Newborn sleep patterns and behaviours
Crying is the way babies communicate with you. In the first three months, newborns cry a lot because they need your help to feed, change or settle so they can get back to sleep. Although they seem to spend a lot of time sleeping (generally 12 to 16 hours in a 24-hour period), they do not have established sleep-wake rhythms like we do. These first three months are an important time for you and your baby to start to learn and understand each other.
Sometimes newborn babies cry for no apparent reason, even though you have helped to soothe them. This is normal – as long as your baby is growing, gaining weight and is happy at other times. However, if you are worried about your newborn’s crying, please talk to your maternal and child health nurse, doctor or phone the Maternal and Child Health Line on 13 22 29.
Newborn sleep rhythms
Newborns do not know the difference between day and night. They do not have established sleep–wake rhythms.
Newborns wake frequently during the night, often because they need to be fed or changed.
At around three months of age, they may start to learn the rhythm of day and night.
You can help your newborn learn to sleep more at night by exposing them to light and gently playing with them during the day. You can also provide a dim and quiet environment at night.
Newborn sleep cycles
We all have sleep cycles. These change as we develop and grow.
Newborns sleep in short bursts, known as sleep cycles. Sleep cycles are usually around 20 to 50 minutes long.
Sleep cycles consist of active sleep and quiet sleep. During active sleep, the newborn may move, groan, open their eyes, cry out or breathe noisily or irregularly. During quiet sleep, they will lie relatively still and their breathing will be more even.
It is a part of normal sleep cycles for newborns to wake between sleep cycles. As they get older, they will learn to settle themselves and fall back to sleep.
Settling your newborn
A newborn’s ability to settle themselves between sleep cycles is called self-settling. Different babies have different temperaments, personalities and self-settling abilities.
You can help your newborn to settle by:
- Putting them in their cot when they are tired, but still awake
- recognising and responding to tired signs
- using a gentle, positive and consistent routine, such as feed, play, sleep
- using different techniques to settle your baby
It is important to create positive sleep associations for your newborn. Some settling techniques may be hard to keep doing for the long term, such as holding your baby until they fall asleep. These can create a negative sleep association for your newborn, resulting in them needing to be held to fall asleep. You need to decide what is right for you and your family.
Feeding your newborn
Newborns need regular feeding, so they usually sleep in short periods.
The first three months are an important time for both you and your baby to learn how to feed and to develop a routine together.
Being breastfed or formula fed does not impact on the age at which your baby will sleep through the night.
Using a sleep routine that prioritises your newborn’s feeding needs, rather than trying to establish a strict sleeping routine is important.
Newborns communicate by crying
The average newborn cries and fusses almost three hours a day until around 3 to 6 months of age. Some newborns cry more than this.
Newborns are usually the most unsettled during their first three months. They also have their longest periods of crying during this time.
A lot of this crying and fussing tends to happen in the late afternoon and evening.
Crying is a newborn’s main way of communicating, you should respond calmly and consistently.
Sometimes, there is no clear reason why a newborn is crying. They may not stop crying even though you try to help them settle.
From approximately two weeks to three to four months of age, newborns go through a stage of increased crying, which peaks around 6 to 8 weeks of age.
The crying may be difficult to soothe. If you need to take a break, place your newborn in their cot or another safe place and take a break for a few minutes. Your self-care is important.
This is a completely normal part of newborn development. There is no need for concern, as long as your baby is growing, gaining weight and is happy at other times.
However, if you are worried about your newborn’s crying, please talk to your maternal and child health nurse, doctor or phone the Maternal and Child Health Line on 13 22 29.
Typical sleep behaviour information in community languages
This fact sheet is available for download in the following community languages:
A full list of all our sleep behaviour fact sheets available in community languages can be found here.
Maternal and child health nurse visits are important
Victorian parents have free access to the Maternal and Child Health Service, which is a great support after your baby is born.
Specially trained maternal and child health will work with your family to help you care for your child until they are ready to start school.
As part of this service, you will visit a maternal and child health nurse in your local area at 10 key ages and stages in your child’s development. These visits are important because they you an opportunity to identify and address any issues and concerns early in your child’s development.
Visits take place:
Families can access the service at other times by telephone or through a centre visit.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Content on this website is provided for information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not in any way endorse or support such therapy, service, product or treatment and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. The information and materials contained on this website are not intended to constitute a comprehensive guide concerning all aspects of the therapy, product or treatment described on the website. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions and to ascertain whether the particular therapy, service, product or treatment described on the website is suitable in their circumstances. The State of Victoria and the Department of Health & Human Services shall not bear any liability for reliance by any user on the materials contained on this website.