Here’s the spoiler:
In my humble opinion, we do not train our children. We teach them. We coach them. We can’t teach until we have knowledge. So, here’s the info that you need to help keep baby getting the sleep they need.
They do need sleep for brain development. They are also little survival machines, they will get it. You? Yeah, not so much. So, your job? Order delivery unless you have someone to present you with food on demand, skip plates, sleep when the baby sleeps, bath when you want to and can, and let pretty much everything else go. It can wait.*
Teaching a Newborn About Sleep
Weeks 1 to 3
Here is the truth, for better or worse, and it’s really important to understand this: you cannot teach a newborn about sleep. Sorry, it’s just a fact. It’s not you. It’s not your baby. It’s science.
Newborns sleep around 16 hours in a 24 hour day.
What most of us don’t get our heads around (because you really can’t until your baby is born) is that that 16 hours is done in bite sized chunks, one, maybe if we’re lucky, two hours at a time, and then hello! they are awake again.
Some babies will go three hours and parents want to throw a party! Smart parents know that that 3 hours might have been a one off, might not happen again for weeks. Some newborns hit 3 hours all the time. None of this reflects on your parenting one iota.
Babies are not able to consolidate sleep into long sleep spells as newborns because they need to eat!
It’s a survival skill, this not-sleeping business. Their stomachs are tiny and need constant refilling to keep them going. Some may sleep for longer stretches. They may not. Your baby is unique. It has nothing to do with you and certainly nothing to do with your parenting!
Parents of newborns who do sleep for longer stretches are told to do the unthinkable-waking a sleeping baby. Why?!?! Because you want them to survive and thrive. They need to eat. Talk to your doctor about how long your newborn can go without food. In the first few weeks of life they will need to be fed every two or three hours.
Their little bodies know what they need, and much as they need sleep, their body knows that they need food. So, if they are not gaining enough weight they will not sleep until they have enough in their teeny stomach! Again, in the first few weeks it’s about their survival, they are built for this!
Think about it. Your newborn has just emerged from a warm, safe place where they were fed just enough constantly, where they were rocked constantly, where they were held in close cozy quarters and then they take this not very pleasant journey and are born! We are ecstatic to have them with us in the world! They might be feeling something else, this is an opportunity to welcome them and reassure them that it’s a good place to be.
Where should a newborn sleep?
You cannot teach a newborn bad habits in the first weeks of life, you can just teach them love. So, during the day? If you take a walk and they fall asleep that’s great! Let them fall asleep on your chest and just soak up the wonder. Take a nap yourself maybe?
Don’t worry about the hundred and one things that you could be doing if only this baby would transfer to their bassinet!
At night they need to be in your room in their own safe sleep space-bassinet, co-sleeper or crib, or any other place which follows CDC safe sleep guidelines.
I strongly recommend that parents do not concern themselves with baby’s sleep schedule for the first few weeks with baby. Feed baby, make sure that they are getting enough food, and let them sleep wherever, whenever. (Following Safe Sleep Guidelines always! And if you want to chat about these, stop by the store, I’ve been trained as a Sleep Consultant, I have knowledge, and, I do not judge.)
Let go of any expectations of time and sleep. Baby will grow older and you may miss this exceptionally exhausting, but sweet and precious window of newborn life. You never get it back.
When do parents sleep?!
Yeah, that….These can be tiring weeks. Do pay attention to parent’s sleep!
Maybe let one parent have a down hour in the morning and the other parent the same in the afternoon? Schedule these, otherwise they will not happen!
If baby is exclusively breastfed a degree of flexibility will be needed. (See above re: needing food!) So, in the beginning it may be as simple as one parent gets an hour after the second morning feed and the other parent gets an hour after the first afternoon feed.
(Disclaimer: Some of us moms are nervous and afraid that the other parent will not do it “right”. Yep, us moms are smart, and hormones are real. This is a great opportunity to build trust, and be trustworthy. If a breastfeeding parent is crawling around the room “out of sight”…baby will know it. True confession: That parent might have been me😬 when the other parent was trying to give a bottle to a 6 month old because. Why was she doing that? That’s what I wanted but I “knew ” that she might not do it right. Not my best parenting moment! )
By these weeks parents are super tired, and are also getting used to the fact that life has changed and have given up on it “returning to normal”. (If you’re not feeling like this, bravo! Don’t tell anyone!)
These are the weeks when we get to teach ourselves, as parents. Our aim in these weeks is to remember that baby is developing daily, and it is our goal, as their parents, to start to be aware of what they are developmentally ready for.
Babies will not tell us when they are ready to sleep, we have to teach them. Having a nap and sleep schedule which is developmentally appropriate and reasonable and slowly easing baby into it is best for parents and baby. No parent wants to wake up with a 5 month old and say “Why aren’t they sleeping?!?” This can be avoided.
This is the secret.
Your job in the first few weeks of your baby’s life? Let go.
If you let go in the first few weeks there is a chance that you may have the energy to start teaching them to sleep when it is developmentally appropriate!
The early weeks? Let go. Enjoy. Sniff the top of their head. Don’t go tripping into the future.
Want to get ahead of the game? The earlier that you understand and teach yourself about infant sleep the better off you and your entire family will be. So, study up a little when you’re pregnant.
The four tools:
Yep, that’s all. And, it’s not always easy. Sometimes life is so much simpler than we make it. And the more tired we get? The more complicated we make things!
These four will serve you well for parenting for years to come. What they mean at different ages will change, starting at 6 weeks and going until, oh…26?
They are not a secret. Pick up any book on parenting, from sleep to toddlers to teens and these tools are there.
Like all tools in a tool box, learning how to use them, how to use them together is the key.
That baby isn’t going anywhere for long time! They’ve got a lot to learn, so do we!
* For those of you who need to work to support you and baby, work can’t wait, I get it, but, everything else? Yeah, that can probably wait? Making smart choices can be hard, but I know that you’re smart, you’ve got this and we do get through.
Sarah Pollak has owned and operated Mom’s the Word since her second positive pregnancy test, has talked to thousands of new moms, is trained in Infant Sleep and Positive Discipline Parenting and is always happy to chat with pregnant women and new moms in the shop to continue to build her knowledge base.