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Newborn sleep — how do babies sleep?

It helps to remember a few tenets of newborn baby sleep so you don’t tear your hair out when you’re up in the middle of the night time and time again:

  1. Little ones vary in their sleep needs. Newborns up to 3 months old need 14 to 17 hours of sleep, and infants up to 12 months need 12 to 16 hours (including naps). But before you decide your baby is sleeping way more (or way less) than that, remember that quality sleep matters too. So if your baby seems healthy and well-rested, don’t get too hung up on how much or how little he sleeps.
  2. Newborns need to eat around-the-clock. Newborns have very tiny tummies, so while it would be nice to load up your baby with breast milk or formula at bedtime and not hear from him ’til morning, it doesn’t work that way … at least not yet. Newborns need a snack at least every two to four hours; a five-hour stretch is actually considered a full night’s sleep for a baby this age. So how do you know when your baby’s whimpers, snorts and occasional night wakings are a call for food? The key is to learn to differentiate between “feed me!” sounds and all the rest so you can respond quickly when he’s truly hungry (with the hope that, after a little treat, he’ll drift back to dreamland quickly) or let him stay sleeping if he’s asleep.
  3. Newborns are restless sleepers. While older children (and new parents) can snooze peacefully for hours, young babies squirm around and actually wake up…a lot. That’s because around half of their sleep time is spent in REM (rapid eye movement) mode — that light, active sleep during which babies move, dream, and maybe wake with a whimper. Don’t worry. As he matures, his sleeping patterns will too, with fewer REM cycles and more periods of deeper, quieter sleep.
  4. Newborns are noisy sleepers. Irregular breathing that may include short pauses and weird noises is rarely cause for alarm, but it can freak new parents out. Here are some facts on your baby’s respiratory development to put things in perspective: A newborn’s normal breathing rate is about 40 to 60 breaths a minute while he’s awake, though that may slow by half once he’s asleep. Or he might take shallow, rapid breaths for 15 to 20 seconds followed by a total pause in which he stops breathing entirely for a few seconds. You can blame all this on the immature breathing-control center in his brain, which is still a work in progress.

How to put your baby to sleep

How your baby lies down and gets to sleep is a matter of safety, not just comfort. Follow these tips for how to put baby to sleep safely:

  • Experts agree that you should put him down on his back to prevent overheating and suffocation and reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • While tummy time is great when baby is awake, if he falls asleep face-down, make sure to gently maneuver him onto his back for an extended dozing session.
  • Once baby starts rolling over (around 4 months, but it varies), it’s okay for him to stay sleeping on his side or back because he’s developmentally able to protect himself from harm.
  • Keep loose bedding, pillows, blankets, stuffed animals and crib bumpers out of baby’s bed during his first year.
  • These safe sleep tips for babies will give you more information to help your baby sleep safely and soundly.

Sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep in strange places — especially when home was a warm, dark and very cozy spot inside Mommy’s belly. When it comes to adjusting to life on the outside, your infant might appreciate sleep-enhancers that remind him of “home.” Try any or all of these baby sleep strategies to make sending baby off to dreamland a little bit easier.

  1. Help lull him to sleep and put him down drowsy but awake. Throughout your pregnancy, your baby-to-be was lulled to sleep by the motion of you walking around. He still finds movement soothing — and sleep-inducing. So try rocking, swaying or patting him gently on the back to see what gets your infant to nod off most easily, though it’s best to put him down to bed when he’s drowsy but still awake. Another idea: Try your hand at massaging your baby before he drifts off since studies suggest that babies who are massaged before bed produce more of the sleep-enhancing hormone melatonin.
  2. Keep him cozy. After spending nine months in your tight little tummy, it’s no surprise that your newborn prefers a snug space now. Sure, he’ll grow into (and out of) the crib eventually, but for now, he might prefer sleeping in a bassinet or cradle, which offers your baby a cozier, more contained space to settle in to. Swaddling your baby with a blanket or dressing him in a sleep sack will offer an extra dose of security — and may even help him sleep a little longer.
  3. Monitor the noise level. Silence is golden, but not for most babies. After all, your newborn is used to your stomach’s symphony of gurgles and the beat of your heart. He might find the hum of a fan, soft music or a white noise machine or app very soothing. If your baby is particularly sound sensitive, just keep it quiet in the nursery.
  4. Temper the temperature in his room. Not too hot and not too cold — that’s the right climate for Baby Bear’s room. Why? Overheating may make your baby too sweaty to sleep, and it increases the risk of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As for too-cold rooms, infants get chilled easily, and will likely wake up if they’re uncomfortable. To figure out if the temperature is just right for baby, feel his neck: If it’s sweaty, he’s too hot; if it’s cold to the touch, bundle him up a bit more. But don’t dress baby in layers or a hat for sleeping.
  5. Dim the lights. Even though some babies can doze off anywhere, it’s probably better to dim the lights and create a dark, sleep-inducing atmosphere. The faster your baby learns that darkness signals slumber, the sooner he’ll start sleeping through the night.

