Why Newborn Sleep Is Unpredictable and What to Expect

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 they slept through the night too soon, their basic need for nourishment would go unfulfilled.

In other words, night wakings are an important part of a newborn's development.

Deep Sleep vs. Active Sleep

Science has found that newborns and new parents actually have different sleep patterns. You, as an adult, move through stages of sleep that can 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.

During active sleep, you may dream, stir, roll over, or fix the covers. You're still asleep, but your brain is still getting a little exercise, so to speak.

While you spend a more significant portion of your time in deep sleep, your baby moves back and forth between deep and active sleep.

Sleep experts theorize that fluctuating between deep and active sleep is necessary for brain development. The "exercise" that the baby's brain gets during sleep is vital to maintaining their respiration rate, temperature, and pulse.

Characteristics of Newborn Sleep

Now that you understand why you and your baby don't sleep the same way, here's a closer look at what newborn sleep can look like.

  • The National Sleep Foundation found that newborns (from birth to age two months) sleep an average of 14 hours a day, give or take 4 hours. Periods of wakefulness averaged between 1 and 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 infants, it's not advisable to work out a sleep schedule for your new baby. Newborns will sleep without a pattern, and it's normal and acceptable for them to do so. Your baby will communicate when they are sleepy in their own way.

Common signs of sleepiness in newborns include: 

  • Fussiness
  • Rubbing of eyes
  • Yawning

When you see these signs, consider putting your baby down while they are sleepy, but not entirely asleep. Since babies spend more time in the 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 themselves to sleep may wake at night but will fall back to sleep on their own as long as their 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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