimes just knowing that these sleep patterns are normal and temporary makes the situation seem more manageable.  Remember, your baby will eventually start sleeping for longer chunks of time (which we will discuss in the next few articles)

  • Have your baby sleep on someone’s chest while you take a nap.  Babies LOVE to sleep on an adult’s chest and usually sleep a bit more soundly and longer.  This is not spoiling your baby or creating a bad habit.  This is meeting your baby’s developmental need to be near others.

  • Look into safe co-sleeping guidelines, as research has shown that families who safely co-sleep or bedshare get more sleep than those whose babies sleep in a different room.

  • Try what the authors of Sweet Sleep call ‘Front Loading:’ do more work early in the day and start to unwind earlier in the evening.  If you can unwind earlier, that means you can fall asleep earlier and easier, as well.  Check out this Huffington Post article about 15 Science-Backed Ways to Falls Asleep Faster

  • Start filtering out the misinformation you receive from others about what they think your baby should be doing regarding sleeping and eating.  This will only create a situation where you think there is a sleeping problem, when in actuality your situation is most likely perfectly normal.