23 Sleep Secrets Every New Parent Should Know

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Disclaimer: You should always seek the advice of your own health professionals before acting on something that I have published or recommended. See my full disclaimer here.

So the thing about newborns-besides being somewhat unpredictable in temperament- is that every last one of them needs to eat every few hours. Because apparently you’re not exhausted enough from growing the small person inside your body then projecting them earthside through various forms of physical travail. Obviously sleep deprivation should be added just to make a point. 

After the newborn phase, infants who are breastfed often need to eat a few times a night for a while, and then after that older babies/toddlers sometimes don’t get the memo that they can sleep now, and therefore they should.

Parenting these people really is this whole, life-consuming thing.

On why it’s so hard

Humans are born at nine months gestation simply because brain size doesn’t allow an infant to fit through the birth canal past nine months—not because the human newborn is ready to take on the world. It’s wise to think of the first three months out of the womb as the “fourth trimester”—babies need the contact, warmth, food, and care of their mothers around the clock. This translates to a profound level of sleep deprivation.

The goal of it

The sooner we help these babes establish their natural sleep rhythms, the sooner they’ll sleep longer. And then longer. (Take note: by 'soon' I mean after the first month, and only if they’re gaining well. Prior to these to conditional factors being met, the goal isn't sleep but weight gain and establishing proper nourishment. Also, by 'longer' I don't mean 'through the night' as this is largely a myth. More on that at the end of the post).

There many things that can interfere with a baby’s sleep rhythm, so here we’ll tackle some of them, and ways to overcome the obstacles.

Ready for some sleep? Let’s go.

   

1.     Make sure you get sleep.

No matter what. Your sleep is one of the most important elements to a peaceful postpartum, so do whatever you can to make it happen. Check out this post for ideas on how to get sleep even if baby isn’t sleeping well.

2.     Try Essential Oils

Lavender and Roman Chamomile have been known to help promote relaxation and baby sleep.  For infants, diffusing a drop or two in a cool ultrasonic diffuser is best; for babies and toddlers, diluting essential oils (1-2 drops per 2 TBSP of carrier oil) and rubbing on the soles of the feet can also be beneficial. Note: Some essential oils are unsafe to use with babies. Never apply essential oils without carrier oil directly to a baby’s skin or give oils internally to a child.  Read this for more information on using essential oils safely with your baby.

3.     Co-sleep

There is nothing more comforting to your baby than being near you. You may find you get more sleep when co-sleeping, simply because slogging yourself over to a crib multiple times per night is exhausting, whereas very little wakefulness is needed to pop the boob into baby’s mouth (and baby will help you by navigating to boob. It’s like they have magical boob-finding sonar.) There is a variety of research on the topic, both for and against the practice. I would highly recommend reading up on the practice to decide what’s right for your family. For info on co-sleeping safely, read this post.  

:: I've received lots of feedback on this point, so I'd like to expound a bit here. Cosleeping is hotly debated among leading pediatric authorities. I've included it because 1) I believe in informed choice and  2) I have spoken with enough new parents to know that in the reality of night feeding delirium,  many parents end up with a baby in the bed without planning for it. Don't let that be you-- do your research (a good start here and here and here are links to numerous studies on the subject) AND be sure to follow safe cosleeping guidelines.

4.     Or keep the baby close

You may want to try a sleeper such as the Arms Reach Co-sleeper or the Halo Bassinet. Having baby nearby will allow both of you to get more sleep, as neither of you will need to wake up fully in order to get to one another. Another plus: room-sharing, but not bed sharing, is recommended by the AAP.

 

5.     Work on slowly reducing feedings 

After 4 weeks of age, you can start to gradually reduce the number of night feedings. There is a system to this; a post is in the works.

6.     Try the pause

In her book Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman describes what she calls “Le Pause.” She says:

Waiting is the key: the French do not do instant gratification. It starts more or less at birth. When a French baby cries in the night the parents go in, pause, and observe for a few minutes. They know that babies’ sleep patterns include movements, noises and two-hour sleep cycles, in between which the baby might cry. Left alone it might “self-soothe” and go back to sleep. If you dash in like an Anglophone and immediately pick your baby up, you are training it to wake up properly. But if a French baby does wake up and cry properly on its own, it will be picked up.
— Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bebe

It’s worth trying not to pick up baby at every sniffle. As mentioned in the book, if baby does begin to really cry, do as maternal instinct would have you do. But allowing a baby to transition without interference from one sleep cycle to the next could be really helpful to you and them.  

7.     Be consistent about bedtime routine

It’s best to keep activities- bathing, massage, feeding, or whatever activities you include- in the same order each night, and around the same time.

8.     Try Baby Massage

One study that reports that newborns who received 14 days of massage therapy (beginning when they were about 10 days old) showed more mature sleep patterns in later weeks. At 3 months old, those who infants who were massaged had higher levels of nocturnal melatonin. More research is needed to confirm that it wasn’t a fluke, but it’s definitely worth a try.

