The Fourth Trimester – Getting Little Babies to Sleep

Baby sleep can cause some intense emotional responses. A newborn baby has a single goal – growth. They are growing emotionally, physically and socially. They need to be fed, kept warm, cuddled and soothed because they cannot do any of that for themselves, particularly in the first three months.

This is often referred to as the “Fourth Trimester” because of the immaturity of the newborn baby, their sleeping and their limited capacity to organise their thoughts and their own world. During this time babies have limited capacity to self soothe, so it is expected that they will need help from their parents to calm and soothe them, especially when distressed.

In the first three months babies will have enormously variable sleep patterns, which can range from sleeping from 20 minutes to five hours, and any thing in between. A small portion of new born babies are able to settle themselves to sleep with ease. They feed, enjoy a cuddle and are relaxed enough to drift off to sleep. However, not many can do this but will start life (the first 2-3 weeks) as calm and peaceful, able to sleep and settle without difficulty, but often this changes as they grow.

Around the six to eight week mark there is a developmental shift and your baby (who  may have been sleeping well) is evolving, and may need you to help calm and settle them. A similar shift happens around four months, for no obvious reason.  It is a distinct shift, and your baby will need more support and care to help them through.

When babies this age cannot sleep, it is completely normal albeit exhausting for parents. This tiny person is learning how to organise and process all the information that they are exposed to. They need to do it in a way that they don’t become overwhelmed. This can take time, so exposing them to lots of cuddles and calming experiences will help them learn to settle themselves independently. Be realistic with your expectations as they are still very young.

To help them through this intense learning phase offer lots of rocking, cuddles and gentle comforting. This will foster a sense of safety and security, so they won’t feel threatened by the outside world and all that comes with it.

Things that will help soothe babies in the first three months are:

  • cuddles to feel snug and secure
  • rocking gently reminiscent of life in utero
  • rhythmical patting because rhythm helps calm brains
  • your voice, sing and talk quietly to them
  • a calm, slow paced care so they don’t become overwhelmed
  • feed on demand – babies don’t have a regular hunger pattern prior to three months, so expect irregular demands for feeding so you are prepared for their often unpredictable and changing feeding patterns.

Babies in the first three months begin to establish some sort of sleep-wake pattern, you can help that by:

  • feeding overnight quietly, with dull lighting and minimal talking
  • feed during the day in normal light
  • sleep baby in a darkened room at night
  • be ready to begin to darken the room during day sleeps when your baby becomes more aware of the world around them, and they start to wake to ‘chat’ with others. This will start to happen anywhere from 8-14 weeks, depending on how sensitive your baby is.
  • feed your baby when they are hungry, that may not be at regular times, but they are more likely to feed enthusiastically if they if are hungry.

Try to remember your baby is still evolving emotionally and physically so don’t rush them into the next phase and risk them not progressing through their current phase completely. Each phase your baby passes through becomes the building block for the next phase.

As you get to know your baby you will be more attuned to them and know how to respond. Watch your baby for tired signs and respond with putting them down to nap, if they look hungry, it is milk time, and if they are crying and you don’t know why, then it’s cuddle time. These are the moments in parenting when you need to try to remain kind and considerate of your baby, because they are not meaning to make life hard.

Call your nurse if you are struggling or look to credible resources. Go to www.helenstevens.com.au if you are looking for a simple, informative book to help you understand more about baby sleep.

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