Newborn sleep – facts and helpful advice

A newborn sleeps for many hours of the day, yet newborn sleep is still one of the greatest challenges for new parents in the early days. We asked midwife Maria Sahlin to explain and give us her top tips for new parents.

BABYBJÖRN Magazine – Newborn sleep a lot in their first weeks.
A newborn sleeps a lot in their first weeks, but newborn sleep periods are short and irregular.
Photo: BabyBjörn

So you’re home from the maternity ward with your new baby – welcome to a world of boundless joy and unbelievable chaos. Nothing is the same: you eat, sleep and have to stay awake at the strangest times. All day and all night! Is there any one-size-fits-all approach to newborn sleep?

Maria Sahlin has worked as a midwife for many years and she has a reassuring message for new parents.

“Don’t worry, things will get better. It’s completely normal for you to feel overwhelmed and disorganised at first. But try to adapt to your baby’s rhythm in the early days. Stay in your ‘baby bubble’, take one day at a time and enjoy the rollercoaster!”

How much does a newborn sleep?

A newborn spends more time asleep than awake in their first few weeks. A newborn needs to sleep for an average of 16 to 22 hours each day. It can vary a lot from baby to baby, but also from day to day for the same baby.

Stay in your ‘baby bubble’ and take one day at a time.

“As a new parent, just when you think you’ve got into a good routine, your baby will suddenly have other ideas. The length of newborn sleep periods can also change. Some days, newborn sleep and awake periods are longer and other days your baby may take more frequent but shorter naps,” explains Maria.

Newborn sleep periods are short

A newborn sleeps for about 18-20 hours a day. That sounds like great news for new parents. So why do many new parents complain about lack of sleep in the early days?

“This probably has to do with the length of these newborn sleep periods. A newborn sleeps for a while, wakes up and then falls asleep again. And the baby does this around the clock in their first weeks. Your baby will gradually adapt to ‘your’ circadian rhythm and stay awake for longer periods during the day and sleep for more consecutive hours at night,” says Maria.

Adapt to your baby’s tempo in the early days.

A newborn sleep cycle is similar to an adult’s in that it consists of different phases of deep and light sleep.

“A newborn baby doesn’t sleep deeply all the time; they alternate between deep sleep, a state of drowsiness and light sleep. In between, your baby will either be awake and alert, awake and fretful, or crying.

Newborn sleep is governed by hunger and satiety

During a newborn baby’s first weeks, food and sleep are the most important things. Feeding takes a lot of energy, and your baby gets tired and falls asleep. And it will usually be hunger that wakes your baby again.

A newborn sleeps according to their body clock and falls asleep when they need to sleep. A change often occurs around 4-7 weeks, when your baby starts to be curious about their surroundings and may sometimes need to be comforted before they can fall asleep.

Follows sleep patterns from the womb

So much of everything that happens when a baby is born is cleverly designed by nature, but the fact that newborn babies have a different circadian rhythm to their parents is not one of nature’s best ideas. And no-one really knows why this is.

“Newborn sleep follows the same pattern your baby had in the womb, for a period that may vary between one week and several months. Almost all babies in the womb are more awake and active during the late evening and night, and tend to sleep deeply from early morning to midday,” Maria explains.

But that is a challenge for many new parents.

Newborn sleep patterns – not nature’s best idea.

“It’s plainly frustrating to have a wide-awake baby when you want to sleep. But be patient about newborn sleep: your baby will gradually begin to sleep for longer during the night. A one-year-old will definitely have outgrown their newborn sleep pattern.”

Maria Sahlin says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to newborn sleep. But she has some helpful advice and tips for new Mums and Dads.

BABYBJÖRN Parental Magazine – Newborn sleep: Dad kisses his newborn on the head.
Spoil your newborn with closeness. It makes your baby feel calm and safe, and it strengthens your bond.

9 newborn sleep tips

  1. Understand the huge transition your baby has just experienced. Being born is probably the most traumatic experience of our lives. A baby leaves the safe and cosy womb where they always feel well-fed and enters an unfamiliar world where they have to breathe on their own, learn to cry and let others know when they’re hungry. This is an adjustment that must be allowed to take time.
  2. Prepare yourself and think positively. Try to mentally prepare yourself – you may not get much sleep in the early days. This is the way it is for the vast majority of new parents. Try to think positively instead and be grateful for any hours of sleep you do get. As new parents, we also get a boost from certain hormones and we cope with lack of sleep in the early days better than we might expect.
  3. Let your newborn set the rhythm. Don’t expect your baby to obligingly fit in with your circadian rhythm. Follow your baby’s tempo in the early weeks. Each day will usually be different. After a difficult night, the next night will probably be easier.
  4. Try to rest when your newborn sleeps. Most newborns sleep deeply from early in the morning to midday. So take the opportunity to rest in the morning too. Switch off your phone and hide your alarm clock.
  5. Respect and accept changes. Newborn sleep patterns inevitably change in response to all the incredible changes as your baby develops during their first year. One week your newborn sleeps well and the next week they don’t. This is completely normal.
  6. Make day and night different. Work out an evening routine that you carry out at the same hour each day. Maybe a bath and a baby massage, subdued lighting and soft music. Keep your home dark and quiet at night, don’t turn on lights if you don’t need to, and don’t leave the TV on or music playing. Don’t change your baby’s nappy unnecessarily – only a soiled nappy will need to be changed at night. Keep the light low and talk softly when it’s time to breastfeed/bottle feed at night.
  7. Take turns to get some sleep. Sharing tasks with your partner and making a sleep plan are good ideas. If you have other children at home, take turns at staying awake with your older children and sleeping in the same room as your newborn.
  8. Carry your newborn close. Your newborn needs a lot of closeness during the early days. It’s impossible to ‘spoil’ them with too much closeness. On the contrary, it makes your baby feel calm and safe, and also strengthens your baby-parent bond
  9. Stay calm and be patient. Newborn sleep patterns do change with time. A one-year-old will definitely have outgrown their newborn sleep pattern. Remember that everyone is different and develops at their own pace, babies too. The newborn period is just a brief interlude in your life, so don’t lose your perspective.

Maria Sahlin

Occupation: Midwife. “I love my job! I get to be there and share life’s greatest event. It’s truly an honour and a privilege.”
Family: My husband Frederik and our three girls Olivia, Molly and Elvira
Hobbies: My family, travelling, skiing and sailing.