Updated: Nov 12, 2020
When I was pregnant with my first baby, there were tons of educational resources out there for many things...labor and delivery classes, nursing and breastfeeding courses, books about parenting and parenting styles. There were courses and texts for all of these kinds of things! But what I came to learn in those first few weeks with a newborn, was that I knew little, if anything, about postpartum life, newborn sleep, and how it changes and develops over those first few months. There was no big push to educate parents on what to do with their little ones upon arriving home from the hospital or birth center.
Did you know that a newborn awake window (the amount of time from one waking to the next sleep) is only 45-60 minutes long?! I didn't. And because I had no idea, do you think my little guy was sleeping every hour or so those first few weeks of life, as he should have been? Absolutely not.
Think about this - newborns eat, poop, and sleep. If a full feeding (remember, we are looking for COMPLETE feeds where your baby is kept awake throughout the feed) takes about 30-40 minutes, and your newborn should only be awake roughly 45-60 minutes, then shortly after burping, your baby will be ready for sleep fairly quickly! This blew my mind. So, after not offering these opportunities to sleep, I realized my baby was overtired, and that is where a lot of newborn fussiness stems from. When babies become overtired, there is a spike in cortisol which causes them to enter a "flight or fight" mode, making it much harder to fall asleep.
Day after day of these cortisol spikes result in a crabby, colicky baby and very tired and overwhelmed parents.
I had no idea, so I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be this way - my mission as a sleep consultant is to help parents prenatally, and shortly after their child's birth, learn what to do and what to offer their baby to prevent this cycle of overtiredness (for everyone!).
So, can you sleep train a newborn? In short, no.
It's not yet developmentally appropriate to consider any form of formal sleep training. However, I like to think of it as sleep teaching. You can offer opportunities for your baby to practice falling asleep on his/her own, and as he/she learns and grows, they will start to get the hang of it. It's all about practice practice practice at this age! That means you can still snuggle, hold, and wear your baby for some naps, as long as you are also trying for some independent sleep. If we don't offer an opportunity for our babies to practice sleeping independently, they won't learn. Just like learning to nurse - it's hard work, it's challenging - but the more we do it the easier it gets. It's a very natural thing, but takes lots of practice and patience. The best time to practice independent sleep is the very first nap of the day. Wherever your baby sleeps at night, whether it's the bassinet in the parents' room or the crib in his/her nursery, this should also be where you lay the baby down for this first nap. You can try other naps in this space throughout the day also, but the first nap is usually the easiest. My hope is that if we practice enough in laying a healthy and independent foundation for sleep at the newborn stage, as your baby grows into an infant and beyond, there is no need for more formal sleep training because he/she will already know how to do it independently! Now, with this being said, some babies will still need a bit of a push at the right time to get the hang of it, but that's what I'm here for, if you need it.
So, how can we set the stage for teaching our newborns to try to sleep independently?
For starters, we want to provide the right environment. A dark, cool, and non-stimulating nursery is key. See my blog post about that here. I also love utilizing white noise to recreate the womb-like noises your baby had been used to for the past 9 months - it's very comforting for them! While I do sing a lullaby to my little ones each night, it is a part of our routine, and not something that is continuously played while they are attempting to sleep. Playing lullabies in the background can actually stimulate the brain and prevent sleep from occurring. You can also start incorporating a sleep routine right from the start with your little one. For example - nurse, change a diaper and sing a song, swaddle, and lay baby down. Secondly, we want to make sure baby is dressed and swaddled comfortably, especially for the temperature in the room. For more information on this, check out this blog post. Swaddling should be a part of your newborn's sleep routine until about 8 weeks, then we want to transition out of the swaddle to healthfully promote his/her development and so it doesn't become a prop. Thirdly, we want to make sure our baby is sleeping safely. Babies (per the AAP) should be sleeping alone, placed on their backs, in a crib or on another flat surface like a bassinet. There should be no extra blankets or pillows, just the swaddled baby on a mattress. Since the "Back to Sleep" campaign started in the 90s, the number of SIDS cases has been drastically reduced.
I want to finish up with one final tip - while it's also not yet developmentally appropriate for newborns to be on a schedule - we can start incorporating a daily routine. An appropriate, sleep encouraging routine would be following an EAT - WAKE - SLEEP pattern (to clarify, this means your baby eats upon waking, then has some awake time, and finally goes back to sleep - all within 45-60 minutes!). So, the baby is always eating upon waking (not the other way around), having some awake time (maybe you say a nursery rhyme to them, do some tummy time, or simply stare into their eyes for a few minutes), and then starting their sleep routine once more before they take a nap. Establishing this routine early will help you shift into an appropriate schedule as the baby gets older and promotes healthy and independent sleep habits.
I hope this post is helpful to you parents out there! You know where to find me if you need me.