If you’re on the same boat as I was, back when I was a frazzled new mom, how to make your baby sleep longer at night is maybe your top priority now. Because it’s making you crazy that they wake up every 2-3 hours. Which means, you also wake up every 2-3 hours. The extreme lack of sleep sometimes makes me think of animals, eating their young.
Kidding aside, I know what it feels like. And I don’t want you to go nuts like me. I’ve researched everything I can to find out how to make your baby sleep longer and even I wished someone told me some of the tips here, particularly the last one.
But first, let’s understand the basics of a newborn’s sleep.
How Much Sleep Do Newborns Need
According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns (0-3 months) are recommended to have a total sleep of 14-17 hours. That’s the total sleep they need at night and during naps.
However, most, if not all, will only sleep for only one to three hours at a time.
Why Doesn’t a Newborn Sleep Through The Night
There are a few reasons for this. One is, because they want to torture you. Kidding aside, I think it’s important for new parents to understand the possible reasons why your baby can’t sleep yet through the night.
Newborns need to wake up more often to feed.
One is because newborns have a small and developing stomach. They can’t hold that much food yet and will have to wake up frequently to feed. So they might usually just sleep for 1 to 3 hours at a time. Breastfed babies wake up more often, as breastmilk is less filling than formula milk and is digested more quickly.
Newborns don’t have a developed circadian rhythm
Think of the circadian rhythm as the internal 24-hour master body clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
Exposure to light during the daytime tells your internal master clock – your circadian rhythm – to send signals to your body to stay alert, awake and active.
At night, since it’s dark, your circadian rhythm now tells your body to produce melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, which helps and keeps us asleep through the night.
Newborns haven’t regulated their circadian rhythm yet. In a mother’s womb, a fetus depends on their mother’s internal cues about day and night. When the mother is active, a fetus’ heart speeds up. When the mother is sleeping, their heart and respiratory rate slows down. Mothers also pass their melatonin through the placenta, directing the fetus’ internal clock.
But after birth, that connection is obviously broken and newborns have no choice, but to develop their circadian rhythm.
In short, they don’t know the difference between day and night. They don’t know yet that it’s time to sleep at night and time to wake up and stay alert during the day.
A newborn’s sleep cycle is much shorter
Another reason is, a newborn’s sleep cycles are so much shorter, compared to adults. Each cycle for adults takes about 90 to 120 minutes. For a newborn, it can only last for less than an hour.
Half of a newborn’s sleep cycle is spent on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is needed for making neural connections, processing information, brain development and is also associated with developing coping skills. However, that’s also the stage where newborns are more easily awakened.
For most adults, we can easily go back to sleep when we wake up in the middle of the night. For newborns, that’s still a skill they have yet to learn.
They could be gassy, colicky or ill
It could be a number of other things. If your baby has been crying inconsolably at night, check out the possible reasons why they’re crying so much here.
Now that we’ve gone through the usual reasons why newborns don’t sleep through the night, let’s go over the tips on how to make your baby sleep longer at night.
How To Make Your Baby Sleep Longer At Night
Help them to know the difference between night and day.
During daytime, keep things bright and active – turn on the lights, open the curtains, play some music, play games with them.
At night, keep it quiet, dim the lights, close the curtains, play a white noise, cuddle with them.
Doing this consistently will help set your newborn’s circadian rhythm. Doing the same routine every day and night will signal to your newborn that it’s time to wake up during the day and time to sleep during the night.
It will eventually regulate their internal body clock, making sure to send signals to keep them awake and alert during the day and to produce sleep hormones during night time.
Follow the wake-eat-play-sleep cycle
Feed them first when they wake up. Interact and play with your baby for at least an hour to keep them awake, then put them down for their nap. Try to establish this cycle as early as possible.
Your baby will have the most energy after waking up, thereby making it easier for him or her to take full feedings. It’s a great way to make sure they get as many calories during the day as much as possible and hopefully, wake up less to feed during the night.
This cycle also prevents your baby from becoming dependent on getting milk to help them sleep.
