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Just like all areas of a child’s growth, newborns move through stages with their sleep. Initially, they alternate between sleep and wakefulness every 3 to 4 hours in response to hunger, and eventually they arrive at a sleep pattern like that of an adult.

Feeding and sleeping

Initially, babies alternate between sleep and wakefulness every 3 to 4 hours in response to hunger. Therefore, feeding and sleeping can’t be separated.

A hungry baby will be a wakeful baby, so making sure that feeds are efficient and sustaining is important to ensure baby is having a restful sleep.

Stopping the snack and snooze cycle

Newborns can get into a ‘snack and snooze’ cycle. They’re overtired, so can’t take a whole feed. They fall asleep part way through the feed, and then wake up after a short sleep. If they keep dropping off to sleep, parents can try to take them off the breast or bottle, and start again once they’re awake.

A playtime of about 20 minutes is probably enough for a newborn at the end of a feed. Watching for tired signs is important, but can be a bit tricky. Jerky movements, opening and closing fists, grizzling, yawning or straight out crying are all tell-tale tired signs in a young baby.

Types of tired crying

Once they’re in their bed, crying is a legitimate sign in its own right that the baby is tired, and not necessarily a signal for mum or dad to go back in and comfort them.

Often the baby will be asleep in 10 minutes. However, 10 minutes of ‘full on’ crying can be stressful for a young baby (let alone new parents), so listening to the type of cry baby is making before going in to comfort them might be helpful.

Often the cry becomes a grizzle, which will soon stop. However, if the cry is ‘winding up’, baby may need to be resettled. Wrapping them firmly can help to avoid them ‘startling’ and waking themselves up.

The importance of dreaming

Dreaming is crucial to a baby’s development. Babies have much more rapid eye movement (REM), or ‘dream’ sleep, than adults – before a baby is born, it’s their main sleep state and when they're a newborn, 50% of sleep is REM sleep, while it’s only 20% of an adult’s sleep.

Learning to self-soothe

Young babies wake more often, and until they learn to soothe themselves back to sleep, they might have trouble re-settling.

Sucking has a soothing effect for the very young, so having access to their fingers and hands or a pacifier (dummy) may be a starting place for them learning to self-soothe. Some sleep ‘problems’ can start with a baby never having learned to soothe themselves, only ever relying on parents to calm them.

Safe sleep

Sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) happens when babies die suddenly and unexpectedly in their sleep. For some babies, the cause of death is never found but the Ministry of Health tells us that, in baby’s first 6 months, most of these deaths are preventable if safe sleep routines are followed.

Sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) | Tākai

Other resources

Dr. Nicole Letourneau: Keys to caregiving video - building babies' brains through everyday interactions(external link)

Baby sleep and settling | Ministry of Health(external link)

Sleep: newborn to 3 months | Whānau Āwhina Plunket(external link)

Helping young children sleep better | Ministry of Health(external link)

National SUDI Prevention online training | Hāpai Te Hauora Māori Public Health (external link)

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