This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.


Why won't my baby sleep?

Posted by Karen Faulkner on
baby sleep, baby sleep consultant, Nurture Parenting, online sleep program, wake windows, baby sleep cycles, baby sleep tips, 6 month baby, 5 month baby, 4 month baby, 3 month baby, teething, baby teething, 7 month baby, 8 month baby, day naps

Why won’t my baby sleep is one of the most Googled search terms asked by new parents. Add that to How do I stop my baby from crying and Why do babies cry, and you have 3 of the top 10 questions parents ask Google. Based on this, I decided that Nurture Sleep Program, teaching parents everything I’d learned as a Registered Midwife of 34 years and 24 years of experience as a Baby Whisperer, was a good idea. And the good news is...The Nurture Sleep Program is finally here. 

Sleep patterns

Understanding your baby's sleep patterns can help you with managing their sleep. There are always variations in every age group, so whilst I'm giving you a range, there are always those at the bottom and the top of every average. Your baby's sleep patterns and up times will change over time. As long as your baby is waking happy and can get to bedtime still being happy whilst having day naps, they are most likely having the sleep they need. It is the unhappy babies who are behaving like a cranky koala that usually need help with their sleep.

A little-known fact is babies need to be taught how to self-settle and sleep. It rarely happens by chance, no matter how hard a parent wishes it did.

Why won't my baby sleep?

Newborn sleep 0-6 weeks

    • Newborns sleep in short bursts, 20-40 minutes up to several hours,  at random scattered times throughout the 24-hour day. As the days pass, they develop a tendency to sleep more at night.
    • Total sleep duration will vary - some babies get between 13 and 16 hours of sleep in 24 hours. Their sleep is light and restless and they lapse into REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, immediately after falling asleep. They spend a lot more sleep time in REM than adults do, moving around a lot, and making noises. This saying of 'sleep like a baby' is most definitely an urban myth!
    • Newborns awaken easily, partly because they spend a large portion of sleep time in "active sleep," a light sleep state with fluttering eyelids; rapid and irregular breathing; occasional body jerky movements; and sleep noises (grunts or brief cries).
    • Newborn sleep times can vary widely. In the first few days, the average newborn may sleep between 16-18 hours a day. By four weeks, newborns sleep about 14 hours. But there are wide differences. Some four-week-old babies sleep as little as 9 out of 24 hours whereas others sleep for 19 hours a day (Iglowstein et al 2002).

Day - night rhythms and how they develop

Newborns seem oblivious to differences between night and day. They wake and feed frequently and then can be out like a light for hours on end. Understanding the science of your baby's sleep can help you cope, preventing mistakes which can interrupt and delay the onset of more mature sleep rhythms.

Newborn sleep patterns: Are there any?

To the sleepless parent, newborn sleep looks to have no rhyme or reason behind it.

baby sleep

Why newborns seem to sleep—and wake—around the clock

The timing of adult sleep is managed by circadian rhythms, physiological changes that follow a 24-hour cycle and are influenced by light exposure. During the day, you are helping your body adjust it's internal clock when you have light exposure. Natural morning light helps you to be awake and alert during the day compared to at night.

When evening and darkness falls, your brain sees this as a signal to start producing melatonin, a hormone-making you feel relaxed and ready for sleep. Artificial light sources in the evening, especially blue light such as TV and computers can disrupt this process. However continue with bright light during the day, and darkness at night and your body will be in sync with the natural, 24-hour day.

But, this is not the case for newborns. Their sleep is not governed by strong circadian rhythms. During pregnancy, babies in utero are tuned into their mothers' physiological cues about day and night. Fetal heart and breathing rates speed up when mum is active and slow when mum is asleep. Also, maternal melatonin passes through the placenta, potentially influencing the baby's internal clock. After birth, this hormonal connection is broken and newborns must develop their own circadian rhythms by producing hormones. Because baby's feed frequently this takes time for melatonin production to influence sleep patterns.


When does it end?

Most babies take 3 months to show day-night rhythms in the production of melatonin. Circadian changes in cortisol, a hormone that helps regulate alertness, may take even longer to emerge. This has a delay in helping babies "settle" at night and sleep for more than 5 hours without a feed.

