Sleep patterns for new-born babies to 16 weeks

Unlock the secrets of baby sleep patterns for newborns to 16 weeks with Dorothy Waide, one of New Zealand’s leading sleep consultants and baby whisperers.

Every book you read, every expert you ask, and society in itself are all keen to tell parents when a baby should sleep how long for and everyone has a different answer. My answer is this, as adults we all have different sleep patterns, we know how to fall asleep and stay asleep and resettle ourselves if we wake. And how do we know? We learnt how to do it.   

If we apply this to our new-born babies, we understand that they are all going to have different sleep needs and therefore different ways to fall asleep and resettle but at the end of the day, it will all work out.

With both of these thoughts in mind, in my experience I have found that it is good to have guidelines and then work within those to suit your family’s needs. While some parents are happy to be up all night, chronic sleep deprivation for most is entirely debilitating and when lack of sleep for both parent and baby is causing issues, it really is time to look at doing something different.

My philosophy is simply taking the best bits from both the extreme left and right, shaking it up and using what works best for your own situation. I repeat, you may end up doing things a little differently from other parents, and that is your choice as a parent. You know your baby best and doing what works for you will be best for your family unit.

My work is holistic which simply means working with the family and their personal situation and meeting their needs rather than insisting on a set way to do things.

The Importance of Routines and Safe Practises 

When working with babies, it is important to address both food and sleep. To keep things simple, I often say babies need three nutrients – sleep, food and love. If they sleep well, they feed well and if they feed well, they sleep well and if we think of these three nutrients as a triangle, at the top is love.

In this blog we are going to talk through the most common questions I get asked about sleep for new-born’s to 16 weeks. 

The Common Baby Sleep Questions & Topics I am Asked About

  1. Yes, ALL babies are serial catnappers – it is important to understand that babies do not get the tools on board until 12 to 16 weeks to self-soothe and resettle so catnapping is part of being a baby. It is what we do to show them how to fall asleep and stay asleep that matters during these first few weeks.
  2. Yes, it is normal for new-born’s to want to sleep on a body. This is why 0 to 12 weeks is called the 4th trimester. While you are adapting to no sleep or broken sleep, your new-born is also finding their way and will find comfort being close to your body.
  3. Will I spoil my baby by holding my baby and allowing my baby to sleep on me?  Absolutely NOT however, it is what you do in arms that will help you make the transition into the cot when you are ready, meaning small movements on your baby’s body and keeping your body still like a mattress. Remember whatever you do in arms you want to be able to replicate in a cot. 
  4. Yes, ‘routines’ start from the time of your baby’s birth – they cry, you respond, you feed, burp and change, swaddle and sleep.  A ‘clock-face’ routine tends to happen when they are much older and have the tools to settle and resettle. It’s generally around 16 weeks that I would look to notice a consistency in their morning wake time, working 30 minutes either side of this – if you were wanting to follow a clock-face routine.
  5. How important is a good evening routine? In these first week’s a good evening routine is the consistency in what you do in their last wake cycle of the day, meaning you feed, bath, feed and then bed, hopefully for the night. The time they go to bed in the beginning will differ widely from say 5pm to 9pm at night. As the weeks pass and they gain their sleep ‘tools’, you’ll find you naturally head towards a more ‘normal’ bedtime.    
  6. Feeding to sleep – yes, if this is something both you and your baby enjoy. Remember it’s a choice, not a ‘you should’ or ‘you shouldn’t’. My only note is this, if you are still feeding an older baby to sleep, please don’t go cold turkey and stop. In my experience, it’s often a slow process to go from feeding to sleep to not feeding and can be distressing for baby to suddenly go without.
  7. Dummies – Yes, it’s a good tool AND yes, most babies won’t suck and keep a dummy in their mouth to begin with.  This is normal. WHY? When you put a boob into their mouth you are physically supporting them to stay on, same as with a bottle. When you first offer a dummy, you will need to offer gentle support to keep it there. It is important not to ‘plug’ your baby with a dummy though as this method will likely see you doing night runs when your baby is older. And again, don’t go cold turkey getting rid of the dummy when the baby is older. Take small steps by not ‘plugging’ baby as soon as they get into the cot but offer as part of their self-settling tools.
  8. Should I swaddle? Safe swaddling is a comfort to many babies. With safe swaddling, they have freedom to move their hips and legs and they can do small startle movements with their arms. If your baby cannot do little startle movements within the swaddle or the swaddle restricts their leg movement, it becomes an unsafe swaddle.
  9. Bedsharing – Yes, this is awesome but suits some and not others, it’s a personal choice for families to make. Please read up on safe bedsharing practices before you venture into this.
  10. My baby grunts and makes weird noises overnight – yes, for some babies this is normal and it’s also reassuring for some to hear these noises when baby is asleep.
  11. Overnight waking – new-born’s can wake from 90 minutes to longer overnight. I always resettle as babies tend to wake overnight for reassurance and not always for feeding, especially as they get older. Though always remember you cannot resettle a hungry baby or one in pain.  
  12. Should we ‘dream feed’? In my experience this is false economy as you are picking up a baby that is sleeping and therefore interrupting their deep sleep. It is tough in those first 16 weeks but try and let your baby dictate when they need food overnight rather than you disturb their sleep. As long as your baby has regained their birth weight, has both wet and poo nappies, then my motto is never to wake a sleeping baby. When your baby is six months old you will likely be told to drop the dream feed however your baby may not be obliging.
  13. Do I need to change their nappy overnight? I tend to feed at night with a dim light on and always do a ‘full feed’ when they wake for feeding, meaning a full feed, nappy change, continue feeding and then back to bed. If you do short quick feeds then you may end up feeding more overnight rather than doing a good feed to begin with.
  14. Do I have to sleep in the same room as the baby? This is recommended, however again it is your personal choice – if you are in separate rooms, having white noise on in their room overnight is useful as this replaces your baby hearing you sleeping. Keep it low volume though.
  15. Is there such thing as the witching hour? – Yes, days can be long for our little ones but take time to look at how well you have looked after yourself during the day. Supplements are worth looking into if you’re not as nourished as you could be and also, I find a protein shake in the afternoon can help. Remember what you eat goes into your baby’s milk so good diet is important.
  16. Crying is normal – crying is communication for babies, think of this communication as their ‘words’ and remember with ‘words’ we always stop, listen and act. But inconsolable crying is not normal – your baby is telling you something and your job is to figure it out.   ‘
  17. Snack feeding, is it such a thing? – The short answer is NO. It’s true that some babies are always on the breast but it’s important to note, always start a wake cycle with a full feed. See note about gastric emptying above.

