10 Things to Do With Your Newborn to Maximize Sleep

As an expecting parent, the almost immediate comment that friends and family make is “say good-bye” to sleep for the next 18 years. I am here to tell you, that doesn’t need to be the case. 

I would actually argue I sleep more now than before I had two kids and as a sleep coach, I help parents every day transform their children into healthy sleepers forever! So if you are reading and researching all things baby sleep with a newborn sleeping on your chest, enjoy the snuggles, and let me break down a newborn’s needs to maximize the shut-eye. 

Build Your Newborn a Sleep Sanctuary 

Whether you are planning to share a room or have the baby in the nursery from the start, you want to ensure you have a calm, cool and quiet place for them to rest. Following the American Academy of Pediatrics ABC’s of sleep, they should be alone, on their back and in a crib. If you prefer a bassinet, that works too, some parents just prefer to skip right to the crib, since that is where they will spend a majority of their time these next few years to sleep and the shelf-life of a bassinet isn’t terribly long. It’s important that they have some space to wiggle, adjust and find their optimal position of comfort. 

The room should be cool. Depending on their swaddle or sleep sack preference, this chart can help you determine the best way to dress them for the time of year and your location. 

White noise can be your friend and help the baby get used to it not always being quiet when they sleep. It can also be a benefit to hide the noises of a doorbell, a barking dog, or a busy street. Using a white noise machine also helps when traveling so you can keep the sleep environment consistent with what you have at home.

Avoid Overtired

Not allowing your child to become overtired is one of the hardest things to do but one of the most important lessons you will learn as a parent. A child who is overtired is often harder to settle, wakes more overnight, and may even protest eating. When they are overtired, it creates a vicious cycle that many parents get stuck in. 

During the day, newborns will sleep and eat often. Around 8 weeks of age, their awake windows lengthen as they are taking in more milk at one time and their sleep is starting to consolidate into a more regular pattern. You can generate a sample schedule based on their age, to help them stay on track. 

Check for Ambient Light in the Room 

Newborn babies are not born with a body clock, it’s not until 3 months of age where one emerges and their body differentiates day and night. Children {& adults for that matter} sleep best in complete darkness. I recommend that you remove nightlights from a room, and I would only recommend the use of a nightlight in the hallway, so if you need to tend to them overnight, you are only using dim light vs. light in the room. 

I also recommend that you check the many gadgets and devices, like a monitor and humidifier, that can have some pretty bright power lights on them, and cover those up with a little piece of tape to minimize light you might not even realize is being omitted. 

Ensure Your Newborn is Getting Enough Milk

Newborns need to drink 24oz - 32oz of breastmilk or formula in a given 24 hour period, for optimal growth. Parents often ask me when will my newborn sleep through the night? The answer is actually quite simple. When they get the right intake in the daytime hours and have the independent ability to settle without support for sleep. At this age, I recommend that you feed a baby about every 3 hours, between naps. I also recommend that instead of skipping a feeding if they are napping, that you wake the baby, feed them, and they can then go right back to sleep.  

Another trick to ensuring nice full feedings is to feed them in only a diaper, so they have a little “chill” and are more awake and alert to eat actively, vs. being all cozy and comfy, eating less, and falling asleep on the breast or bottle, which can cause issues later with confusion on how to fall asleep without eating to sleep. 

Does Your Baby Like Arms in or Arms Out for Sleep

Go back to your ultrasounds and have a look. If their arms are down by their side, chances are you can secure them into their Dreamland Baby Co. weighted swaddle and say good night as they settle to sleep. However, if their arms are above their head in all those pictures, chances are they don’t want them to be swaddled in tight, but might actually sleep better with 1 or 2 arms out. 

Build a Bedtime Routine from Birth

Kids thrive on routines and, secretly, so do most parents. I am  SUPER type A so routines and structure have helped me keep my kingdom in working order. While you may be a bit more "go with the flow," a young child exposed to consistency and routine will find comfort in transitioning from one activity to another and be able to do so with ease because they know what is coming next.  They begin to understand the flow of a day and this minimizes fear of the unknown because of their predictable schedule.

Bedtime and nap time routines are important because they signal to a baby that sleep is coming soon. They recognize the activity and the body begins to prepare for sleep. 

A great sample routine would look like this:

  • Bath / Warm washcloth to their face 
  • A Clean Diaper
  • Offering a Full Feed in their diaper only {to avoid them falling asleep eating}
  • Pajamas
  • Upright for 20 minutes on your shoulder while you read / sing 
  • Swaddle and lay down in the crib 
  • Turn the lights off and allow them to settle to sleep 

Middle of the Night Feedings

Every newborn will need to eat overnight, and some children, depending on their growth curve, can still eat overnight at 6 months of age. There is no right or wrong answer as to when your baby should stop eating overnight, that depends on their milk intake and their skill of sleep. 

Generally, you will start to see that they add on one hour of overnight sleep per week, getting you to 12 hours at 12 weeks old. However, waking for a feed in the middle of the night after 12 weeks is still very common. What you want to avoid for the middle of the night feedings is a prop to get them back to sleep. During those overnight feeding sessions, your newborn should be fed, burped, and then you want to do your best to get them back down in the crib or bassinet awake (so they settle themselves to sleep). This creates the skill of independent sleep, and slowly what happens is they wake when they are hungry and sleep through longer stretches when they are not. When you introduce 'help' to get them back down, they start to crave it in the cycles from deep to light sleep where they arouse and can't head back to sleep without that prop, like rocking back to sleep and attempting the ninja transfer. 

