Ask any new parent how they’re feeling, and you’ll hear every emotion from pure joy to sheer exhaustion. Navigating feeding and sleeping often requires a lot of nuance, so it’s no surprise that early parenthood is an overwhelming time.
And it turns out even the babies are trying to adjust to their new normal, said Dr. Ann Pittoni-Condon, a pediatrician at Novant Health Pediatrics Denver. (Most parents know her as Dr. Annie Condon, so we’ll refer to her as that.)
“When babies are born, they’re essentially nocturnal. Unlike owls, who stay that way, infants can change, but they are naturally born with day and night confusion,” Condon said.
While babies are in the womb, the environment is warm and dark. As Condon explained it, when moms move around during the day, the babies are essentially rocked to sleep. But when their mom lays down, the baby starts wondering, “What’s going on? Why isn’t Mommy moving?”
“After nine months in a lovely sleep environment where they’re being rocked to sleep during the day, their brains anticipate that same thing when they’re first born,” she said.
Condon, a pediatrician of 20 years, shared eight valuable insights for parents to keep in their back pocket as they navigate their baby’s first few months of life.
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1. All babies are unique.
Some babies seem to figure out the difference between day and night very quickly. Others take longer. Take adults, for instance. Some have no problem meeting new people or adjusting to a new schedule, and others feel very intimidated by change. Infants are the same way. I always remind parents to be patient.
2. When possible, keep your newborn on a schedule.
During the day, when the sun is out, try to keep your newborn on a schedule. Most infants sleep between 18 and 20 hours a day, but that happens in small increments. Infants typically feed about every two to three hours. So, if it’s been more than three hours since your newborn has fed, gently wake the baby, talk to them, feed them, burp them, love them – that type of stuff. But you don’t have to keep the baby stimulated all day long. When they’re napping, give them a cool, dark, and safe environment in which to rest.
3. Don’t be ‘interesting’ at night.
Once breastfeeding is well-established, I tell parents not to stimulate the baby at night. If that baby wakes on demand and they're hungry, meet their needs, but don't be interesting. Keep the lights dim and stimulate the baby as little as possible. Feed them, burp them, change them, and then place the baby back down to signal, ‘Yes, we love you. Your needs have been met. But now it's time to rest.’ Don’t talk to the baby, just meet their physical and emotional needs.
4. Expect inconsistency.
If your baby sleeps five or six hours one night, congratulations! You've done an amazing job. Enjoy it because the same thing may not happen tomorrow. Some babies learn faster, and others can't figure out their sleep schedule until they're between four to six months old. It all kind of depends on their metabolism and their need to eat.
5. You may find that girls are better sleepers.
There’s no scientific evidence behind this, but it’s what I’ve found in my 20 years of experience in talking with parents. Baby girls, for some reason, seem to get the nighttime thing better than baby boys. Of course, there will always be exceptions. However, I’ve found that moms come in say, ‘My goodness. My son wants to eat every two or three hours. My daughter wasn’t like this. Why won’t he sleep?’
I reassure parents: Boys just seem to wake up more often at night to eat. This is very normal. But girls usually figure it out before the boys can. No bias there, of course (laughs).
6. Formula-fed babies may sleep in longer stretches.
Breast milk is easier to digest and, therefore, more quickly digested. It's not so much that a formula-fed baby is able to figure out their sleep schedule faster, it's that their metabolic needs are different. Formula is more slowly metabolized, so you may find those babies can sleep in longer stretches. I liken it to eating a big Thanksgiving meal.
Breast milk, however, protects children against a variety of diseases and ailments. Evidence shows breastfed babies have a decreased incidence of asthma, leukemia, diabetes, ear and upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, atopic dermatitis (eczema), celiac disease, childhood obesity, and others.
7. Colic can make bedtime tougher.
Colic – a frequent, prolonged and intense crying or fussiness in a healthy infant – can interfere with the sleep and wake cycle, because not every baby gets colic at the same time of day. If you have an infant who's been learning to sleep on a day and night cycle, but 2 a.m. is their colicky period, then parents need to do whatever it takes to attend to their physical, mental and emotional needs.
8. Don’t be scared to ask for help.
Your pediatrician is a great first resource if your baby is having trouble adapting to their sleep and wake cycle. At Novant Health, our pediatricians are incredibly experienced, and many of them have their own children. So, they’ve been through this before. If it’s a breastfeeding issue, we also have a wealth of lactation consultants who you can work with. Learn more about those resources here.
In addition, some parents are lucky to have a good support system. If you have a family member or a neighbor who you trust, they can be a wonderful resource while moms recover from labor. There’s nothing wrong with allowing them to watch the baby for a short period of time so you can take a nap or shower. It’s important that new parents also take care of themselves.
The bottom line: Every baby is unique and special. Be patient as you learn their individual needs and wants.
“Walk down the baby aisle at any bookstore and you’ll see 50 books on how to help your infant sleep and everybody says a different thing,” Condon said. “I try to tell parents, ‘Your baby didn’t read that book. That advice may have worked for one mom, but your baby may be different.’ Try to get off your phone and the websites and instead learn what your baby needs, rather than trying to fit your baby to what you’ve read in a book or on the internet.”