Helping newborns adapt

    • Make your baby a part of your daily routine - involve your baby in your day to day activity. Keep them busy when awake and interested. Babies are like us, they need exercise and stimulation when awake to feel tired enough for sleep later.

    • Reduce stimulation at night - turn lights down low at night when feeding, avoid changing nappies if they are just wet or even dirty unless the baby has nappy rash. Avoid interacting and talking to the baby in the middle of the night as it can take them longer to wind down before going back to sleep.

    • Expose your newborn to natural lighting patterns - expose them to daylight in the day awake hours and dim the lights as nighttime nears.

    • Keep track of the time of day you express breast milk - night breast milk contains tryptophan whereas day breast milk does not.

    • Baby massage - babies who are massaged every day go to sleep quicker and can sleep up to an hour longer every day.

Why is baby sleep different to adults?

Babies typically begin their sleep bouts in the newborn equivalent of REM (sometimes called "active sleep"). Whilst in REM sleep a newborn doesn't experience limp muscles. As a result, they may move about a lot and make noises. The parents interpret this behaviour and think their babies are waking up, when in fact it is normal REM sleep. Newborn sleep cycles are shorter, around 40-45 minutes and REM makes up a bigger proportion of sleep. Newborns can spend more than half their total sleep time in REM. Deep or quiet sleep is potentially dangerous for a baby, yet appears more restful with slow measured breaths.


However, it's harder for babies to awaken from quiet sleep, which can cause trouble if the baby isn't getting enough oxygen. Because the baby's back sleep as a result of advice from the SIDS campaign this prevents them from going into deep sleep. Having a low threshold of arousal may protect babies from SIDS, and active sleep might be crucial for a newborn's brain development

This may explain why newborns don't help exhausted parents by lapsing into long periods of deep sleep. It's too risky. Instead, the typical 40-45 minute newborn sleep cycle includes only about 20 minutes of quiet sleep. The rest of the time, babies are either in REM or in "transitional sleep," a rather restless state that looks like a mash-up of active and quiet sleep, which scientists don't yet understand.

Put this all together, and you can see why parents feel their babies are such light (and erratic) sleepers. Like adults, newborns are more likely to awaken during REM, and during transitions between sleep stages. But unlike adults, newborns spend a lot more time in REM, and they transition between cycles more frequently.

And parents may sometimes mistake REM restlessness for waking and attempt to interact with or soothe a baby at the wrong time. In short, there are lots of opportunities for babies to wake up or get awakened unnecessarily.

This sounds like a raw deal for parents. But newborns probably benefit from being light sleepers.

And if we understand the peculiar nature of newborn REM, we can learn to avoid jumping in too soon when we think a baby is awakening or signalling for us.

A baby who seems to be waking up may, if left alone, go back to sleep very rapidly (see The Pause and the 3-minute magic rule).

Baby sleep boy gender

How to keep your light sleeper from waking up all the way

1. Pause - Don't rush in as soon as you think your baby has awoken. As I mentioned, babies experience frequent arousals/wake-ups, but it doesn't mean they will continue to fully wake up. Babies often move, jerk, twitch and cry out during partial wake-ups. If you avoid pre-empting, intervening and stimulating during these moments, they may go back to sleep on their own. Leave them for a few minutes and use a wait and see approach.

2. Fill up your baby before you go to sleep. Whether you breastfeed or bottle-fed, try to give the baby an extra large feed before your own bedtime. This will encourage your baby to sleep longer.

3. Swaddle or tuck in firmly with a heavy blanket and sheet to reduce the startle reflex and prevent it from waking your newborn. The feeling of security it gives can decrease cortisol and increase serotonin and endorphins, your baby's own feel-good hormones.

Hopefully, now you know why your baby is tricky to settle, wakes a lot, and doesn't sleep for very long. Just know in time and with developmental maturity, this will pass. Once babies reach 4 months, those new developmental skills will improve your baby's sleep cycles and a better n sleep and longer day naps are very possible.

← Older Post Newer Post →


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published