Why Newborn Sleep Is Unpredictable and What to Expect

Though frustrating, frequent night wakings play a key role in baby development.

Mother sleeping with newborn baby in hospital.
Blend Images - Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Every now and then, we'll hear stories of the newborn baby who slept through the night at six weeks of age. So is it possible? Yes. Likely? No.

Newborn sleep is much different than the sleep patterns of older babies, and the frequent night wakings can serve a very important purpose. 

Think of it this way. Tiny baby equals a tiny tummy. If you were expected to double your weight in the next six months, what do you have to do? Be an eating machine.

A newborn's frequent night wakings are a survival skill. If he slept through the night at too young of an age, his basic need of nourishment would go unfulfilled. In other words, night wakings are an important part of a newborn's development.

Deep Sleep vs. Active Sleep

What science reveals is that your newborn sleeps differently than you. You move through stages of sleep that could be divided into two simple categories: deep sleep and active sleep. Deep sleep is when you are out cold; no movement, no eye-twitching, no dreaming. Just sleep. Active sleep is when you may dream, stir, roll over, fix the covers. Still asleep, but your brain is still getting a little exercise, so to speak.

The difference between you and your baby is that you spend a more significant portion of your time in deep sleep while your baby moves back and forth between the two stages. Sleep experts theorize that fluctuating back and forth between deep and active sleep is necessary for brain development and the "exercise" that the baby's brain gets is vital to maintaining a baby's respiration, temperature, and pulse.

Characteristics of Newborn Sleep

So now that you understand why your newborn sleeps differently, let's look at what his sleep may look like.

  • The National Sleep Foundation found that newborns (birth to two months) sleep an average of 14 hours a day, give or take 4 hours. Periods of wakefulness averaged between 1 to 3 hours. 
  • The National Sleep Foundation also stated that newborn sleep is irregular, without predictable patterns.
  • During these periods, the newborn may sleep for only a few minutes or several hours.
  • Even while asleep, your newborn baby may often appear active. You may notice twitching, smiling, suckling, or other restless behaviors.

How to Get Newborns to Sleep

Unlike older babies, getting your newborn's sleep schedule worked out isn't advisable. Newborns will sleep without a pattern. This is normal and acceptable. Your baby will communicate that he is sleepy in his own way.

Common signs of sleepiness include: 

  • Fussiness
  • Rubbing of eyes
  • Yawning

When you begin to see these signs, you may want to consider putting him down while he is sleepy, but not entirely asleep.

Why? For one, because babies spend more time in that active period of sleep, it can be difficult to get them in a deep enough sleep that allows you to transfer them from your arms to the crib. It may also help them fall asleep faster. Additionally, a baby that has learned to easily soothe himself to sleep may wake at night and be able to fall back to sleep on his own if his basic needs have been met.

Remember, All Babies Are Different

There is a wide range of what "normal" newborn sleep looks like. While some babies may sleep through at that coveted six-week mark, it isn't until 9 months of age that 70 percent of babies have hit that milestone. Perhaps the most realistic expectation to have is to expect your child to be unique.

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