What’s the deal with newborn sleep?

You’re tired. This is the fourth time your newborn has woken up tonight. In a bleary-eyed haze you go through the motions of feeding your little one, changing its nappy, and shushing baby back to sleep. It feels like you’ve only just fallen asleep when you hear baby waking up again. We take a look at the ins and outs of newborn sleep (and waking).


Newborns can sleep for up to 18 hours a day in their first two weeks. But why do they do this? According to the American Sleep Association, getting enough sleep is important for babies to grow physically and psychologically. A human growth hormone is released during sleep, which is essential to their growth and development.

Despite sleeping so much, newborns have no set schedule and wake up frequently – anything between every 20 minutes and four hours. It’s this part of having a newborn that’s particularly exhausting for parents. One reason for waking up so regularly is that a newborn baby has a really small stomach and needs to feed often. In fact, it’s recommended that newborns feed at least eight to 12 times in 24 hours (both day and night) to regain any weight they lost after birth, protect or treat jaundice, and stimulate a breastfeeding mothers’ milk production.

The way that a newborn baby’s sleep is governed is vastly different to that of an adult. Adults have a circadian rhythm – a biological and hormonal response to light and dark. When it’s dark we feel tired and want to sleep. When it’s light, our body is stimulated and we wake up.

Babies aren’t born with a circadian rhythm, which is why they often swap day and night around. Although this is something that starts developing from the day they are born, evolutionary anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, points out that it can take more than 12 weeks for a baby’s circadian rhythm to develop.

You can help your baby to begin distinguishing between night and day by keeping the room they’re in at night, dark and quiet, and establishing certain routines before you put them down to sleep. During the day expose them to lots of sunlight or natural light and don’t be shy to make the usual noises around the house, play music, or speak to them animatedly.

Another reason newborns wake frequently is because they spend so much time in a light sleep state, which means that their sleep is easily disturbed. Dewar explains that this is because deep or ‘quiet’ sleep can be dangerous because it’s more difficult for newborns to wake up from. This can be problematic if the baby isn’t getting enough oxygen. It’s one of the reasons you will have noticed that a newborn’s sleep doesn’t seem very restful – they often twitch, flutter their eyelids or make sounds.

It’s totally normal for your baby’s sleep patterns to change over time due to changes in their development. A baby who’s started sleeping for longer stretches, might suddenly revert back to newborn-like sleep for a week or two. While frustrating, it’s usually nothing to worry about, unless your baby is ill. Disturbed sleep can also be as a result of overstimulation.

As you battle with exhaustion, try to remember that this is a moment in time that will eventually pass. If you’re battling to function or cope due to lack of sleep, ask friends and family to assist with cooking and other household chores so that you can catch up on some sleep. – Gabi Falanga


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