Why is my newborn NOT sleeping? (And screaming instead...)
Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Updated September 2019
When I had my first child I read ZERO parenting books. Not one. I read ten zillion pregnancy books, but it didn’t even occur to me to question what I would actually do with this baby once I had it. I have no idea what I expected to happen – babies were easy weren’t they?! Everyone I talked to seemed to say that babies just ate and slept, ALL THE TIME. I could cope with that. Sounded like my husband actually.
And then I had my eldest. Fine. First few weeks we actually had to tickle her feet to keep her awake long enough to feed. Fine. Everyone said I was lucky I had such a good baby who never cried and just slept. Fine…..
SCREAMING BABY. For 5 hours in a row. And yep, that meant she hadn’t been asleep for 5 looong hours. I hadn’t had a shower, I hadn’t had much to eat, I was home alone, with this super unhappy baby who was feeding fine but then just crying and unsettled and I had no idea why. Surely she would just fall asleep when she was tired? So she mustn’t be tired…. I instantly regretted bypassing the parenting section at the book shop.
Me and my screaming newborn baby
Thinking back now, it makes me shudder! In my defence, I simply had no clue what was normal for a new baby. No clue about sleep. All they taught me at the hospital was how to feed her and bathe her. Nothing about a baby's sleep needs. Nothing about how sleep is as much a nutrient to a baby as milk.
And that’s where I think there is a big gap in the information conveyed to new mothers.
Is my baby overtired?
A wee while into this horror, when I was convinced she had colic and reflux and everything else it was possible for a baby to have, someone said flippantly “she’s just overtired; you’re not putting her to sleep soon enough”.
I had no idea what that even meant. If she was overtired surely that means she would just go to sleep? I WOULD!
So I turned to Google. After extensive research, lo and behold, I discovered newborns have a short awake time window which I was clearly missing and that they need to actually be taught good sleep habits from the get-go. Sleep is not necessarily an automatic behavior for some babies. Convinced I was officially the worst mother that ever lived for keeping my baby awake when I should have been letting her sleep, I was astounded that no one had mentioned this before! Why wasn’t sleep school for a new mother second on the list behind feeding while I was still in the maternity ward? Why does everyone just assume we know how to do all this?
How I dealt with my newborn not sleeping
In the detective work that followed, I learnt that a swaddle replicated the snug feeling in the womb and helped babies settle and sleep because it initiates the calming reflex and prevents their own startle reflex from waking them up. I had previously tried to swaddle my turbo-wriggler and she would writhe and scream so I assumed she hated it and gave up. I realised she was already overtired at that point and I sucked at swaddling and that’s why she was behaving like that. Babies don't hate being swaddled. It’s their state of preference actually. They DO hate being overtired and fluffed around with and swaddles that aren’t tight enough and lots of noise and bright lights and too many people holding them and too much eye contact and strong smells and constant entertaining when all they want to do is sleep!
I learnt that in the womb it is super noisy 24/7 with your heart beating away and your blood whooshing around and your tummy rumbling and your digestive system digesting, not to mention the muffled noises from the outside world. And then the baby is born and we tiptoe around them and put them in silent rooms?! The baby would think they’d gone deaf!
Not to mention the fact that our world, compared to their dark damp womb-world, is bright and colourful and stimulating and LIGHT…
I had done it all wrong.
Luckily I cottoned on to all this before she was very old and it was easy enough to remedy. Invested in some good blackout curtains, sorted out some white noise, purchased twenty thousand swaddles, counted the minutes she had been awake to ensure she was back asleep at the right time.
And suddenly, it was like I had a new baby.
No more newborn baby screaming for hours!
Fastforward to a couple of years later, second time around and I was a pro; wrapping Houdini-proof swaddles one handed while making spag bol with a toddler on my hip.
But here mamas, is the long and the short of it: we are not given enough correct advice on how important sleep is for a new baby. For any baby. On how vital it is to get your baby in a good sleeping rhythm from early on. On how exactly to teach and foster good sleep habits from the get go, so you then don’t have to go through the drama of altering "bad" sleep habits further down the track. Well, I’ll tell you right now –
The sleep patterns and needs of a newborn
- In the first few days or even weeks your baby will still be so exhausted from the birth that they will be quite sleepy. You’ll think “yessss I’ve got a good sleeper”…
- However once this sleepiness wears off they are at risk of getting overstimulated very easily. Just looking at their own mother’s face is about as much stimulation as your newbie can cope with.
- And the amount of time they can stay awake between sleeps is small – like 1.5 hours maximum. Anything over that and they’ll definitely end up overtired and you’ll find it super tricky to get them to go to sleep.
- BUT undertiredness is a thing too! And trying to put your baby to bed before they've had enough awake time can mean they also refuse settling and sleeping.
- Your baby's awake times change all the time, so the awake time for a 2 week old baby is different to the awake time a 6 week old baby needs.
- Your aim when settling your bub or getting them to stay asleep is to replicate the sensations of the womb – this is all they’ve known for so long, of course they find it comforting. Swaddle them, play loud white noise (think vacuum cleaner loud), have them in a dark room, use movement – like swaying, bouncing, (a stroller or ride in the car if all else fails).
- Allowing your baby to actually fall asleep on their own (when they're good and sleepy) is the best way to make sure they are capable of this skill later on, when they’ll really need to be able to do it... BUT at the newbie stage, it's more important to focus on getting them to sleep in the first place, no matter how you have to do it. Don't beat yourself up if your baby isn't sleeping in their bassinet for all their sleeps - front packs are GOLD for new babies.
- For more tips on how to settle your baby to sleep, check out THIS article. For a how-to video on our AMAZING side-settling technique (perfect for babies right up to 3 or 4 months), click HERE.
Is the witching hour for babies a real thing?
The “witching hour” is only an issue for overtired or undertired babies. People LOVE to blame a cranky, unsettled baby in the evening on this mysterious syndrome… If your baby has had enough sleep, at the right times, during the day, the so-called “witching hour” will pass you by. Don’t accept and just brush away over or under tiredness in your baby simply because other mums/aunts/friends/grandmas/midwives/witch doctors tell you that it’s normal.
If you're nervous about getting your little one into a routine, do have a look at this video:
If you have a newborn and any of my own first baby experience rings true, download our FREE Newborn Sleep Guide for loads of helpful info.
It is never too early to start your baby in a good sleeping and feeding rhythm: our Sleep Programs take out all the guess work around awake times and nap expectations.