As an expectant parent, whether it’s your first baby or your fifth, it seems like the war stories of how little sleep you are going to get once your baby arrives are never ending. Seasoned parents everywhere want to tell you to ‘sleep now because you won’t once the baby’s here!’ But is that really the truth? And, if it’s so bad, why do people have more than one kid?
I found myself wondering this as we anticipated the arrival of our first baby and dove head first into all the baby sleep books I could find. Then when he got here, miracle of miracles, he slept! Those 3 days in the hospital were bliss. I thought we had won the lottery with a magic, sleeping baby. That is, until we got home, and he screamed his head off at night. As new parents we fumbled our way through and I’m here to say, we survived that baby and he became the miracle sleeper we always thought he was. And now, as a sleep consultant, working with newborns is one of my favorite parts of the job. I love their fresh baby smell and I also love empowering parents with a new story. The idea that you can have a newborn and enjoy your regular life, including sleep, is a new concept to a lot of parents and it thrills me to be the one to help them experience it.
Newborn sleep is unique because it’s so disorganized. Babies are born and, quite literally, pushed out of their 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet where they could eat and sleep at the same time. Imagine their confusion when now they have to do one or the other and they actually have to exert some effort to do both. On top of that, we take them out of their warm, snuggly home and expect them to sleep (per AAP guidelines) on a flat mattress with nothing around them. It’s no wonder that they need help getting there!
This sounds daunting to a lot of parents; how do you even start teaching a newborn something that comes naturally to an adult? And this is where I get to share the news that makes me love working with newborns. Even though they might need some help figuring out how to sleep, a newborn wants to sleep. They aren’t a toddler who is ready to explore the world and wants to be up with the family. They are tired! Their little bodies are growing and changing so rapidly that they just can’t keep up and they want to sleep! The tricky part is finding the key to unlocking their good sleep habits and staying consistent. This is where sleep consultants come in and I’m going to share some of my newborn secrets with you.
Figure out a good routine and stick to it. I love a schedule, but in those early days, a regular routine is just as valuable. Come up with one that helps you get into a rhythm that works for your family and feels comfortable. Figure out what your ‘new normal’ is going to look like, even if it’s just for a few months until you go back to work. Break up your day into blocks surrounding feeding and sleeping and take the day a few hours at a time rather than being overwhelmed thinking through all 24 hours of the day.
Routines are also valuable for babies. Children as young as 8 weeks recognize and respond to routines, meaning when you do certain things, they understand what is coming next. Even before that age, babies quickly fall into predictable patterns when you keep each day’s routine the same. I highly suggest following an eat-awake-sleep pattern which allows your newborn to have energy for full feedings (we’ll get into this more!) and sleep without developing a sleep association with eating. An eat-awake-sleep routine is also really helpful as parents to know what baby needs when they are crying! If you have fed them and they’ve had some awake time, you know their crying is likely coming from sleepiness! With a newborn, anything that can clue you in to what they need when they are upset is so helpful!
Learn soothing techniques that work for your child. It’s a given that with a newborn, you’re going to deal with a certain amount of crying. It’s not fun for any parent to listen to your little one cry and figuring out the quickest and easiest way to soothe them is a skill you will want in your toolbox. This may look different for each parent. Mom may sway and bounce a certain way that doesn’t seem to work for dad. That’s OK!! Let each parent discover the soothing technique that works for them and develop their own relationship and attachment with your baby during this time. I’m speaking from experience when I say, there’s nothing worse than fighting with your partner at 2 am over how best to rock the baby. If you need some soothing ideas to get started, check out a video of the 5 S’s from The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp.
The one thing I encourage parents not to include in their soothing routine is feeding. I’m not talking about withholding a feed from a hungry baby, but if you know they have just had a full feeding and aren’t hungry, find a way to soothe them that doesn’t include feeding. If you’re trying to get your baby to settle down and fall asleep, feeding might be the easiest way to do this, but it also begins a habit that you may not want to keep up. As your baby grows, they are going to need whatever they had to fall asleep in order to stay asleep. If that’s nursing or a bottle, it may mean they wake up frequently looking for that same ‘sleep prop’ to help them settle back down. This works for some families, but if it isn’t something you want to continue as they grow, find a way to soothe without it. I promise it’s not as hard as it sounds!
Fed is best. I mean this in more ways than just breastmilk vs. formula. In those early weeks with your baby, feeding should be your number one priority, even over sleep. That might not make sense coming from a sleep consultant, but if your baby is hungry, they won’t be able to sleep.
If you’re breastfeeding, take the time to establish a strong breastfeeding relationship with your baby, even if you’ve done this successfully before. Each baby is different, and your body is different with each birth. Remember that your supply is established in the first 2-3 weeks and it is very important that you make sure baby is getting a full feeding each time they eat.
Breastfed or formula fed, falling asleep is not a sign of fullness! Babies may fall asleep when they are satisfied, but not truly full. This is only going to lead to developing a habit of snacking or a sleep association with eating. You want your baby to get full feedings so that they can sleep as long as possible without waking out of hunger and so that their little bodies get used to the feeling of being full. If they are used to eating a full feed, they will begin to demand that each time. (Which is also ideal for your supply if you’re breastfeeding.)
So, keep those babies awake while they eat and focus on really good, full feeds. A full baby is going to be happier, sleep better, and (ultimately) eat better which makes for a much happier mom and dad. If you’re breastfeeding, I highly suggest seeing a certified lactation consultant either while you’re in the hospital or during the first few weeks to assess your latch and do a weighted feed. This way you can see exactly how much your baby is transferring during each feed, learn the signs of fullness, and make sure you’re set up for feeding success from the start.
Bringing a newborn home is exciting and scary all at once. There is a whole new person to learn about and accommodate in your family! Those first few weeks are a blur but can be some of the sweetest times of your life. It gives me so much joy to empower families with the tools they need to be able to enjoy their new baby, not be stressed about why they are crying or if they are ever going to sleep again. There are many things you can to do help establish strong, positive sleep habits from the very beginning and I hope the ideas listed above can help you get started!
Elizabeth King is the founder and CEO of Sleep Baby Sleep Consulting based in Charlotte, NC. As a mom of three young boys I know how important and difficult it can be to get a good night's sleep during this season of life. Having someone to talk to and ask questions of is an invaluable resource as you are finding your footing with a new person in your family. I was very grateful to have friends who responded to frantic texts from me at all hours of the day and night when I brought my first son home, and started Sleep Baby to provide that gift to other parents.
Hundreds of families in North Carolina and around the globe have enjoyed working with me and my team of sleep consultants as they teach their little ones to get the sleep their bodies need and, in turn, get great rest themselves. When I’m not helping others with sleep, I love to be outside with my three boys and my husband. With three little ones five and under we don’t have a lot of energy left at the end of the day, but are thrilled with the gift of getting to raise three men up to do great things in this world.
If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep, I’d love to help you with a solution that fits your family! Visit our website to learn how we work and send us an email!