Can You Sleep Train a Newborn? Expert Advice and Insights

by | May 22, 2023 | Blog, Newborn sleep tips, Podcast, Sleep Challenges | 0 comments

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Sleep is a VERY precious commodity for new parents, especially when it comes to a newborn baby. The concept of sleep training often emerges as a potential solution to help establish healthy sleep habits. However, there is tons of debate surrounding the question of whether your can sleep train a newborn.

In this article, I will delve into the big question: CAN you sleep train a newborn? And if not, can you still introduce healthy sleep habits for your newborn baby from day 1 and avoid sleep problems down the road? *Spoiler alert- the answer is YES!

I will explore newborn sleep training in more detail and provide you with practical advice on how to maximize sleep in the newborn stage. Thankfully, this IS possible!

But first- what IS sleep training?

Sleep training refers to the process of teaching a baby or young child to develop the ability to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. It also refers to teaching them how to connect their sleep cycles and put themselves back to sleep.

This can be implemented using one of various different strategies and techniques available. Some approaches are more hands-on and some are less.

The goal of sleep training is to:

  • enable the child to fall asleep on their own, without requiring extensive assistance or intervention from caregivers, and;
  • to learn to connect their sleep cycles so that they’re not waking up requiring assistance to fall back asleep.

Understanding newborn sleep patterns

Before discussing whether you can sleep train a newborn, it’s important to understand the unique sleep patterns of newborns.

Newborn babies have underdeveloped circadian rhythms (biological clocks), making it challenging for them to differentiate day and night (aka “day-night confusion“). They also have shorter spurts of sleep, typically ranging from 2 to 4 hours, which align with their need for frequent feedings and diaper changes. These factors make it next to impossible to sleep train newborns.

As your baby graduates the the newborn stage and becomes an infant, their sleep patterns undergo significant changes. Most notably, this is the stage where their sleep cycles “mature” and become more adult-like as they begin to cycle in and out of deep and light sleep.

This change to a baby’s sleep cycles also means they acquire self-soothing skills, making it ACTUALLY possible for them to learn how to 1) fall asleep independently, and; 2) self-settle when they wake up briefly between sleep cycles. These self-soothing abilities become more refined as they progress into toddlerhood.

Why you can’t sleep train a newborn baby

While sleep training is commonly used to establish healthy sleep habits in older infants and toddlers, I feel VERY strongly that sleep training for newborns isn’t feasible or advisable. There are several reasons why sleep training is not suitable for newborns: 

Newborns are not developmentally ready for sleep training

As mentioned above, newborns have sleep patterns and cycles that are, well, “immature”. Afterall, they’re newborns! They require frequent feedings, diaper changes, and nurturing throughout the day and night. Their sleep is often unpredictable and influenced by their basic needs. Trying to impose a sleep training schedule on a newborn can be counterproductive and is likely going to disrupt their natural feeding and growth patterns.

Newborns have limited self-soothing abilities

Newborns are still developing their self-soothing skills. They rely on external comfort and soothing techniques to fall asleep and regulate their emotions. Expecting a newborn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently using a traditional sleep training approach may be unrealistic and cause undue stress for both the baby and the parent.

Newborns require frequent feedings

Newborns have small stomachs and need to feed frequently, typically every 2 to 3 hours. While newborns can often do one longer stretch of sleep, they are nowhere near ready to be sleeping through the night. Sleep training may interfere with their necessary calorie intake for healthy growth and development.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) specifically advises against formal sleep training methods for newborns. They emphasize the importance of responding to a baby’s needs promptly, including nighttime feedings and comforting.

Sleeping newborn baby

So what CAN be done to improve your newborn’s sleep?

I get it. You understand that you can’t sleep train your newborn right now, but you also want to take meaningful steps to improve your newborn’s sleep. You’re exhausted- and trying to be proactive! Don’t worry- you’ve come to the right place. You CAN get your newborn off on the right foot in the sleep department from day 1 without any sleep training.

Here are some helpful tips you can implement to maximize sleep in the newborn stage and establish healthy sleep habits early on.

Implement the 5 S’s

Implementing the 5 S’s, popularized by the famous (and awesome) Dr. Harvey Karp in his book “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” is one of the most effective ways to help newborn babies sleep well. These techniques aim to recreate a womb-like environment, providing comfort and soothing sensations to help calm and settle your baby. Here’s how each of the 5 S’s can contribute to better sleep for newborns:

Swaddling

Swaddling involves snugly wrapping your baby in a lightweight blanket, mimicking the feeling of being in the womb. This gentle pressure provides a sense of security, reduces the startle reflex, and helps prevent the baby from waking themselves up with their own jerky movements. As a result, I’m a HUGE fan of proper swaddling as it often allows for longer and more restful sleep.

Side note- my favourite swaddle has always been the Miracle Blanket. It helped Eliana settle beautifully in her bassinet when she was a squirmy, unhappy newborn- and so this company will always have a soft spot in my heart 🙂 (It’s also an amazing product that I recommend all the time!)

Side/Stomach Position

Hold your baby on their side or stomach while they are awake and closely supervised. This position can provide comfort and relieve gas or colic symptoms.

I need to note that the AAP recommends that infants sleep on their back to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Side or stomach positioning should only be used under direct supervision.

Shushing

Creating a repetitive shushing sound, either through gentle vocalization or using a white noise machine (such as this one), can mimic the rhythmic sounds heard in the womb. The continuous background noise can help drown out other disruptive sounds and provide a soothing environment for the baby to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Swinging

Gentle rhythmic movements, such as rocking, swaying, or using a baby swing, can help simulate the motion experienced in the womb (the Snoo does a great job at this). These movements can be comforting and help to lull the baby to sleep.

