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Coping with tiredness and newborn baby sleep patterns

Newborn sleep patterns can be a shock to the system for new parents. This article discusses how to get a baby to sleep, advice on dealing with tiredness and more.

When you find out you’re going to be a parent, one of the first things other parents will say to you is ‘say goodbye to those lie-ins’ and the luxury of sleep. Indeed, the undisturbed sleep you may have been used to before you started your family will be very different from the amount you get afterwards.

Recognising your baby’s sleep patterns, however, can really help at times when you’re wondering why your newborn baby won't sleep or why they seem to wake up so often at night.

Your newborn baby’s sleep patterns

Babies need a lot of sleep because they have so much new information to process and they are growing and developing at such a fast pace. At first babies don’t know that night-time is for sleep and day-time is for being awake. They gradually develop this over the first few months. In general, frequent night waking peaks at four to six weeks of age with many babies starting to become more settled at night-time from about 12 weeks.

At night, adults alternate between light and deep sleep. Usually about four-fifths of our sleep is deep sleep. In contrast, for babies, the split between deep and light rest is 50:50. The larger amount of light sleep that babies have means they wake up more easily than adults.

We all wake up briefly as we move from one kind of sleep to another but babies alternate between the two sorts of sleep more than adults, with a cycle of about 50 to 60 minutes. These brief arousals can lead to a baby waking completely or going back to sleep.

How to get a baby to sleep

Sometimes parents are encouraged to keep their babies awake during the day so that they will sleep better at night but this rarely seems to work. If your baby wants a day-time nap, keeping her awake might not be helpful. A tired baby, after all, is more likely to cry, fuss and cause you to feel more stressed.

During the early months, parents often use feeding as a way to settle their baby to sleep, including at night when they wake up. Young babies need frequent feeds during the day and night as their stomachs are small and all their nutritional content has to be taken in over a 24-hour period. Human babies are adapted for frequent feeding in the first few months to satisfy their demands for growth and brain development. However, as they get older they can last longer between feeds. (See articles on feeding.)

Holding, rocking or feeding a baby to sleep can lead to them becoming reliant on this to rest, including when they wake during the night. Many parents will go with this until their baby starts to fall asleep by themselves though.

If you want to encourage your baby to learn to fall asleep by herself or to get your baby to sleep through the night, without you or your partner being present, you could try one or more of the following approaches:

  • Place your baby sleepy but awake in her cot at bedtime.
  • As your baby becomes more aware of their surroundings and actions, introduce a regular bedtime pattern, such as a bath, bedtime clothes, singing or reading a book together.
  • It can be helpful to keep light to a minimum at night, and to minimise talking, playing and disturbance when your baby wakes up. For example, avoid putting lights on and nappy changing if possible.
  • For young babies, some people find that additional feeds during the evening, or semi-waking the baby for a feed between 10pm and midnight, can help babies rest for longer stretches at night. These are sometimes referred to as ‘dream feeds’.

What about you? Tiredness in new parents

If you have disturbed nights, getting through the day can feel like a hard slog. You could try the following if you are suffering with fatigue after giving birth:

  • If you can, sleep during the day when your baby does.
  • Unplug or switch off your phone when you feed your baby or take a nap.
  • Take extra care of yourself in the day-time with nourishing food, gentle exercise and as much rest as possible.

Don’t worry about non-essential jobs around the house and accept help from family and friends when it’s offered or just ask.
Ask your partner to look after your baby in the evening while you get some sleep – or ask a visiting relative or friend, so you can both have a rest.
If you are finding it difficult to rest when your baby does even though you feel exhausted, talk to your health visitor or your GP, as it could be an indication of postnatal depression.

Some parents also choose to sleep in the same bed as their baby - referred to either as ‘co-sleeping’ or ‘bed-sharing’ (see ‘Sleeping safely with your baby’) because it helps to maintain breastfeeding at night and can reduce sleep disruption for parents and babies.

Going without sleep or having your sleep disrupted can be physically and emotionally draining. And sometimes, it might feel like your baby just doesn’t want to rest, despite everything that you try. This can be particularly stressful if you are returning to work, and for partners who are working and trying to avoid having disturbed rest. It’s important to keep in mind that this period of sleep disruption – however difficult and tiring – won’t last forever.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Home-Start has a parent-helper visiting scheme and a helpline 08000 68 63 68 (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm and Sat 9am-12pm).

The national charity family lives has a free 24-hour helpline (0808 800 2222) for information and support on any parenting issue, including crying babies.