The 5 Building Blocks at the Foundation of Happy Sleep
The newborn stage of parenthood is all about adapting and surviving. It’s a beautiful but also challenging time of growing and adjustment, as well as getting to know each other. The ultimate goal is survival, and the first few weeks can be overwhelming. As a new parent, remember to take a moment to breathe and take it one day at a time.
Once your baby hits 2-3 months of age and is beginning to eat better and get into a bit of a rhythm, you might be wondering how to lay the foundation for healthy, happy sleep. Before we dive into the basics, remember to set the expectation for yourself that even if you're doing everything right, your successes will likely be inconsistent. The average newborn sleeps 14-18 hours a day, and it is normal for it to feel like your newborn is napping the entire 24 hours. Each day will bring its own set of challenges, but also moments of joy, wonder, and growth. Just remember, there is no magic formula for getting your infant to sleep perfectly all the time, but there are building blocks that can help lay the foundation for healthy, happy sleep.
Here are 5 building blocks for creating a foundation for healthy sleep:
1. CUES: Study your baby. Consider keeping a notebook nearby to take notes of your baby’s vocalizations and movements. What is your baby saying with his or her body language? Is that cry a different pitch from others? Test your theories, make mistakes, and learn to decipher what your baby is telling you. Is he or she uncomfortable, needing a cuddle, or hungry? This is a step towards viewing your baby as an individual and validating his or her communicated needs. Here are some summaries of the typical newborn cries:
- On and Off Wail
- Short, low-pitched cry
- Rooting or banging head on your shoulder with tight fists
- Sudden, unexpected cry
- Lasts longer than hunger cry
- Continuous (doesn't get lower and softer)
- Your baby could be too hot or cold, pulling at ears, experiencing a soggy diaper; baby could be arching or gassy
- Yawns, turns face from you, rubbing eyes
- Sucks his fingers, caresses lovey toy or blanket
- Slowing down
- Glassy eyes or "seven-mile stare"
- Frowns, hiccups
- Squirmy, moves from side to side
- Flailing and very uncoordinated
- Claws at skin
- Bloodshot eyes
- Uncoordinated kicking
It can be natural to want to pick up a baby within the seconds of every cry and offer the breast or bottle. I encourage you to consider a pause to decipher what your baby might be trying to communicate. Consider using this strategy:
- Pause: Remember that crying is your baby’s language
- Listen: What does this particular cry mean?
- Observe: What is your baby doing? What else is going on?
- Respond: Test out what you think your baby is telling you
Why is it important to learn cues? It is the first step to validating your baby’s attempt to communicate. When you respond to your baby’s cues, you are building trust. Your baby will use more cues to communicate with you, and your bond will be stronger. Often in my practice, I work with parents of 8-10 month olds that cannot identify their baby’s sleepy cues and hunger cues. We work on identifying cues and building trust around sleep before working on setting new boundaries for healthy sleep for that child.
2. FLOOR TIME: Make sure your newborn has small bits of floor time lying flat on his or her back and tummy. Some infants can only tolerate floor time for a brief period, and that is okay. If your infant can last 3 minutes on their tummy or back several times a day, that is a win in my book. Help your baby adjust to tummy time by laying down with your face close to theirs and make funny faces for them to try to imitate. Also sing songs and smile at them.
Why is floor time important? Small amounts of floor time help a baby learn to be more comfortable on flat surfaces. For some babies, the transition from incline sleeping to back sleeping can be a struggle. Floor time is a natural way to aid in this transition. Infants master many skills during floor time that help them later when it comes time to develop their favorite sleep position around 4 to 6 months.
3. DEVELOP A NON-FEEDING CALMING ROUTINE: While your primary calming routine at this stage is often feeding, it is also helpful to develop a non-feeding calming routine. The swaddle is a great starting point because it provides the soothing pressure a newborn baby needs to process their body in space and relax their system. The Ollie Swaddle is an option I recommend because it moves with the baby, it is easy to put in place snugly, it is breathable – which keeps your baby’s temperature regulated – and it opens easily at the bottom for diaper changes.
