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Mandy Gurney
Former Director of the Sleep Clinic at the NHS St Charles hospital in London and Director of Millpond Sleep clinic. She also works as an NHS Sleep educator to health professionals across the UK.
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Midwives' postnatal appointment

Newborn Sleep and SIDS

It's useful to know the basics guidelines on sleep and naps for newborn babies, and also how to make sure they are safe when they go to sleep. This includes advice on co-sleeping, sleeping in a cot, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) as well as simple things like room temperature.
In Short
Newborns sleep for an average of around 16 hours in 24 evenly spread between day and night - and need feeding around the clock. Some sleep more and some less.

Prepare them for longer night time sleeps by distinguishing between day and night - i.e. lots of light through the day.

The safest place for your baby to sleep is in a cot, up next to your bed.

One of the main causes of SIDS is smoking - even on your clothes will impact on your baby's health, along with alcohol and non-prescription drugs

The temperature in your baby's bedroom should be around 18 degrees.

If you wish to co-sleep with your baby, especially when they are younger, make sure you are familiar with the risks and safety recommendations.

The pattern of baby sleep and naps in the first year

It’s helpful to understand the general patterns of sleep and naps in the first year. Then you can check whether you and your baby are on the right track.

Your baby’s pattern of sleep changes a lot during their first year.

They will have spent a lot of time asleep in the womb and most of this sleep would have been REM or dream sleep.

In the early days after birth, your baby will then spend about half of their sleeping time in REM sleep and the other half in non-REM sleep.

By about three months of age, your baby will probably be able to sleep a lot better, and even getting the bulk of it at night-time.

Newborns sleep around an average of 16 hours in a 24 hour period but initially, this is split evenly between day and night, so is pretty exhausting for new parents.

During your baby’s first 12 weeks, he will become increasingly wakeful with longer periods of being alert and awake.

As their need for sleep goes down, they can begin to pack their sleep into the night time.

You can help this more ‘diurnal’ behaviour (diurnal animals, like us, are awake during daylight and asleep in the night) by taking your baby out in the daylight. If they get lots of light in their eyes, just by being outside, this will help to regulate their body clock.

The idea is to help them distinguish between night and day. Having a bedtime routine at the same time every evening will also help to regulate your baby’s body clock and help them to understand this is night time.

Their naps through the day shouldn’t have this bedtime routine, they can just go to sleep without pyjamas, bath etc, so they start to realise daytime naps are different.

About three-quarters of 3-month-old babies can sleep for six to seven-hour chunks, maybe have a feed, and then go back to sleep again.

By six months of age many babies can sleep through the night without needing a feed, but don’t stop them if you and your baby are happy with nighttime feeding.

By six months of age, babies can, in theory, sleep for 10-12 hours at night with less sleep in the day.

By about nine months old, most babies are only really needing two naps during the day. This means they can just have a late morning nap, an afternoon nap, and then sleeping for 11-12 hours at night. It’s a good idea at this point not to let them nap if possible after around 3.30pm, so they have a long stretch of being awake before night-time.

By about twelve months they will drop down to one nap a day and have most of their sleep at night.

It’s worth remembering that there is a big range of normal when it comes to infant sleep. Your baby may not have the same pattern as your friend’s baby at the same age.

The Infant Sleep Information Source led by Durham University Parent-Infant Sleep Lab says:

“By the time babies are 3 months old some (but not all) begin to start settling (sleeping through a night-time feed for a stretch of up to 5 hours). By the time they are 5 months old half of them may have started to sleep for an eight-hour stretch on some nights. Generally, though, babies do not sleep all night-every night until they are close to a year old. One study investigating infant sleep duration found that 27% of babies had not regularly slept from 10 pm to 6 am by the age of 1 year.”

Where should my baby sleep?

It’s your choice whether your baby sleeps in a crib, a Moses basket or a cot, or with you, but you need to be aware of the pros and cons of each.

Most guidelines suggest there are risks for very young babies (up to 3 months) sharing a bed with their parents, and that the safest option is to have a cot, right up next to your bed, so you can reach them to comfort them or breastfeed easily.

You certainly should not sleep with your baby if you smoke, drink or take drugs (illegal or legal) that might make you tired or sleep heavily, e.g. even things like painkillers or antihistamines. You should never fall asleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair since the risk of rolling onto them is very high.

After 3 months it’s generally thought to be fine for your baby to sleep with you, given you don’t do any of the things listed above as long as you are aware of the guidelines and make a safe sleeping space for baby – and we talk about that more below.

How do I position my baby in the cot?

When you’re putting your baby down for a sleep in a cot, it’s really important that you put your baby on its feet right to the bottom of the cot and the baby needs to be lying on its back.

A lot of parents feel that the baby should perhaps be lying on its side or lying on its tummy. But babies are safer if they’re sleeping on their back and you don’t have to worry about the risk of vomiting. We do know that if a baby sleeps on its back with its feet right to the bottom of the cot it does significantly reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome otherwise known as SIDS or cot death.

What is SIDS?

SIDS stands for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and that’s a term that’s used to describe the sudden death of a child or a young baby where we’re unable to identify what the underlying cause of death has been. Around 300 babies in the UK die from SIDS each year, so it is quite rare, but it generally happens in babies under 4 months old.

What causes SIDS?

There are a number of different factors, including alcohol and non-prescription drugs, which have been identified which seem to increase the risk of SIDS, but by far the most significant factor is smoking. The risk to the baby begins with smoking during pregnancy and being around other people who are smoking when you’re pregnant and that goes on throughout the baby’s life. So if you smoke near your baby or other people smoke near your baby or in the house that will increase the risk. The best thing that you can do for your baby’s safety is not to smoke at all and not to let other people smoke around your baby. It’s also important to remember that cigarette smoke can stay on your clothes so even if you go into the garden and smoke that smoke will stay on your clothes so when you go back in and hold your baby your baby will be exposed to that smoke from your clothes.

Is Co-Sleeping OK?

Some people like to share their bed with their baby, but there are a few important points to think about if that’s what you choose to do. You need to make sure you’ve got a firm mattress. Don’t ever consider sleeping together on a sofa or a waterbed. Don’t use a pillow. Make sure the bedding is nice and light. Don’t have a toddler in the bed at the same time because of the risk of a toddler rolling over on to the baby.

To reduce the risk of cot death you should never sleep with your baby in your bed if either you or your partner are smokers if you’ve been drinking alcohol or taking any medication that might make you drowsy. And never leave a baby in your bed on its own.

What’s the right temperature for my baby at night?

The optimum temperature for a room that a baby is sleeping in is about 18 degrees, which is a lot cooler than most people imagine!

What’s the best bedding to use?

It’s a good idea to use natural fibres like cotton or wool. Light cellular cotton blankets are a particularly good idea. You can add or reduce the layers as you want to make them cooler or warmer. It’s not a good idea to use a pillow for a baby and small babies shouldn’t use a duvet either.

Make sure that the mattress you’re using in the baby’s cot, Moses basket or crib is the right one designed to fit that Moses basket, cot or crib. It’s important you don’t have any gaps around the edges, and no tears or emerging stuffing in the mattress.

Share the knowledge
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.