Managing Comfort from Colic or Reflux 

Reflux is a common condition in newborns.  It occurs when the flap in the lower portion of their esophagus is unable to close, allowing the return of the stomach contents to flow back up.  This causes irritation, discomfort, spit-up, and sometimes vomiting, which can be scary. Silent reflux appears in the form of discomfort when your baby is done eating, but they don't always spit up, which makes it hard for new parents to identify the problem. 

Avoid feeding too frequently by spacing out feedings to every 2-3 hours the first 6 weeks of life and every 3 - 3 1/2 hours from 6-12 weeks of life will help. Avoid overfeeding to ensure the stomach has time to digest the milk from the first feeding before you offer the second. If you are nursing, you want to avoid caffeine, dairy, soy, corn, gluten, and spicy foods, which can transfer and agitate your newborn's stomach. Feed baby after a nap, so that their milk has time to digest before you lay them down to play or for a nap. Feed at the start of the bedtime routine too.

Over-active letdowns can cause too much air intake, which can cause gas and reflux-like symptoms - best to pump a few minutes before a feed to help. If symptoms persist, speak to your Pediatrician about managing reflux with the proper medication.

Teaching Sleep Coaching to a Newborn

Sleep hygiene is a very under-discussed topic for new parents. You are sent home from the hospital with a minimal foundation around sleep and without the understanding that it is a learned skill for your newborn. Children learn HOW to fall asleep by how they are taught.  We are all born with the ability to sleep, but it takes some skill and good habits to be able to achieve restful and restorative sleep. One of the most crucial elements for teaching children to go to sleep and stay asleep is helping them develop self-settling strategies.  We all use these techniques; some of us have to be in a particular position to fall asleep, some of us need the window open and socks on, some of us need to listen to music to fall asleep.

The blank slate over the first 12 weeks is slowly painted for them with a picture, and that picture should be one of balance. If your baby has never been in their crib and then at 12 weeks you decide it's time, it's a new and unfamiliar space that they need to get comfortable with. If the only way they fell asleep for the first 12 weeks was to eat to sleep, they won't magically wake up and know how to lay quietly, coo, and fall asleep on their own in the crib or bassinet; they will expect you to feed them so they can fall asleep. 

It's important to start with 1 nap a day in the space you eventually want them to be. It is a safe space and allows them to get comfortable there. Understanding that the sleep space, the timing of sleep, and ensuring a child is fed at regular intervals while their bodies grow are all important for proper sleep hygiene.  Sleep is a skill, and we need to help them understand how to sleep and to learn they can do it without looking for those other "things" to assist. Quickly, they will start sleeping longer, feeling better, and enjoying their beautiful new world even more.

Respond to Your Baby’s Needs

There is a general misunderstanding about "bad" sleep habits when your child is a newborn and many people think that their child will need formal "sleep training" to fix the poor habits. While there can be habits that a newborn develops that will need to be adjusted, with proper guidance (right from the start) you can prevent those habits from taking a strong grip on your newborn's sleep and balance it with the responsiveness and love that you have for your baby.  

Newborns are just that, new little humans who require support, assistance, love, reassurance, and guidance in this big new world. Responsiveness to their needs, when done in a balanced way, lets them know that you are supporting whatever challenges they are facing at that moment and gives them a multitude of ways to work through the issue.  This ensures that one "thing" doesn't become your go-to and eventually a prop that they need to fall asleep for a nap, bedtime, or after a middle of the night waking.  

Especially after they are 8 weeks old, babies can start to rely on soothing techniques, so just balance cycling through these various methods to help calm, support, and comfort your little one. The most important thing is sometimes just getting them to sleep - however you can. Avoiding a baby getting overtired is what I tell clients is the single most important thing to focus on. Try to stay within those recommended awake hours if you can. 

Here are some sample soothing techniques to help

  • Swaddling / Re-swaddling tight
  • Arms out of the swaddle
  • Gentle pressure on the chest
  • Using a pacifier to calm
  • Rocking
  • Shushing or singing
  • A butt pat
  • Movement to calm
  • Picking up to calm/putting back down
  • Massage / Bicycles for gas pain

Thank you so much for including me in your journey for better sleep and this new adventure of parenthood, life's most amazing gift.  I hope that you've found this information to be helpful.  I would love to hear how this has helped you or what you wish was included, so I can continue to improve my content and make your role as a parent that much better. You can tag me on Instagram @Tinytransitions_Sleep_coach & don't forget to join my Facebook Group - where each week I share tools, tricks, and more for better sleep. 

Courtney Zentz, Founder of Tiny Transitions Sleep Consulting, is on a mission to change the way the world views sleep and provide accessible sleep coaching resources for all families to build healthy sleep habits in their homes for children of all ages. Through the work that her and her team of Child Sleep Coaches provide, rest assured, you are getting the best sleep coaching available for all ages. 

As a multi-award-winning speaker, author, and Pediatric Sleep Expert, Courtney works intimately with families from around the world to teach healthy sleep habits to children and adults. Courtney is a frequent contributor to MindBodyGreen, Purple, NBC, Fatherly, Yahoo, Thrive Global, Romper, Parentology, Create & Cultivate, and Bustle, among other media outlets and parenting blogs.

Courtney hosts The Kids Sleep Show, a Podcast geared towards solving sleep struggles in children of all ages.

Courtney resides outside Philadelphia, West Chester, PA, with her husband Adam and two children, Max and Sovella, and has always felt passionate about making sleep & healthy living a priority in her family's life. For more information on booking Courtney, view her website tinytransitions.com