You can however, dreamfeed them once or twice for bedtime, if they need it.
Setup a proper environment for sleeping.
As much as possible, keep the room dark, cool (but not too cold) and quiet.
If it’s too bright, setup heavy curtains to block the sunlight. If it’s too dark for you to see, especially when you need to change their diapers during a dream feed, get a night light.
We have some upstairs neighbours who frequently make some ruckus, doing god-knows-what, so I pretty much turn on the white noise the whole night to drown it out.
It has been working for my little one since she was a newborn and it might also work for yours.
Make sure they’re getting enough naps during the day
Sleep deprived babies will sleep less, not more, so make sure to give them a chance to nap frequently.
During the first to eight weeks, they won’t be able to stay awake much longer than 2 hours at a time. If they stay awake beyond that, they will get overtired, fussy and will have trouble falling asleep.
The ideal awake time for them will be at least 60 minutes, after which, you have to get them ready for a nap.
But don’t make them nap for longer than 2 hours.
This will be hard to do initially, especially during the early weeks. But try as much as you can to prevent longer naps during the day, so they can go have a longer sleep during the night.
You can gently wake them up by opening the curtains, exposing them to sunlight, changing their clothes, etc. Do anything you can to wake them up if they’ve been napping for longer than 2 to 2.5 hours.
Bottom line is, make them nap frequently but limit the length of their nap, to encourage them to sleep longer at night.
Learn your baby’s tired signals
Over time, you’ll soon learn your baby’s sleep nuances and patterns and you will eventually get a sense when they’re getting sleepy for their nap or for bedtime.
Newborns will usually rub their eyes and pull on their ears when they’re getting tired and sleepy. Try to put them to sleep as soon as possible when you see their tired signals.
Establish a routine
One of the ways to help your baby get into the groove of sleeping at night and waking up and staying alert during the day is by having a routine.
Babies and toddlers alike thrive on routine. Even adults too! For kids, it makes them feel safe and secure in their environment and gives them an understanding of every day procedures and events – what comes next, what should they expect after doing an activity, etc.
When you do the routines consistently and long enough, your newborn will eventually learn the difference between day and night and when they should be sleeping.
Your wake-up routine can include feeding your baby first then interacting with them – talk to them, play with them, read to them, etc.
A pre-nap routine can involve closing the curtains, turning off the lights, turning on the white noise, giving them cuddles and saying words like, “It’s time to take your nap. I love you, have a good sleep.”
A bedtime routine can start an hour before putting your baby to sleep. It can include a warm bath, feeding them, a bedtime story, closing the curtains, turning off the lights, turning on the white noise, cuddling and swaddling them and saying to your newborn, “It’s time to sleep. Goodnight, I love you, sweet dreams.”
Do the exact routine every time so your baby will learn the cues for wake time, nap time and bedtime.
Put them to bed drowsy
Don’t wait until your baby is fully asleep in your arms – put them to bed when they’re on the verge of falling asleep. Doing so will encourage independent sleep and will teach your baby to soothe themselves to sleep.
This was one of the tips that I wished I read early on. I would always wait for my baby then to fall asleep in my arms and gingerly put her in the crib, hoping she wouldn’t wake up.
It took so many ninja moves and maneuvers to make sure that she’s still fast asleep when I put her down. It eventually became a struggle for the both of us when she wakes up at night, as she can’t soothe herself to fall back to sleep and she’d always need me to carry her to sleep.
You have to encourage this early on so they can start to learn how to settle themselves the soonest time possible.
I took an antenatal class a few months before giving birth and they taught us to swaddle using muslin blankets. Which was the worst idea ever. The blanket will always unravel and I was always fearful that it would cover my baby’s face when I’m sleeping.
Getting the type of zippered or adjustable swaddles was the best decision I’ve made in that very short but very tiring newborn phase, EVER. It was so easy to put it on, easy to take of when my newborn then needed a diaper change plus, it made my baby feel so safe and secure that she would be able to sleep for hours and I have peace of mind, knowing that this type of swaddle wont’ cover my baby’s face.