Understanding Naps and Wake Cycles

General guidelines for wake cycles (feed, change, play, feed)

  • 0 to 6 weeks – 45 minutes to 1 hour
  • 6 to 12 weeks – 1 hour to 1 ½ hours
  • 16 weeks – 2 hours

Naps are short sleeps in between wake cycles and know it is the nap rhythm that dictates how often they feed. Gastric emptying of a breastfeeding baby after 120 minutes is 16% to 18%. With bottle fed babies it varies – this gives you an idea of why your baby is hungry often.

Naps can range from 20 minutes to 3 hours. If your baby wakes before 45 minutes, I always suggest resettling and for the first 16 weeks it is easier to resettle a baby in arms than a cot.  It is also easier to resettle a young baby before they wake fully – once a young baby wakes and is fully awake it is harder to resettle. If you can’t resettle, then begin the next wake cycle starting with a feed.

At around 6 weeks, your baby will begin to take stock of the world so you may notice a change in sleep patterns, it’s a wonderful time when you notice them noticing you and their surroundings and best to continue with your efforts to help baby learn to self-settle and resettle as your move through this time. And around 16 weeks, baby’s sleep process will change again, moving from ‘baby sleeping’ to ‘big people sleeping’, if they haven’t learnt how to self-settle or resettle for sleep, then you may experience an increase in night-waking or more unsettled napping. Sometimes this can also be a hunger sign for bigger babies too.

Trusting Your Parenting Instincts

Above all, remember that you will know your baby best. You are your infant’s baby whisperer. Not me, or any other baby specialist or baby help book. At best, our experience helps us to be a temporary co-pilot. You need to find the rhythm that best suits you and your family using guidelines as a basic framework to help you make your decisions. If you are worried about your baby, please reach out to your medical professional and seek help. Good sleep, good feeding and love go a long way to helping you teach your little one the tools they need to thrive.