9.     Put baby down only when he or she is tired

It might seem like a given, but often we can overestimate how much sleep a baby needs, simply because infant sleep needs vary so widely. Allowing baby to follow it's natural sleep rhythm by putting them down too early may help.

10.  Don’t let baby nap in the late afternoon

Oftentimes late afternoon or early evening naps can cause a baby to be wakeful during the night.

11.  Keep things quiet and calm

Physical exercise and other forms of excitement (like animated verbal interactions) stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is the system in charge of keeping you alert. Make the last 2-3 hours before bedtime quiet and calm, and keep artificial light to a minimum.

12.  Bounce baby down

Sit on a fully inflated exercise ball with baby in your arms, and gently bounce up and down. This movement mimics the movement of the womb and can be very soothing to a baby. Especially useful when trying to wean a baby off of a night feeding. 

13.  Fill that belly

Making sure baby’s belly is full before you fall asleep (between 10pm-12am, ideally) gives every possible chance for baby to extend their length of sleep (We’re hoping for a five-hour interval here. If we get to 5am, huge win). If baby is onto solid foods, make sure they enjoy a hearty meal (lots of protein and fiber) as well as milk before bed.

14.  Check the temperature

Is the room too hot or too cold? Is the baby overdressed? Underdressed? Does he or she feel cold? Do everything possible to ensure a comfortable sleeping experience.  One tip: A cooler room lowers body temperature, which helps increase sleep.

15.  Consider the timing of when you pump

Studies have shown higher levels of tryptophan in breastmilk expressed in the evening or at night. Tryptophan that occurs in breastmilk helps babies to sleep better, so if you’re pumping and feeding baby, it may be worth recording the time of day the milk was expressed for this purpose. 

16.  Dress for the occasion

Make sure there are no irritating tags, zippers, Velcro or the like that could hurt baby. Additionally, keep nails trimmed so that scratching isn’t an issue. You may want to avoid infant hand mitts: a baby is accustomed to the feeling of putting hands to face, and if hands are covered, it might interrupt their comfort and bother them enough to wake. That said, if your baby is scratching his or her face and nail trimming isn’t working, do as you must.

17.  Try side sleeping, rather than flat on the back.

Back sleeping can be considerably less comfortable for an infant, and may cause them to wake more often. Try laying baby down on his or her side, rather than flat on the back.  Be sure to lay them in such a way that they would roll onto their back, not belly, if they were to roll.  

18.  Try swaddling

Some babies love it- and some don’t. It’s worth a shot. You’ll want to be sure to practice safe swaddling that doesn’t restrict the chest for breathing and doesn’t restrict the hips, which can cause hip dysplasia. How-To Here.

19.  Choose the right kind of sound

Most of us think that babies sleep well in either complete silence or with music that feels soothing to us, but babies are used to the sounds of the womb. Dr. Harvey Karp has excellent audio tracks of baby-friendly womb sounds; these may work to help your child sleep better. You could also try the sound of a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner on Youtube. 

 

20.  Consider medical issues

If your baby seems to be in pain, is grunting or needing to poop but can’t, or is crying incessantly after you’ve done whatever you can for them, there may be an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. It’s worth making an appointment with the pediatrician if this persists, or if you're feeling uncertain.

21.  Understand the science of baby sleep

Baby sleep is an interesting and often surprising study. Knowing how the process works may help as you navigate the murky waters leading you back to full nights of rest.

22.  Reduce EMF’s

Electromagnetic frequencies (EMF’s) come from Wi-Fi signals, cell phones, computers, and "dirty” electricity, including most anything that is plugged in.  These types of frequencies can disrupt healthy, normal sleep patterns. Reducing your child’s exposure to them can create better sleep. Remove computers, cellphones, charging packs, alarm clocks, or any plug-ins from the baby’s room. If you can turn off the Wi-Fi in the house, do so.  

23.  Try chiropractic or craniosacral therapy

Although not often addressed, the process of birth can cause spinal compression, nerve pinching, and other skeletal/muscular issues that can manifest as extreme irritability in your infant. In these cases, chiropractic care and craniosacral therapy can do wonders not just for sleep, but also for life in your household.

A few things to keep in mind...

Baby sleep cycles are much shorter than adults. The goal is not to get them to ‘sleep through the night’, as that isn’t really a thing. The goal is to get them to sleep so that they wake you less frequently when they rouse between sleep cycles. And to that end, babies can be taught.  Be open to trying new things and working with your little one's unique temperament. 

As you go, remember this: The process of helping a baby learn a healthy sleep rhythm can be mind numbing. Lots of things won’t work. Keep trying new things, and don’t give up on ideas too soon. You are awesome, and you will sleep again. 

Godspeed, Good Warrior. 


NEED MORE SLEEP? CHECK OUT THESE POSTS: 

How To Really Get Sleep with a Baby

The 12-Step Guide to Safe Co-Sleeping