This is probably the best purchase you can ever make for your baby and for you, to keep your sanity during the newborn phase. I swear to god, I couldn’t send enough mental thank you’s to whoever thought of this brilliant thing. I think I actually cried a bit and rubbed that golden swaddle on my cheeks, whispering my eternity of thanks. Until sleep regression hit my baby but I digress.
Dream feed before you go to sleep at night
There’s no scientific studies yet on how effective dream feeding is but most parents swear by this method.
Dream feed basically means gently waking up your newborn to feed, then putting them back to sleep after at night. You do this before you go to sleep yourself.
This might go against the wake-feed-play-sleep cycle but then again, this technique will help to keep your baby sleep longer at night.
Most parents also advise to do this only until a certain age, as it can disrupt your baby’s sleep and encourage more nighttime wakings.
You can try dream feeding your baby by 11pm (before you go to sleep). You can try to stop dream feeding when they’re between 3 to 4 months old.
Change your baby’s diaper before a dream feed.
If possible, change your baby’s diaper BEFORE a dream feed. Doing it after a dream feed might wake up your baby too much and they might struggle to go back to sleep.
If you notice that they will usually poop right after a dream feeding, then try changing their diaper at least, 30 minutes after dream feeding them.
Remember to use overnight diapers to avoid diaper leaks. Read more tips on changing diapers, especially at night here.
This was probably another mistake I’ve made with my little one. I was always rushing in to help her settle down. She has never learned how to soothe herself back to sleep, even now as a toddler.
Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Don’t rush in to settle your baby when you hear them crying or waking up. Most of the time, they will babble or cry briefly while still asleep.
Give your baby the opportunity to learn how to soothe themselves to sleep. It will encourage independent sleep, which will greatly help them in the long run.
Manage your expectations
Another advice that I wished I heard much more often, other than other sleeping techniques, was managing my expectations about my baby’s sleep.
This is the most important technique you have to learn. Well, in parenting really and life in general.
I realized, that’s the ultimate reason why I’m so frustrated and why I get so cranky when my baby doesn’t sleep longer at night. I get exasperated because I expect that, when I do this sleeping technique and I follow it to a tee, that she would magically fall asleep and sleep longer.
I was expecting my then newborn, who’s struggling to self soothe, who doesn’t even know yet the difference between night and day, to be able to sleep well and longer at night, just because I tried some baby sleeping technique from an article/ facebook group/ forum.
That was the root of the problem then, my expectations. Also because I kept comparing myself and my baby to other families.
When I hear of moms with 3 kids and more and all the kids can self-soothe or they can sleep with no problems, I used to think that, maybe I’m just a bad mom. I’m doing something wrong, I’m not doing it right, maybe this sleeping tactic is not working, maybe I should try another one.
And unfortunately, I also thought then that maybe something was wrong with my baby and how lucky are those moms with babies who can sleep longer and settle themselves to sleep.
I wished I could turn back time and slap myself in the face.
If only I learned how to manage my expectations about my newborn’s sleep I think even without knowing half of the sleeping techniques here, I would have been a happier mom during that phase.
Your baby could be suffering from reflux, could be gassy, could be colicky or a dozen other things, making it difficult for them to sleep at night. You could try every sleeping technique you’ve read and heard and all of it might not work.
Just let it go. Let go of any expectations. And probably, just only have this one expectation instead – someday you will have a decent sleep again. Just not now. So suck it up. Just for now.
Did that last tip make you want to throw the computer across the room? Extreme thought but I know I would feel that way. I would recommend internalizing the last tip first, before trying out the other ones. That would greatly help with your psyche and would make you less of a frustrated, cranky mom.
But I sincerely hope these tips will work for your baby. I know how it feels and believe me, no amount of “it will pass, just enjoy this phase, sleep when the baby sleeps, yadayadayada” advice can help.
Let me know if you’ve tried some of the tips above and if they worked for you.
(Quick note: I also Newborn Care Basics For The First 3 Months For First-Time Parents, which I hope you’ll find helpful.)