Your newborn baby needs a lot more sleep than you do – anywhere from 14 to 19 hours in a 24-hour period. So why are new parents often exhausted if their infant spends most of its time in slumber? Understanding newborn sleep patterns could be key to helping your baby get better rest.
Your little one’s sleep patterns are distinct from your own. The good news is that your frequent sleep interruptions in the early days of your infant’s life are just temporary, and as your baby matures so will their sleep habits.
It’s not your imagination: your newborn wakes often. This is the behavior of a healthy infant who is ready to be fed. The typical newborn sleep pattern is 2 to 4 hours. If your baby sleeps longer than 5 hours at a time in the first few weeks of life, wake them up for a feeding.
The pineal gland produces melatonin to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Babies in utero get melatonin from mom, then start producing small amounts of their own at around 6 weeks of age when their pineal gland begins maturing.
Maternal melatonin lingers in your baby for about a week after birth, so from age 2 to 5 weeks, your baby is missing this sleep hormone and has only small amounts until 12 to 16 weeks of age.
Daylight drives the circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep-wake cycle. In utero, your baby doesn’t have this visual influence and instead responds to your hormones.
At birth, the hormonal link is disconnected, and your baby needs to develop its own hormone response to the environment. Since babies feed every 2 to 4 hours in the early weeks, it’s difficult for them to develop a sleep-wake cycle that mirrors daylight and darkness.
Expect your baby to seem unaware of day versus night for the first few months until their melatonin production supports their own circadian rhythms.
The hormonal composition of breast milk changes with the time of day, reflecting the circadian rhythms of the mother. When you breastfeed at night, your newborn gets more sleep-inducing melatonin. Meanwhile, daytime feeds give your infant more cortisol, a hormone that triggers wakefulness.
Matching the time you pump with the time you bottle-feed reduces disruption to your baby’s nascent circadian rhythms.
What looks like newborn nap time restlessness may be a protective mechanism against SIDS. It’s harder for young infants to wake up from quiet sleep, so your newborn spends about two-thirds of each sleep cycle in busy and fidgety REM sleep.
Unlike adults who are immobilized by atonia during REM sleep, newborns are active and may even look like they’re waking up.
Understanding the differences between newborn and adult sleep patterns makes the tiring post-birth months a little easier.
The right infant sleepsuit can also help by providing comfort and a feeling of security. Before you know it, you and your baby will have a routine of joyful days and restful nights!