By Katie Begley
There’s nothing more precious than those first few days as a new parent. Snuggles with your newborn, time spent with family and friends, getting full nights of restful sleep—wait, what? I don’t remember getting much sleep, restful or otherwise, in those first days as a new parent. Baby sleep is one of the most common concerns in those early days.
Don’t worry, babies will eventually sleep through the night. That journey can look different for many families. Here are a few reasons why your baby may not be sleeping and what you can do to help.
Common sleep issues
Why won’t my baby nap? Why won’t my baby sleep? These questions can plague parents who are up at all hours of the night tending to their new baby.
All babies, even the best of sleepers, go through periods of growth that interrupt their sleep. The first and most important thing to know is that difficulties sleeping is a normal part of a baby’s development.
But there are a few common occurrences in baby’s first few years of life that will cause them to lose sleep. Here are a few newborn sleep tips that may be behind those sleepless nights. These are all normal parts of baby’s development and nothing to be too worried about.
If you worry that there may be more serious reasons your baby isn’t sleeping or just want some insight from those who see and care for many little ones, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. They will be able to tell you what to expect and when to call them.
- Baby sleep regression: As babies grow and develop, their little minds and bodies are working overtime to process everything around them. Understandably, this can make it hard for them to fall and stay asleep. If your baby suddenly has trouble sleeping, they may be going through a sleep regression. Every baby is different, but there are a few key points when many babies tend to go through these regressions.
- 3-4 months: This is the point when many babies transition from their newborn sleep patterns to what we expect from babies and kids—naps, early bedtime, occasional nighttime waking.
- 8-10 months: Around this time, baby is learning to crawl, stand up, cruise, maybe even walk! This means their little brain is working full-time even when they should be sleeping. All of these milestones mean that they may prefer to practice their new skills rather than sleep.
- 18 months: Your baby is now a full-fledged toddler, with their own opinions and preferences. This can mean refusing naps or fighting bedtime. This is a normal part of raising a healthy, independent kid but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
- Teething: Over the first couple of years of their lives, babies get almost all of their baby teeth. These chompers have to come down to the gum line, break through, and then continue to come in until your baby has a mouth of pearly whites. This can be a painful process which interrupts restful sleep.
- Separation anxiety: As they become more aware of their world, babies also become more aware of, and attached to, the most important adults in their lives—their parents. Around 6 months, many babies go through a period where they do not like to be away from their parents, even during sleep.
- Growth spurt: Did you know that most babies double their birth weight by the time they are 5 months old? All of that growing can work up an appetite, not to mention some growing aches and pains. If your baby suddenly wakes up ravenous in the middle of the night, chances are a growth spurt is in their very near future.
- Full diaper/diaper rash: New parents quickly learn the art of the diaper change, as newborn babies can go through 10 or more diapers every day! This includes in the middle of the night, so if your baby wakes up uncomfortable with a wet or dirty diaper, they may just need a quick change to be able to go back to sleep.
- Environment: Babies are very sensitive to their environment. This only increases as they become more aware of the world around them. Starting around 4 months, your baby will start to show interest in exploring. Some babies are more sensitive to environmental stimuli than others. These things can include light, sounds, toys, mirrors, or mobiles.
- Temperature: If you live in an area with distinct seasons, you should be ready to change your baby’s pajamas to suit the temperature in their room. During cold winters, baby will need warmer sleepwear, such as fleece pajamas with feet. During hot summers, they may be comfortable in just a diaper or light onesie.
- Transitions: When you and your baby are ready to move from a bassinet to a crib, it can be a major milestone. It can also lead to some temporary setbacks in sleep habits. Once your baby is used to sleeping in the crib, their sleep should go back to normal.
Medical explanations for sleeplessness
Infant sleep problems are normal but there are circumstances when a medical issue may be behind your baby’s lost sleep. If you are concerned about your child’s health, always bring up your concerns to your pediatrician. It is crucial to see your child’s doctor for well-child appointments so that you can discuss what is going on and what to look for. Don’t hesitate to call and make an appointment in between routine visits with any additional concerns.
- Reflux: Many newborns suffer from some reflux, when the contents of the stomach come back up through the esophagus. When it interferes with their ability to put on weight or sleep, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about possible treatments. The Mayo Clinic recommends discussing reflux with your doctor if baby “isn’t gaining weight, consistently spits up forcefully, spits up green or yellow fluid, spits up blood or a material that looks like coffee grounds, refuses food, has blood in stool, has difficulty breathing, begins spitting up at age 6 months or older, or is unusually irritable after eating.” Your doctor may recommend trying an infant reflux medicine to help them cope with the symptoms.
- Colic: Does your baby cry for seemingly no reason for 3 or more hours per day, for 3 or more days per week, and for 3 weeks or longer? Your baby may have colic. Unfortunately, there is not a definitive cause of colic, although many doctors look to see if there may be gastrointestinal pain that is causing your baby to be so fussy. The good news is that colic almost always goes away on its own by 4 months, as baby’s system becomes more developed.
- Food allergies or intolerances: Baby doesn’t eat solid food, so how can he have a food allergy that disrupts his sleep? If baby is nursing, he can actually be exposed to these foods through mom’s diet. Nursing mothers may consider trying to eliminate certain foods from their diet to see if it helps baby sleep. Common culprits are milk and dairy, soy, gluten, and eggs.
- Baby is underfed: If baby seems frequently fussy, they may be hungry. For nursing mothers, it is especially important to weigh baby to make sure that they are gaining weight appropriately. If they are not gaining weight as expected, or even losing weight, they may need to get additional nourishment from donor milk or formula.