How much sleep do babies need?

Infants, babies and toddlers have different sleep requirements. Here’s a guide to how much they actually need for their health and development by age and stage.

Newborn to 6 months:

Infants need about 14 to 17 total hours of sleep per day (and usually wake every two or three hours to chow down). By about 4 months, most babies sleep 10 to 12 hours at night (with a feeding or two) and nap for three to five hours of sleep a day (spaced between two or three naps).

6 to 12 months:

At this age, babies typically sleep about 11 hours at night (many straight through) and take two daily naps that add up to three to four hours.

Baby is grunting in his sleep. What noises do newborns make when they sleep?

Most nocturnal noises are nothing to worry about; even the occasional cry or shout doesn’t mean you should rush in to your baby.

Here are the most common noises you’re likely to hear while your baby is asleep:

  • Rattling. Your baby has mucus in his tiny nose, which can clog things up, resulting in rattling. If things get too stuffy, use a nasal aspirator (baby size, please) to help clear things out.
  • Whistling. Newborn babies breathe out of their noses, not their mouths, since this allows them to breathe and eat simultaneously. But that petite schnoz has petite air passages, so bits of mucus or dried milk can easily constrict the airways, resulting in a wacky whistling noise.
  • Gurgling. No big mystery here — he’s just clearing his throat.

What are signs of respiratory distress in newborns and babies?

So when should you be concerned? Chances are excellent that you’ll never see any of the following symptoms, but it’s good to know the signs of trouble:

  • Rapid breathing. Your baby’s breathing rate increases to more than 70 breaths/minute and stays up.
  • Persistent grunting. You hear a little grunting noise at the end of each breath as he struggles to open up blocked airways.
  • Flaring. His nostrils flare during breathing, showing he’s working too hard to get air.
  • Retractions. The muscles in his chest (under the ribs) and neck are more visible and contracting much more deeply than usual.

If you notice any of these signs of respiratory difficulties, call the pediatrician right away, or if you can’t get your doctor immediately, call 911 or head to the nearest ER or urgent care.

When should I put my baby on a sleep schedule and establish a routine?

If it seems like you and your newborn are operating on opposite schedules, it’s probably not your imagination. But don’t bother trying to establish a soothing routine right away — you both need a little time to adjust to your life together.

Once you’ve gotten used to your little one’s daily and nightly patterns, in the first month or so, you can start giving hints — feeding, rocking, a soothing bath or a song or story — that tell your little one it’s time to settle down, relax and hopefully fall asleep. But most babies shouldn’t be put on a sleep schedule until they’re at least around 3 months old.

Should I let my baby cry it out or try to sleep train?

You can’t sleep train a newborn or very young baby. Once your little one is at least 4 months old, though, sleep training is an option. After all, everyone agrees that a key goal of new parenthood is a happy, well-rested baby. How you arrive at that goal is a bit more complicated.

Some believe parents should ignore their natural instincts to feed or cuddle a protesting baby and let him cry it out (CIO), or try another sleep training strategy. The goal of sleep training is to teach self-soothing so babies can learn to fall asleep without help.

But other parents find that letting baby cry it out is too distressing, although today’s sleep training methods are worth learning about even if you don’t want to do it because they’re a little gentler than those used by previous generations.

Bottom line: Most experts say there’s no right or wrong way to get your baby to sleep as long as he gets enough shut-eye.

When can I expect my baby to sleep through the night?

For a baby under 6 months, “sleeping through the night” can range from as little as three hours to as many as eight (the former is not exactly your definition of a good night’s rest, right?). The reason? Newborns are little feeding machines who need nourishment about every three hours.

By 4 or 5 months, the need to feed will subside a bit, but old habits die hard and your baby might still be waking up every couple of hours demanding a snack. By 6 months, if you’re lucky, your little one could be clocking a solid seven or eight hours a night, but every child is different so don’t worry if it takes your baby longer.

How many naps does my baby need?

Newborns to 6-month-olds usually take two or three naps a day (or more for brand new babies), for a total of three to five hours of naptime. By 6 to 12 months, expect baby to go down for a nap twice a day, an hour or two each time. While your baby definitely needs to nap during the day, how long he sleeps at one time depends on his internal clock and the schedule you keep.

Newborns and babies aren’t born perfect sleepers. You’ve got enough on your plate, and you’re probably bleary-eyed yourself, so try not to overthink it. As long as your little one seems happy and well-rested most of the time, don’t worry too much about your baby’s sleep schedule, patterns and habits, especially in the beginning. Things have a way of getting easier and smoother as you and your baby get used to your new life together.

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