You have finally made it beyond the letter-box with your newborn. You are feeling pretty proud of yourself for getting out and about between feeds, poos and spews and you even have your own shirt on the right way round. But then some dear old lady spies your little ‘freshie’ and as she peers into your pram, she can’t resist asking, ‘is he a good baby?’ Then that dreaded next question, ‘does he sleep all night?’
Suddenly you are hit by a wave of self-doubt. You wonder, ‘should my baby be sleeping longer?
This isn’t helped by all the baby sleep programs advertising how to teach your baby to sleep ‘all night’ . Especially when you read that babies can sleep 8 hours or 12 hours or whatever is being promised. Or that you can expect your baby to give you a full night’s sleep when he is just a few weeks old – if you just follow the right ‘method’.
Firstly, ‘all night’ in baby sleep studies is defined as five hours, so if your baby has ever slept in a five hour stretch whether the sun is shining or the moon is up, you can quite honestly claim ‘yes he is sleeping all night’. (just mutter ‘sometimes’ under your breath).
Of course, all babies are unique little individuals and you may have hit the sleeping baby jackpot. If your baby is sleeping a longer stretch over night and is gaining weight and contented, that’s perfectly fine. However, very few babies can sleep longer than 2 or 3 hours in the early weeks – day or night – so if you are feeling pressure around your newborn’s sleep, please relax. Here are some very good reasons your baby shouldn’t be sleeping ‘all night’ just yet:
Newborn tummies are teeny tiny
Look at your baby’s little clenched fist – at first your newborn’s stomach will only hold a teaspoon of milk but by about 10 days, his tiny tummy will have stretched to about the size of his fist. This means that he will need frequent feeds for at least the first few weeks and even a few months or longer to get his daily quota of nourishment during this time of rapid growth and development. Also, breast milk is very efficiently digested so your new baby will need to feed between eight and twelve times in a twenty four hour period – day and night. Your breasts also need this frequent stimulation to establish milk production: there is more breast development happening during the first few weeks so by watching your baby’s early hunger signals and letting him feed accordingly, you will ‘set’ your milk production at a higher level. This means that by feeding your baby as frequently as he needs, once his tiny tummy stretches and his nervous system matures, he will enjoy your abundant milk supply and he will naturally start to sleep longer.
Light sleep is safe sleep (it’s smart sleep too!)
The younger your baby, the more light (active) sleep they will have and the more frequently they will arouse from sleep. Light sleep plays an important role in brain development as there is an increase in the production of certain nerve proteins – the building blocks of the brain – and blood flow to the brain nearly doubles relative to the deepest sleep state. According to researchers such as Professor James McKenna, these frequent arousals are a part of an infant’s survival mechanism and may play a protective role against SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Babies need to arouse if there is a breathing obstruction, if they are too hot or cold (both SIDS risk factors).
Touch is as important a nutrient as food
Touch is the first sense to develop, just days after conception and is important for a whole lifetime. It stimulates growth hormones, as well as those that relieve stress, encourage brain development and promote bonding and attachment.
Your newborn needs the input of your loving touch day and night so as you snuggle him close in the wee small hours, consider how your touch, especially when you snuggle skin to skin, is helping him develop important brain connections that will enhance learning; you are helping him grow; and you are boosting the chemistry of attachment that is setting foundations for a lifetime of loving relationships.
If you are feeling pressured that your newborn ‘should’ be sleeping longer, try to imagine if your baby slept twelve hours at night and there were no night-time cuddles or touch – this could reduce his sensory input by up to fifty percent. However, if your baby naturally sleeps longer stretches, chances are he will feed more often and expect more cuddles during the day to get his ‘quota’ of loving touch. You can also offer more touch through baby wearing and infant massage (see Pinky’s Baby Massage DVD/steaming online Video )
Your baby’s brain doesn’t know day from night
Newborns don’t have an established circadian rhythm or body clock. Being able to establish a pattern of day and night depends on neurological development. This means your baby could take up to twelve weeks before he settles into a more predictable pattern of longer sleeps at night and waking during the day. You can help this along by keeping lights dim at night and talking quietly, taking walks outside during the day, baby wearing and gently offering feeds during the day if he sleeps longer than 3 or 4 hours – but please be patient, the more you try and force your baby, the longer it can take for his natural rhythms to establish. Meanwhile, keep your ‘to do’ list short and try and catch up on sleep or at least rest when your baby naps.
Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). Download the first chapter of ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ FREE here