5 tips for newborn sleep

Everyone said, “Take her for a drive, that’ll put her to sleep.”  No, then we just had a screaming baby in the car.

– My dad, describing my behavior as a newborn.

Ah, sleep.  One of the great struggles of new parents.  For all I talk about the horrors of Little Boy’s early sleeping patterns, he has been in some respects a very good sleeper.  He was giving us a good five- or six-hour stretch at night by about 9 weeks old, and was regularly sleeping up to eight hours by 12 weeks of age.  Getting him to actually go to sleep in the evening was the hard part, as were his persistently short naps.

There are some good newborn sleep tips out there, but there is also a lot of highly impractical advice.  “Put your baby down drowsy but awake” – my baby just fell asleep nursing and I’m not going to wake him up, thank you very much.  Unlike me, Little Boy would usually fall asleep in the car, but then he would wake up again the moment we brought him back inside the house.

In no particular order, then, here are the sleep tips that worked for our Little Boy as a newborn.  I hope someone out there will find these helpful; however, as I’m extrapolating from a sample size of N=1 baby, I offer no guarantees.

1.  Recognize that sleeping babies are noisy.

As a new parent, your first reaction to any sound from your baby is to think, “Oh my gosh, are they OK?  What do I do?”  But newborn babies are loud sleepers: they grunt, snuffle, wiggle, and generally make a ruckus while they are still asleep.  Just like adults turn over or adjust the blankets without really waking up, babies go through periods of light, restless sleep.

More than once, I was wakened by an escalating series of grunts from Little Boy and was sure that I was going to have to drag my tired self out of bed for another feeding.  Except I was so exhausted that it took a minute – and then I woke up two hours later.  Little Boy and I had both gone back to sleep.  The first time this happened, I felt seriously guilty, until I realized that there was nothing to be guilty about.  Little Boy was fine.  If he had needed me, he would have let me know in no uncertain terms.

Once we figured this out, my husband and I instituted a rule for night sleep: “If he’s not crying, let him be.”  I give a lot of the credit for Little Boy’s early extended nights to this rule.  We still use it now: Little Boy sometimes wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, babbles happily (but loudly) to himself for a while, and falls back asleep on his own.

2.  Encourage full meals.

A key contributor to those middle-of-the-night wakings in the early days is hunger.  Newborn stomachs are tiny, and their food digests quickly.  You can’t – and you shouldn’t – dictate how long new babies go between meals, but there are some ways to gently encourage longer stretches.

I wasn’t actually thinking about sleep when I first started using these techniques.  Rather, I was a paranoid brand-new breastfeeding mother worried about making sure her baby was getting enough of the fatty “hindmilk” that comes later in a nursing session.  In addition to letting Little Boy nurse as long as he wanted, I didn’t assume that he was finished on one side just because he needed to burp.  Instead, I’d offer him the same side again, and only switch him to the other side when he was really truly done with the first.  The downside to this approach was that each meal took a long time, usually upwards of 40-50 minutes in the early weeks.  Thank goodness for cable TV.

The other part of this strategy is this:  If your little one gets fussy and it’s been less than 90 minutes since the start of the last feeding, try other methods of comfort before offering more food.  Breast milk digests quickly, not immediately.  Your baby might be tired and need help falling asleep, or gassy, or maybe just bored.  Obviously, you should always feed a hungry baby, even if the period between meals is short.  But do consider that not all cries indicate hunger.

3.  Focus on getting calories in during the day.

A baby who gets plenty of food during the day will (hopefully) be a baby who needs less food at night.  We didn’t start focusing on this until Little Boy was closer to 3 months old, because I was having trouble figuring out how to transition from purely on-demand feedings to something resembling a predictable schedule.  If I had to do it over again, I would start sooner.

What this tip means in practice is offering food on the early side of your baby’s hungry range.  Little Boy was typically going 3-4 hours between meals during the day, so we started offering him food every 3 hours.  (Alternately, you could consider the number of feedings your baby typically wants during daylight hours.  If, for example, he usually wants to eat 5-7 times, you would then try to encourage him to eat 7 times every day.  Yes, this might mean waking a sleeping baby during the day.)

4.  Know your S’s.

The 5 S’s, that is.  As explained in Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block, the 5 S’s are designed to soothe your newborn by mimicking the environment of the womb.  We never used the side / stomach position during sleep because we were afraid of SIDS (and because Little Boy passionately hates being on his stomach), but the other 4 S’s came in handy.

  • We started swaddling Little Boy for sleep when he was about three weeks old.  Like many babies, he initially fought the process of actually being swaddled, but then would relax when he realized how comfortable it was.  Swaddling prevents babies from waking themselves up with their own startle reflex; it also prevented a slightly-older Little Boy from getting so worked up about how interesting his hands were that he couldn’t go back to sleep in the middle of the night.  When his swaddle-escaping skills became too much for the regular Velcro swaddle blanket, we moved to a double swaddle.
  • As adults, my husband and I still sleep with the noise of a loud fan in the background, so it made perfect sense to use white noise (“shush”) for Little Boy.  We initially used a special baby sound machine toy, but now just turn on a regular ol’ fan.  The white noise prevents outside noises from disturbing Little Boy.  Turning it on also acts as a cue that it’s time to go to sleep.
  • Little Boy liked to suck on a pacifier, but he never took to it the way some babies do.  It was helpful for getting him to relax in the early days, although it took a lot of parental effort to keep putting the pacifier back in his mouth every few minutes.  By 3 months old, he was pretty much over pacifiers.
  • The baby swing was a lifesaver.  I feel obliged to mention that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against letting your baby sleep in a swing for prolonged periods of time.  Nevertheless, it seemed a lot safer than letting everyone fall asleep together on the couch out of sheer exhaustion.  Little Boy slept almost exclusively in his swing for more than two months.

5.  Watch the wake times.

My sister-in-law raved about Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, so I read large chunks of it in preparation for Little Boy’s arrival.  The book is honestly a bit tough to get through in places, but one of its key messages is this: a baby who is overtired is a baby who doesn’t sleep well.  And brand-new babies get overtired really quickly.

This article over at Troublesome Tots has an excellent chart of how long your baby can stay awake as a function of age.  In the beginning, your kiddo should go down for another nap just 45-60 minutes after waking from the last one.  (There was a period when Little Boy was about a month old when he literally did nothing but sleep, wake to eat, fall asleep eating, and then sleep until his next feeding.)

Readers, any other tips to add?  What worked (and didn’t work) for getting your newborn to sleep?

5 thoughts on “5 tips for newborn sleep

  1. Swaddling and the swing have been a major lifesaver so far, but I’m still lucky to get 3 hours of sleep a night. I’m going to have to try to feed my baby more during the day — I hate to wake him up just to eat, but if it means I can actually get rid of my sleep deprivation headache that would make it more than worth it…


    • I wish you luck! Your littlest one is only two weeks old, right? Those early days are *so* exhausting.

      I had the same reaction to thinking about waking Little Boy up to eat: “But he’s sleeping now which means I have time to myself! Why would I wake him up?” But in hindsight I’m glad we did.


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