Babies rack up lots of sleep overall, an average of 16-18 hours a day during the first two weeks. Yet they awaken frequently, and rarely sleep more than 4 hours at a stretch, even at night. So exhaustion is inevitable in the first few months, unfortunately not everything is “feasible” in the world of sleep.
But remember this: you haven’t failed, this situation is completely normal. Of course your neighbor’s friend’s baby sleeps all naps exemplary, but let me tell you: this is rare!
Sleep development and Circadian rhythm
Two-hour naps are unrealistic for most newborns. Developmentally, your baby’s sleep cycle is just not established so naps seem to be all over the place. The first rhythm you might see is some rhythm in morning naps; those naps start to settle between 3 months and 5 months. The afternoon naps aren’t properly developed until 4 to 6 months. This all has to do with the development of their ‘circadian rhythm‘.
What is a circadian rhythm?
Your circadian rhythm helps control your daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness. This rhythm is tied to your 24-hour body clock, and most living creatures have one. Your circadian rhythm is influenced by (day)light and darkness, but other factors as well. Your brain receives signals based on your environment and activates certain hormones, regulates your body temperature and your metabolism to keep you alert (cortisol) or draw you to sleep (melatonin).
Newborns do not have a circadian rhythm developed until they are a few months old. This can cause their sleeping patterns to be erratic in the first months of their lives. Their circadian rhythm develops as they adapt to the environment and experience changes to their bodies. Babies begin to release melatonin when they are about three months old, and the hormone cortisol develops from 2 months to 9 months old.
So to summarize, (too) short daytime naps are very normal for newborns and you don’t have to worry you do anything wrong. And yes… it’s nothing like the perfect eating / playing / sleeping routine that always runs smoothly in the books. But that will come, after 6 months your baby’s circadian rhythm had time to set and you actually can talk about rhythms and routine!
But how to survive those first months?
There are a few things you can do to make some improvements. The most important factor is to help setting the circadian rhythm by making day “light” and night “dark”. Open the blinds during the day, you could even put on lights on rainy days, go outside a few times per day, and dim lights in the evening and keep it dark at night, even during feedings. Ensure that sleep remains calm and quiet during the night.
You could start trying to put your baby in bed drowsy but awake, that way your baby learns to fall asleep independently (with or without your presence) and learns to “record” nighttime sleep first. Which normally is the easiest part to learn.
During the day, try to create an eat / play / sleep schedule and take a nap after an age-appropriate wakeful window (45 to max 90 minutes).
Here’s what this might look like:
* Offer your baby a feed when they wake up.
* Change your baby’s nappy.
* Talk, play, cuddle and interact with your baby.
* Put your baby back down for sleep.
If you try this kind of routine, it’s still important to watch your baby’s sleepy cues and respond. For example, your baby might show tired signs soon after a feed. This means that it’s time for your baby to sleep, even if you and baby haven’t had much time to play.
Or your baby might have an extra-long sleep every now and then. That’s OK too. There’s no need to wake your baby for feeds, unless your doctor has told you otherwise.
Remember: always offer naps, even when it’s not clear that your baby needs one. If napping in the crib doesn’t work, you can try motion sleep (rocking, walking), some babies need that extra help in the beginning. And you won’t spoil them, when their circadian rhythm is set, it’s not (ever) too late to learn some new (independent) sleep habits.
Newborns are too young to sleep train because there’s so much going on in their little bodies and they are just not ready yet. BUT, if your baby’s sleep is all over the place and you could use some advice, reach out to me via email@example.com. We definitely can work on some sleep shaping activities that can improve day and nighttime sleep.
And remember, you are an amazing mom and doing the right things for your baby (and the naps will be fine soon, hang in there!)