Tips for a restful night with a new baby
3/16/2023 by Marcia O'Brien, M.D.
Tending to your baby 24/7 can be exhausting. Developing just a few skills can be beneficial to ensure adequate rest for everyone in the household to thrive and survive.
At birth and for the first several months, babies have no perception of daylight/darkness. Adults tend to function better when they sleep in the darkness and are mostly awake and active in the daytime. As new parents or caregivers, setting the schedule and getting enough sleep is going to be up to you. The key is to get your baby to sleep when you need to sleep. While a nap in the daytime when baby is napping can be helpful, the majority of sleep should happen at night for adults and babies.
Babies need their own sleep space
For the first few months, putting a crib or bassinet in proximity to where parents or caregivers sleep can help reduce disruption. However, this needs to be reevaluated as the baby gets older. Many families have a bassinet or crib in the parents' room when they bring their baby home. During the daytime or when parents or caregivers are awake, it's important to have babies sleep in their own room if the long-term plan is for the baby to be sleeping there.
Babies make a lot of noise when they sleep
Sometimes this normal baby noise disrupts parents and caregivers and leads to sleep deprivation and disruption for the adult. Moving the baby farther from the parent's bedroom might be appropriate. Some parents or caregivers need to have babies sleep in their own room with a baby monitor to allow everyone to get adequate rest. These monitors allow parents to hear and see what is going on without the baby being aware that they are there, which can have advantages. Babies like their parents and caregivers. Sometimes they cry and carry on simply because they want to see you. Before responding to the noises by picking the baby up, verify that they are really awake and need something. Allow your baby the opportunity to try to self-soothe and go back to sleep.
Teaching babies to fall asleep in their own bed is very important
While there is nothing more rewarding than holding a sleeping baby, they do need to learn to sleep in their own bed. Ideally, when babies are well fed, have a clean diaper, are sleepy but are not yet asleep, place them in their crib or bassinet and allow them to fall asleep on their own. In allowing a baby to fall asleep in their own bed, you reinforce that they can go to sleep without you. This is the first independence skill a baby needs to learn for the family survival. This allows babies to know that if they wake up and do not have a need, they can simply go back to sleep when there isn't another need for a caregiver response.
Pacifiers can help with self-soothing and can aid infants in falling asleep
In the middle of the night as baby is stirring, a caregiver can help assist the infant by simply replacing a pacifier without other touch to see if this alone is enough to allow baby to fall back to sleep. If caregivers hold the baby until they are asleep and then transfer back to bed, the baby never learns to go to sleep alone. Instead, they cry then are picked up and put back to sleep. The longer this process goes on and the older the child, the longer and harder this will be to stop. Most infants by 6 months should have a six to eight hour sleep stretch.
All humans seem to do better with a schedule or routine
Keeping the same routine trains the adult and baby to optimize sleep. Most people get restorative sleep as the first sleep after getting into bed for the night. By 2 months old, infants will start to have a longer sleep stretch, typically about four to six hours. Matching this longer stretch for baby with parent sleep optimizes the restorative sleep for the adults in the home. Most of the time this stretch happens as the first sleep of the night. This might require parents to have an earlier bedtime. Sharing or alternating the night responsibilities between caregivers allows all of the caregivers to have enough rest to function the next day, especially in the first weeks to months of the baby's life when the number of sleep disruptions is highest.
When responding to infant needs in the nighttime/darkness, keep the lighting low
Learn to work in the dark with indirect light. Diaper, feed, back to bed — as efficiently as possible. Avoid loud noises and a lot of talking. Keep the TV, mobile devices and screens off, as this light is disruptive to you and to baby. Change the baby's diaper before feeding and/or in the middle of the feed. After burping your baby and before the baby is soundly sleeping again, put your baby back in bed, pop a pacifier in baby's mouth and allow your child to fall asleep in their bed alone. Avoid staying up and playing or socializing with your baby during the night hours when you would be sleeping.
Keeping comfortable is important
People do not like to be too cold or too hot. Your baby's room temperature should be comfortable. Cover babies with the same number of layers as you are comfortable sleeping with. Swaddle babies for as long as they seem comfortable with it. Somewhere around 2 months, babies are typically done with the swaddling process, and usually by 4 months, they will start to roll over. There are sleep sacks or strap-on blankets that can be used to avoid layering on piles of blankets. These strap-on or sleep sacks are a natural progression from a swaddling blanket. Keeping your baby cool also has an advantage at decreasing the incidence of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome. Strap-on blanketing is better than regular blankets until about age 1.
Laying babies on their backs to sleep is recommended to decrease SIDS
As soon as your baby is rolling over, your job remains in putting them in bed lying on their back to sleep. If your baby rolls onto their stomach you should not worry about this or try to prop or position them to keep them from rolling. Keep the baby's crib boring — no toys or stuffed animals.
Marcia O'Brien, M.D., is a physician in the Department of Family Medicine at Mayo Family Clinic Northeast in Rochester. She practices the full spectrum of family medicine, including hospital medicine, newborn nursery and obstetrics care.