It’s helpful to think of your baby’s sleep as a journey. As your baby grows and changes, so do their sleep needs. In this article I’ll go over the first three phases of your baby’s sleep journey that occur in the first 4-months of life.
No matter which sleep stage your newborn is at, safety always comes first. So before we go into each phase, here are some basic safety guidelines for putting your baby down to sleep for a naps or at night:
- Always place them down on their back.
- Use a firm, mattress with a well fitted sheet
- Clear the crib or sleeping space of blankets, toys, or sheets.
- Keep them sleeping in your room for the first 6 months.
- Swaddle them or dress them in a sleep sack. Watch for overheating, though, which is shown by flushed cheeks, damp hairlines, rapid breathing, or sweating.
Phase 1: Birth to 6-8 weeks
During this time your baby’s sleep may seem completely disorganized. This is with good reason; their circadian rhythms have not matured, they don’t yet know the difference between night and day and there is simply no pattern or schedule to their sleep. In fact, pretty much anything goes. A short 20min power nap or a longer 90 min nap – both are totally normal and expected. What’s important is to ensure your baby is feeding well and may be worth considering seeking help from a lactation consultant and or doula if needed.
It might sound crazy, but my first piece of advice is to enjoy this phase as much as possible! Enjoy every snuggle, every baby noise, don’t stress about schedules and most importantly know that you cannot spoil your baby, this time is all about bonding and getting to know each other. Your baby is simply not biologically ready to ‘be scheduled’ and cannot organize their sleep, so do whatever it takes to safely help your baby (and you) get as much rest as possible .
That said, there are a couple of things we can do to help your baby adjust to life outside of the womb in these early weeks that will help set them up for sleep success:
1.For fussy or unsettled babies, we want to try and spark their calming reflex, Dr Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s can be helpful to trigger soothing:
- S – Swaddle: A cozy swaddle (loose hips) can help mimic the womb.
- S – Side Position (while being held): Gently hold your baby on their side.
- S – Shush: White or brown noise or your own ‘Shush’ noise delivered at the same level as the crying mimics the sound of blood flow in the womb. (Demo this for the audience)
- S – Swing: Fast but tiny movements while supporting your baby’s head can help mimic the natural wiggle of being in the womb.
- S – Suck: Offer a pacifier, many babies will calm instantly when sucking.
2. For babies who are more awake at night vs during the day, the last thing you want to do is keep them awake for longer during the day. That will only deprive them of sleep and make them irritable. Instead keep the lights off during nighttime wakings and feedings, ensuring you keep any needed interactions minimal and calm. By 8 weeks this confusion will have passed.
Witching Hour or Purple Crying - Peaks between 3 and 5 months of age
If your baby seems fussy in the early evening, you could be experiencing ‘The Witching Hour’ or the ‘PURPLE Crying Period’. This crying often seems to come out of nowhere – and lasts as much as 5 hours a day. It can increase week over week, peaking at month two and tapering off from months 3-5. It is completely NORMAL and is experienced by many babies. Quite often the baby may appear to be in pain and resist soothing, but they most likely are not in pain.
My eldest went through this, I remember finding it so very tough to make dinner and try to pacify her. Dr Harvey Karp’s 5S’s can really help here. When the crying lasts a long-time it can be very frustrating. It’s ok if you need to put your baby down safely in their crib for a moment to take a mental break. I also recommend wearing your baby when possible and proactively enlisting the help of friends and relatives to give you a break. As hard as this is to deal with in the moment, know this too will pass.
Also, to soothe yourself, check out the mindfulness exercises in the Smart Sleep Coach app – they’re easy, effective “me time” moments that really help you feel confident and in control during these early days.
Phase 2: 6-8 weeks
Somewhere between 6-8 weeks, your baby will reach their first sleep milestone. You’ll notice their night sleep becoming more organized and you may see at least one overnight sleep stretch last a little longer (maybe as much as 4-6 hours). Physical signals that your baby is reaching the end of this phase of sleep are:
- Your baby knows the difference between day and night.
- The Witching Hour is starting to peak (perhaps with the exception of babies with colic).
- Their first social smile , this signals they are starting to make connections! This is HUGE, and seriously is there really anything better than seeing a baby react with a smile when you enter the room?
Now that we know your baby is making connections, they will be able to follow cues and we can start building a healthy sleep foundation, for that I recommend downloading the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ app, which can help guide you step by step to set up:
1. A consistent sleep nourishing environment.
Now is a good time to start getting them used to their crib, starting with naps, but is it also super important that the space your baby sleeps in is:
- Pitch dark – use blackout shades or curtains.
- Cool – 68°F (max 72°F). Many baby monitors offer relative room temperature and humidity readings.
- Quiet while maintaining a steady background noise. A white noise machine running at 50dB (the maximum level recommended by the AAP) is ideal.
2. Understanding and acting on their sleepy cues. About 45-mins after they wake up you might notice your baby:
- Rubbing their eyes
- Getting fussy
- Zoning out or their eyes kind of glaze over
- Pulling their ears
- Turning their head side to side
These are all signals your baby is tired and ready to sleep. Catching your baby when they give these signals should mean you can prepare them for sleep before they become overtired.
3. Introducing a consistent, soothing sleepy time routine.
Your goal here is to soothe your baby as a cue for them to fall asleep. The act of actually falling asleep is the baby’s job, and you want to reduce the use of anything the baby can’t do themselves to fall asleep, these could include props such as a stroller or car ride, things like rocking, bouncing or patting.
A good soothing routine can include a song, a story, a diaper change, a feeding, anything really – what is most important is that you:
1. Complete the routine before your baby falls asleep, you want to place your baby down drowsy but awake.
2. Keep the same steps in the same order each time and follow your baby’s cues to either speed up or cut short your routine as you see them becoming more tired.
There are no hard and fast rules here, but some tips that might help you along the way:
1. Remember your #1 goal is to avoid missing the window where they are ready to sleep, this will result in an overtired baby .
2. If your child becomes irritated during the routine, it could be a sign they just need to be put down (on their back) to sleep. Equally if you have followed the steps in your routine and your baby is calm this is a good opportunity to put them down (on their back) to sleep.
3. You don’t have to complete the routine, you can shorten each step or skip a few.
4. If you put your baby down (drowsy but awake) and they start crying, you can of course pick them up and soothe them – remember you cannot spoil your baby at this age.
5. You’re not on a ‘schedule’ – the sleep day may be erratic and nap lengths will still differ in length; you’re following your baby’s sleepy cues to manage their sleep.
6. This is a great opportunity to try out some ‘self-soothing’ this is a skill they have to learn. If they take an extra short nap, leave it a few mins and see if they put themselves back to sleep again.
Phase 3: 8-16 weeks
During this phase, you’re going to continue building on your healthy sleep foundation, by following their sleepy cues, delivering a consistent sleepy time routine and ensuring your baby sleeps in a safe, sleep nourishing environment.
As the weeks pass, you’ll notice your baby’s wake windows extending anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, bedtime will naturally move earlier, often between 6-7pm, and overnight sleep stretches will more consistently become longer. When your baby approaches 16-weeks and beyond you may start to notice a pattern of daytime sleep, this is because their circadian rhythms start to mature.
As your baby grows and develops each developmental progression can, and will, impact their sleep. Understanding when these changes are coming and what to look out for, will help you stay one step ahead of your baby’s sleep so you can confidently adjust how you support them and best foster healthy sleep habits.
Enjoy these first weeks and months, it is super precious time!