Your baby will often need more than one sensory soother at this age. Using any combination of swaddling, sucking (pacifier or finger), swinging, shushing, patting, bouncing, cradling, and rocking helps provide the sensory input newborns need to calm their bodies for sleep. Keep in mind that in the beginning, this calming routine will take longer than feeding. Don’t get discouraged if you feel that the routine you created is not working, because it initially may take 15-25 minutes or more. If your baby is overtired, you may need to alter the intensity of the sensory input you are providing, turning it up or down depending on your child. Invest the time in perfecting the right calming routine for your child and eventually, the routine will shorten. Watch for cues like heavy eyelids, body relaxing, or a big sigh to know that your baby is on the road to calming. When you find the combination that works for your baby, repeat the routine when you notice sleep cues.
Why do I need a non-feeding, calming routine? We are all sensory beings and as adults, we create sensory experiences that meet our needs without even knowing it. Tiny humans enter the world initially needing our help to recreate the natural sensory input they were receiving on a constant basis in the womb. Placing an awake baby directly in a crib without any calming does not often lead to the baby falling asleep. Babies often feel insecure because they can’t sense where their body is in space. Creating a routine that you or other caregivers can use to calm baby to sleep will be life changing. Building a non-feeding, calming routine that works for your baby puts you one step closer to laying the foundation for healthy sleep. You will begin to use the calming routine more and more as your child grows out of the newborn stage.
4. AWAKE TIMES: Newborn awake times are shorter than you expect. Using your knowledge of your baby’s cues will help you use this tool. The goal of awake times is to get your baby back to sleep before they are overtired and overstimulated, which makes calming their bodies to sleep much more difficult. Keep in mind, catnaps are normal at this age. I count a fully restorative nap to be 45 minutes or more. If your baby wakes from a short nap and you can tell they are still tired, watch for sleepy cues and begin the calming routine after a shorter awake time than normal. Waiting the full awake time will compound their overtiredness and often lead to another 30 minutes or less nap. Here are examples of typical awake times:
- Birth-6 weeks: 45-60 minutes
- 2 months: 1 hour
- 3 months: 1-1.5 hours
Why is this important? Many of my newborn clients come to me working on a two-hour awake time, which can be much too long. Getting overtired or overstimulated before sleep can cause calming to sleep to be a struggle, naps to be 30 minutes or less, and for baby to struggle to transition between sleep cycles during the night.
5. Feeding Intervals: Consider the individual feeding needs of your newborn. Test out a feeding plan that maximizes their individual calorie needs during the day. It is normal for your baby to need feedings in the night. Consult with your pediatrician for individual recommendations. Consider going 3 hours or less between feedings depending on your child’s hunger cues, and aim for cluster feeding (less than 3-hour intervals) in the afternoon or early evening. Make note of hunger cues and use this to decipher your baby’s needs when they wake in the night to keep from creating a feeding habit when your baby is not hungry.
For bottle fed babies, keep an eye on nipple size and volume. Make sure both are progressing at the appropriate rate for your child.
Why is feeding important? Maximizing your child’s individual calorie needs during the day helps stretch night sleep. Clients who seek help stretching their baby's sleep are often feeding their baby every four hours, which requires more frequent feeding at night to get your baby the total calories they need. Shortening the feeding intervals during the day will add more calories to their daily feedings, therefore stretching sleep at night. Parents who bottle feed do not often realize that progressively increasing the nipple sizes at appropriate ages directly affects sleep. Helping your child eat efficiently as their calories needs change helps set your child up for sleep success.
Learning cues, offering floor time, creating a non-feeding calming routine, watching awake times, and watching feeding intervals are all building blocks that you can work on at your own pace. Gaining the knowledge of your newborn’s needs at this age can greatly impact your confidence as you see your little one respond when you work on these building blocks. My goals are to encourage you to look at sleep and routines a different way, to test out your theories, and to equip you with the first building blocks to foster routines that create happy sleepers – all at your own pace.
About the Author:
Jessica Bryant is a North Texas mother of three, and founder of Sleep Happy Consulting. Her mission is to equip parents with the confidence and tools to teach their children to become happy sleepers. Jessica has a Child Development and Family Relationships degree from the University of Texas, an extensive background in child development and early intervention, and a passion for creating rested and happy households. Through her personalized strategies for addressing sleep challenges, Jessica is now helping families in 20 states and counting to sleep happily. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook, too!