Understanding newborn sleep, and tips for developing healthy baby sleep patterns

in Newborns

During the first six months of a baby’s life there are numerous factors that influence the development of sleep. These factors highlight the way in which normal infant development and sleep interrelate. By having some of this knowledge, parents can have a better idea when to be more present with their little one at night, and when they can use gentle sleep methods to help encourage sleep.

Factors That Affect Newborn Sleep

Development of the Circadian Rhythms
The circadian rhythm is a person’s internal clock that regulates one's biological activity in a 24hr period. It regulates one’s sleep/wake cycle, melatonin secretion, cortisol, bowel movements, and other biological functions. When babies come into this world, this internal clock has not been established. It can take 2 to 4 months to develop this internal clock.
Establishing Milk Supply and Breastfeeding
During the first several weeks and months, mothers are establishing/building milk supply, helping little ones learn how to latch, dealing with low or over milk production, sore nipples, plugged ducts, mastitis... These hurdles can potentially lead to increased night wakings.
Growth Spurts
During growth spurts, it can feel as though the baby needs to eat all the time. This increase need for food can affect night wakings. The infant that has dropped down to 2 feeds at night might need an additional feed during this period. These spurts happen roughly 7-10 day, 3 weeks, 3 months, 4 months and 6 months. The growth spurt typically last 2-3 days.
Developmental Leaps
Developmental leaps are the periods of time where the brain undergoes significant growth and learning. Once the leap has been completed, the baby will process information and perceive their environment in a different way.
Movement Milestones
Rolling, learning to crawl, learning to pull up to standing, walking are all movement milestones that can lead to increase night wakings. It can take a couple of days or weeks for a child to incorporate these new skills into their sleep habits.
Medical Issues
Teething, ear infections, colds, reflux, and colic all have the potential to impact your newborn’s ability to sleep at night.

Tips for Developing Healthy Baby Sleep Habits

Exposure to Light
Exposure to light does help an infant establish their circadian rhythm. This means taking walks, meeting your friends at the cafe, running errands, to name a few. Getting out the house and into fresh air can also help create sleepiness in babies, help with colic issues, and support the mother's well-being.
Establish a Daily Rhythm
Spend a couple of days paying attention your newborn sleep cues. By paying attention, most babies will present their rhythm. Strive to obtain a rhythm that is reliable and flexible. Doing the same things, in the same order helps establish positive sleep associations and can maintain their daily rhythm.
Daytime sleep helps tremendously with nighttime sleep. Most newborns need to sleep every 45-90minutes. Try a couple of the naps on a stationary surface, and some naps can be on the go.
Follow your baby’s cues for feeds. Try not to let your little one go more than 3 hrs without a feed. Try to cluster feed in the late afternoons. You can also try to dream feed your little one when you are going to bed. Frequent night waking may indicate there is a feeding issue. Consult with your lactation consultant if you have questions and/or concerns.
Newborn Sleep Environment
Keep your baby's sleeping room dark, dark, dark. Whether you are co-sleeping, room sharing, or solitary sleeping, make sure her sleep environment is safe. APA recommends room sharing the first 5 months. If you are co-sleeping or room sharing, be mindful of the computer screen in the room. The light that emanates from the screen can wake up the baby. Sound machines help dampen the sudden noises that can occur in the house. Consider keeping the room relaxing and non-stimulating. This means be mindful of mobiles, huge stuffed animals in the corner of the room, even the printed sheets. These can stimulate a baby.

You know your baby the best, and sometimes, it just takes some trial and error to figure out what is going to work for your particular family’s dynamic.

If you have questions, add a comment here, see the advice archive about infant sleep, or ask a question about newborn sleep patterns and baby sleep strategies in the NaturallyBorn "advice" area.

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I provide education, resources, and support for families who are struggling with issues such as sleeplessness, feeding, scheduling, or general parenting issues. Through my training in the Millette Method© and graduate level education, I take into account sleep location, baby temperament, attachment, and parental well-being when developing a collaborative plan.


  • Amanda December 04

    What is "cluster feed"? I have not heard that term before... Thanks for this!

  • Meggan Hartman December 04

    Hi Amanda

    Cluster feeding is when you do lots of feeds close together. As an example, some moms feed every 2.5hrs during the day and then cluster feed every 45 minutes in the afternoon. There are two benefits of doing this in the late afternoon. 1) It tanks up the baby before bedtime, and 2) it helps build milk supply when milk supply tends to drop.


  • Rachel Radue December 12

    My family is in desperate need of help with naps. My 6mo old daughter can not nap for more than 15mins and only while being held. She's exhausted and cranky all day. If placed on a stationary surface (crib or bassinet) she awakes startled like she's scared about every 15-20 secs and can't self soothe. Even a swing nor swaddling work. She use to do just fine swaddled in bassinet for naps. At night she sleeps next to me in bed and sleeps through the night, her only trouble is naps.

  • Meggan Hartman December 13

    Hi Rachel

    Yes - those are short naps, and I can imagine that she is pretty cranky. Naps are a tricky thing as you can imagine. They are harder to get going than night time sleep. Here are some things to consider

    1) Scheduling - watching her signs of sleepiness to make sure she is ready for bed. My guess is that you are doing this because she is falling asleep

    2) sleep environment - no lights, sound machine, nothing to stimulate

    3) Nap time ritual - keep the ritual exactly the same as night time. Think nighttime ritual minus the bath.

    4) She could used to sleeping next to you, so one thought (and I am not totally sure of the details of your specific situation) is that you put her down like you do at bedtime, lay next to her while she sleeps. The next day you move a little bit away from her. Every day, move a little bit further away until she can feel comfortable sleeping on her own. When she wakes - you are there to shush and pat. You can even offer the breast, but do pop the nipple out right before she falls asleep. Trying to avoid creating a new sleep association.

    5) If she is in the family bed and you are not there - just make sure it is safe and she can not roll out or crawl out of the bed when she wakes.

    6) At her age - I would focus on morning naps first. Once you get that down, then focus on afternoon nap. Don't worry about the third nap - it will consolidate within the next couple of months anyway.

    Other than that - I would have to get a lot more details to be able to offer more specifics. I do have to say that for some babies at nap time, having a parent around is way too stimulating.... And you would want to think about how to accommodate this behavioral attribute.

    Meggan Hartman PhD.c, CLE

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