Newborn sleep – facts and good advice

Although a newborn baby sleeps most of the day, newborn sleep can become quite an ordeal during baby’s first weeks. We asked midwife Maria Sahlin to give her best advice to you as a new parent.

BABYBJÖRN Magazine – Newborn sleep: A father and newborn baby asleep on the couch.
Although newborns generally sleep a lot during the first weeks of life, their sleeping periods are short and irregular.
Photo: Johnér

You’re home from the delivery room with a tiny new member of the family. Joy over your new baby alternates with complete chaos. All routines have simply vanished: eating, sleeping and being awake at strange hours. 24 hours a day! Does anyone have an instruction manual on newborn sleep?

Maria Sahlin has worked as a midwife for many years and starts us off with some soothing advice.
“Don’t worry – it will get better. It’s completely natural that you feel overwhelmed and that things are a mess at first. But try to follow the baby’s rhythm during these first weeks. Enter the baby bubble, take one day at a time and go with the flow!”

How much does a newborn sleep?

During the first few weeks, newborn babies are asleep more than they are awake. A baby’s sleep needs are, on average, between 16 and 22 hours per 24-hour period. It varies a lot among babies, but it can also vary from day to day for the same baby.

Enter the baby bubble, take one day at a time and go with the flow.

“As a new parent, you might think that you’ve found a routine at the beginning. But it’s common that this changes frequently. The duration of your baby’s sleep periods can also change. On some days their waking and sleeping times are longer, and on other days your baby might sleep more but for shorter periods of time,” explains Maria.

Newborn sleep periods are short

A newborn baby usually sleeps around 18-20 hours a day. This sounds like a comfortable existence for new parents, doesn’t it? But then why do many new parents experience such a lack of sleep in the early days?
“It probably has to do with the duration of the sleep periods. A newborn sleeps for a while, is awake for a while and then falls asleep again. And it can be this way around the clock during the first few weeks. Eventually the baby will adapt to ‘our’ circadian rhythm, remaining awake for longer periods of time during the day and sleeping for several hours at night,” says Maria.

Follow your baby’s pace in the early stages.

Just as with adults, a baby’s sleep is made up of different cycles of deep and light sleep.

“A newborn does not sleep deeply all the time, but instead switches between sleeping deeply, being drowsy and sleeping lightly. In between, the baby is either awake and lively, alert and cranky, or screaming and crying.”

Feelings of hunger and being full control how a newborn sleep.

In the first few weeks, food and sleep dominate the newborn’s world. Eating takes a lot of energy, making your baby tired and so making them fall asleep. And when they wake up again, hunger is often the cause.

More on breastfeeding and hardships the first months

Newborn babies sleep according to their own internal clock and fall asleep when they need to. A change usually takes place around 4-7 weeks, when your baby begins to become curious about its surroundings and may sometimes need to be soothed to fall asleep.

Newborns follow their sleep rhythm from the womb

So much of everything that happens when a baby is born is cleverly designed by nature. But the fact that newborn babies have a different circadian rhythm than their parents is less ingenious. No one is really sure why.

“Newborns tend to stick with the sleep pattern they had in the womb, sometimes a week after birth, sometimes up to several months. Almost all babies in the womb are more awake and active during the late evening and night, and sleep soundly during early morning and morning,” explains Maria.

Naturally, this poses a challenge for many new parents.

Newborns have a different circadian rhythm than their parents – not so ingenious.

“Of course, it feels frustrating when your baby is awake when you want to sleep. But be patient when it comes to sleep – your baby will gradually begin to sleep longer through the night. A one-year-old will definitely have outgrown their newborn sleep cycle.

There’s no user manual to follow when it comes to newborn sleep,” concludes Maria. But she’s happy to share some good pieces of advice and tips for new parents.

BABYBJÖRN Magazine – Newborn sleep: A father kissing his newborn baby on the head.
Pamper your newborn baby with closeness. It makes your baby feel calm and secure, and it promotes bonding.

9 tips on newborn sleep

  1. Understand the transition your newborn has gone through. Being born is probably the most traumatic experience of our lives. From being safe and snug in the womb and constantly nourished, newborn babies must suddenly be able to breathe on their own, be able to scream and give signals when hungry. This adaptation needs to take its time.
  2. Get prepared and think positively. Try to prepare yourself mentally that the early days will be tough when it comes to sleeping. That’s just how it is for most new parents. Try to think positively instead and be grateful for the hours of sleep you actually do get. As new parents, we get a kick from certain hormones and can manage a lack of sleep during those early days better than we think.
  3. Let your newborn set the pace. Don’t expect that your baby will instantly adapt to your own circadian rhythm. Instead, follow your baby’s pace. One day is usually never like the next. After a difficult night, the next night will likely get a little easier.
  4. Try to sleep when your baby sleeps. Most newborns sleep soundly during the early morning and morning hours. Try to rest when the baby rests too. Turn off your cellphone and alarm clock.
  5. Respect and accept change. An awful lot happens throughout the first year of a baby’s development, so it’s quite natural that the baby’s sleep patterns change. One week your newborn might sleep well and the next week a little worse. That’s completely normal.
  6. Make the difference between day and night clear. Commit yourself to an evening routine that you do at the same time every day. Perhaps a bath and baby massage, soft lighting and quiet music. Keep it dark and quiet at night, don’t turn the lights on unnecessarily and don’t put on the TV or loud music. Don’t change diapers unnecessarily; try to change only poop diapers at night. And avoid turning on the lights and talking loudly when nursing or feeding.
  7. Take turns sleeping. If you have a partner, share the burden and create a sleeping schedule. If you have more children at home, help each other out and take turns being awake with the older kids and sleeping with the newborn.
  8. Carry your newborn close. Your newborn baby needs a lot of closeness during the first weeks. Spoiling your baby with closeness is impossible. Instead it makes your baby feel calm and secure, and it promotes bonding.
  9. Be patient. Your baby’s circadian rhythm will change. A one-year-old will definitely have outgrown their newborn sleep cycle. Remember that everyone is different and develops at different rates, even newborns. Infancy is a short period in life, so try not to lose perspective.

Who needs sleep anyway? Michelle’s story on 4 years of broken sleep



Maria Sahlin

Works as: A midwife. “I love my job! I get to be there and share life’s greatest event – the birth of a baby. It feels like a huge privilege.”
Family: Husband Frederik and three girls, Olivia, Molly and Elvira
Interests: My family, travel, skiing and being out on the lake.