Sleep expectations for newborns

Although babies have varying sleep patterns, there are certain norms that parents should be aware for a child's optimal growth.

Weeks before I was due to deliver my first child, I walked by a school friend pushing her brand new baby in a stroller. “You’ll never sleep again!” her husband yelled as I passed them. I laughed, thinking that, of course, my baby would sleep. After all, I had read all the literature; I knew exactly what I had to do to get my baby to sleep.

Almost six years and a second child later, I am still learning the folly of my pre-baby expectations. I have also learned that the phrase ‘sleeping like a baby’ certainly does not correspond with the peaceful rest it implies.

According to Dr. Benjamin Burko, Medical Director of Tiny Tots Medical Centre in the West Island, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at McGill University, it’s normal for a newborn baby to sleep upwards of 16 hours a day. The catch? They mostly do it in two to three hour stints (although some lucky parents have a baby who sleeps at least one four-hour stretch at some point in the day).

And there are good reasons why newborns keep waking up. Babies have tiny stomachs, so they can only take in a limited amount of milk with each feeding, explains Dr. Burko.

Essentially, they’re little feeding machines who need to nurse every two hours or so to obtain all the calories they need for growth.

Also, a baby’s sleep cycle is shorter than an adult’s. They spend more time in REM, a lighter sleep zone, and tend to wake more easily.

So what kind of sleep patterns can new parents expect? Well, don’t hold out hope for a solid six to eight hours of consecutive sleep much before your baby is 6 months old. By then, they’ll need 12 to 15 hours of sleep a day, usually broken up into two naptimes (morning and afternoon) as well as their nighttime slumber. By the end of the first year, a baby will need between 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day.

According to Dr. Burko, parents can take steps early on to ensure that by the end of the first year, their baby is sleeping well. He suggests a bedtime routine right from the beginning. Reduce stimuli such as music and conversation as bedtime approaches. Read, sing quietly and then lower the lights.

Dr. Burko also warns parents not to get into the habit of nursing, rocking or walking a baby to sleep. This simply teaches an infant to be dependent on mom or dad to drift off to sleep. Instead, babies must learn how to sleep on their own. “The idea is to put an awake, calm baby who received his proper bedtime cues to bed,” he says.

The safest place for a baby to sleep is on a firm mattress, on his back. You should not put any items, including stuffed animals in the crib of an infant under 12 months. Keep babies away from cigarette smoke. Following these precautions and other ones listed on the Canadian Pediatric Society’s website at www.cps.ca, will reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

The Quebec Coroner’s Office also warns parents that babies should not be allowed to sleep for long periods of time in car seats and bouncy chairs because the baby’s head can roll too far forward, reducing oxygen intake which could result in death. It is recommended that a baby not be left in his car seat for longer than one hour at a time, even when travelling. (The full report is available at www.msp.gouv.qc.ca.)

Parents should also keep in mind that babies tend to change their sleep patterns, meaning they wake up more often, as they reach various milestones. When a baby is learning to roll over or stand up, sleep can seem like a major distraction!

And don’t underestimate the effect of regular naps on baby’s nighttime sleep. Well-rested babies are better sleepers. It’s paradoxical, but an over-tired baby does not sleep well. So make sure your baby gets adequate daytime sleep (i.e. naps) if you want a more restful night.

Sleep deprivation is one of those running jokes in movies and books about raising babies. But the truth is, broken nights can be tough. Sometimes the first step is just accepting your newfound reality: you’re tired beyond belief! Sharing this over a cup of coffee with a good friend can also help. And hang in there — because one morning you will wake up and realize that you’ve actually been sleeping like a baby — and so has your little one. And it will feel very, very good.