What you can do to help
All babies go through periods of not sleeping, but that doesn’t mean you and they need to tough it out. There are a lot of tips and tricks to baby sleep training. Here are a few things you can do to help your baby get the best sleep possible.
- Follow baby’s cues: Babies try to communicate from their first day but it does take some deciphering to figure out exactly what they are trying to say. Pay attention to the cues that they are ready for sleep. These include rubbing their eyes or looking away from stimulating objects, yawning, and generally acting irritable.
- Bond during the day: Showing baby affection and establishing a secure relationship while they are awake can help them feel more secure and less anxious during their separation anxiety phase. You can do this by cuddling your baby and engaging in play.
- Make daytime for playtime: Babies are often born with their days and nights mixed up. They sleep all day and party all night. You can help them make the transition to sleeping at night by stimulating them during the day. This can include taking them out in the sun and fresh air during the day and playing games. When it is time for sleep, play some calming music, turn the lights down or off, and teach them that those things mean sleeptime.
- Swaddling: Using a swaddle blanket wrapped tight around your baby can help some newborns feel more secure and stay asleep longer. It is not safe, however, to use a swaddle on a baby who can roll over as they may not be able to roll themselves back to their back. Once your baby is rolling, replace the swaddle with an infant sleep sack. Infant sleepers can provide a similar feeling of coziness while leaving their arms free.
- Blackout shades or curtains: If your baby struggles to fall or stay asleep, it may be because they are just too interested in what is going on in their environment. Installing shades or curtains to block out light can help them focus on sleep rather than the toys, clothes, photos, and other things around the room. Blackout shades and curtains are available to provide even more light-blocking.
- White noise machine: Just as light can stimulate baby’s awareness, so can sound. That doesn’t mean you need to tiptoe around your house when baby is sleeping. Using a white noise machine or app that provides calming background noise can help baby block out the sounds of you talking, the television, or other things that may peak their interest during sleep. Baby sleep music that is calming can also help.
- Sticking to a schedule: Once baby has started to fall into a rhythm, around 3 or 4 months, try to come up with a baby sleep schedule that has built in naptimes and a consistent bedtime. Babies benefit from knowing what to expect during their day, even at this young age. Schedules that account for a baby’s natural sleep patterns work best, so pay attention to your baby’s sleep cues when thinking about scheduling naps and bedtime.
- Put baby to bed when they are sleepy: This sounds like common sense, but it is actually harder than it sounds. Many parents rock or feed their baby until they are sound asleep in their arms in the early days of parenthood. Continuing this practice can actually make it harder to baby to fall asleep later when they should be learning how to do it on their own. “This may become a pattern and your baby may begin to expect to be in your arms in order to fall asleep,” says Columbia University’s Department of Neurology. Putting baby down when they are sleepy but not yet asleep will help them learn to fall asleep on their own.
- Bedtime routine: Establishing a positive, comforting bedtime routine can help baby with sleep from the earliest days and has benefits all the way through their toddler and childhood years. A bedtime routine often includes a bath, reading a bedtime story, brushing teeth, and rocking in a chair. It can even include infant massage! Sticking to a consistent routine will signal to your baby that it is time for bed and sleep.
- Use a transition object: When baby is old enough (check with your pediatrician to know what age is right for your baby), you can introduce a small blanket or stuffed toy that they can take to bed. Give them the object at some point during the bedtime routine so that they can get comfort from it as they transition to sleep.
- Let baby cry: There are a lot of variations on the “cry it out” method—everything from patting them on the back as they cry to letting them cry in their room alone for hours until they fall asleep. Come up with a plan that works for your family and consult your pediatrician for their recommendations. The important thing is to be consistent with your plan to let baby learn how to self-soothe. It will take a while for baby to learn this new skill, no matter which approach you try.
- Keep baby upright after feeding: Many newborns will nurse or take a bottle before going down for a nap or bedtime. Try keeping baby upright and burping them for a few minutes after they are done eating. If they get gas trapped in their system, it can wake them up from otherwise restful sleep.
- Keep a journal: Knowing is half the battle, right? Record what times baby took naps, went down for bed, even what they did and ate that day. You may find a link between certain foods and baby’s sleep issues. Having this information available will help you and your pediatrician understand what may be causing baby’s sleep disruptions.
- Minimize major life changes: Variety is the spice of life, but it’s not always easy for a young baby to process these changes. If you have a major life event on the horizon—a move, birth of a new baby, adopting a pet—try to make the rest of baby’s world as consistent as possible. Too many changes at once can overwhelm a baby or toddler. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but whenever you can, keep consistency in baby’s routine.
- Work with a professional: Have you tried all the tricks and aren’t seeing any improvement in your baby’s sleep? Consider working with a professional trained in infant sleep training. They will be able to give you a personalized evaluation of baby’s sleeping environment, work with you to develop a routine, and address your concerns.
It’s important to know that some sleep disruptions in the early days of parenthood are normal. After all, adapting to the great wide world is a big thing for your newborn. If you are in the trenches of new parenthood, full of sleepless nights, you can rest easy knowing that things do get better.
In the meantime, try one of these tips to help your baby (and you) get a restful night’s sleep. You will both be counting sheep and getting your zzz’s in no time.
“Infant Reflux,” The Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infant-acid-reflux/symptoms-causes/syc-20351408
“Infant Sleep: What are the sleep needs of an infant?,” Columbia University Department of Neurology. http://www.columbianeurology.org/neurology/staywell/document.php?id=36578