Sucking

Allowing your baby to suck on a pacifier, a bottle, a breast or your finger can have a calming effect. This is because sucking is a natural reflex for newborns and can help them relax and fall asleep. It also provides them comfort by satisfying their need for oral stimulation.

Create a safe sleep environment conducive to good quality sleep 

Establishing a proper sleep environment for your newborn is a crucial step in promoting restful sleep. Begin by positioning the bassinet in a quiet area of the room, free from distractions and disruptive noises. Install blackout curtains or shades (such as these ones) to make it easier for your baby to sleep during the day.

It is also important to ensure your newborn’s sleep environment is safe and adhere to the AAP’s recommendations to reduce the risk of SIDS. The room temperature should be cool, ideally maintained between 19-22 degrees Celsius. The bassinet should have a firm and flat mattress with a fitted sheet. Remove any loose blankets or pillows and ensure the sleep space is bare.

At the same time, I want to note that allowing him to safely nap on the go is FINE! You don’t need to be housebound while your newborn naps at home all day if you don’t want to be.

​Establish a bedtime routine

Introducing a consistent and calming bedtime routine for your baby is extremely important. In fact, there was a study published in the journal Sleep entitled “A Nightly Bedtime Routine: Impact on Sleep in Young Children and Maternal Mood” that provided VERY valuable insights into the benefits of a bedtime routine for babies as young as 3 weeks-old!

Firstly, bedtime routines that follow a predictable sequence of activities were proven to be helpful for signaling to newborns that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. This means that it’s MUCH easier and quicker for a newborn baby to fall asleep when they have a bedtime routine in place.

Second, bedtime routines can reduce the number of night-wakings in newborns as well! This study found that infants who followed a regular bedtime routine experienced fewer night awakenings and were more likely to self-soothe back to sleep. This suggests that the predictability and comforting nature of a bedtime routine can aid in promoting longer stretches of uninterrupted sleep.

Lastly, I’ve seen over the years how effective enjoyable bedtime routines can be at creating positive associations with sleep and their sleep environment. By consistently engaging in calming activities before sleep, newborns often learn to associate these cues with relaxation and sleep. This promotes more effective sleep habits as the baby grows.

Now, let me emphasize that your newborn’s bedtime routine should NOT be long and complicated. Keep it simple! For example, this bedtime routine could include activities like a warm bath, gentle massage, a feed, lullabies, or reading a book.

​Prevent overtiredness by encouraging frequent naps

Make sure your newborn is napping often during the daytime to help prevent overtiredness. When a newborn becomes overtired, their bodies produce higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can make it harder for them to fall asleep and STAY asleep.

As a result, overtiredness can lead to:

  • difficulty falling asleep;
  • night wakings; and
  • early rising (and if you hit the jackpot, you could get all 3!)

To avoid overtiredness, pay close attention to your baby’s wake windows and sleepy cues to ensure he’s not up for too long during the day and before bedtime.

​Maximize your baby’s daytime feeds

When newborns consume sufficient amounts of breast milk or formula during the day, they are more likely to feel satiated and have longer periods of sustained sleep at night. Remember that whatever they DON’T eat during the day, they’ll have to compensate by eating MORE at night. We don’t want that!

This is why I recommend feeding your newborn on demand. Responding promptly to your little one’s hunger signals will help him get enough nourishment during the day so that he can sleep longer stretches at night. Watch for signs of hunger, such as rooting, sucking on fists, or increased alertness, and offer a feeding whenever your baby shows these cues.

I also recommend encouraging full and wakeful feeds by feeding your baby at the beginning of their wake window. This way, it’ll be easier for her to breastfeed on both sides or drink a full bottle of formula. This will help maximize the size of each daytime feed, creating the potential for her to sleep longer at night.

Teach your newborn to fall asleep IN the bassinet once a day

Even though we can’t sleep train newborn babies, there are other options to explore that can gently teach newborns how to fall asleep in the bassinet on their own.

When placing your newborn in the bassinet, aim to put him down drowsy but still awake. If he becomes fussy or cries after being placed in the bassinet, respond with gentle and gradual soothing techniques such as patting their back, gently shushing, placing a heavy hand on their chest, or offering reassurance through your voice. This can provide your newborn comfort while still encouraging him to fall asleep IN his bassinet.

You can also try rocking the bassinet itself or using the stroller with the bassinet attachment and push him to sleep in the stroller (I used the UPPAbaby Vista with the bassinet attachment for all my kids and I LOVE it).

Avoid immediately picking up your baby, as it may hinder their ability to learn self-settling. Give him a few minutes to fuss- he might surprise you!

Now, for the record, I only recommend trying these techniques for bedtime or for the first morning nap. These sleep times have the strongest external sleep pressure, making it the most straightforward time of day to teach these new skills. I don’t recommend attempting to get your little one sleeping his own during the second half of the day UNLESS he’s already mastered napping independently in the first half of the day. In other words, don’t try to teach your little one to swim in the deep end of the pool until he’s mastered the shallow end!

Over time, try to gradually reduce the level of physical contact you provide your little one and transition to more distant soothing techniques, such as verbal reassurance or simply being present in the room. This way, your newborn can gradually develop self-soothing skills over time while knowing you are nearby for support.

By gradually teaching your newborn to sleep independently, you might not have to sleep train him when he’s older!

​Teaching my own newborn to sleep independently by 2-3 weeks without sleep training

When I had JJ, my third baby, I was:

  • putting him down awake at bedtime by 2 weeks of age (NO crying!);
  • getting 4-5-hour stretches of sleep by the time he was 2-3 weeks-old;
  • sleeping 8 hours straight by the time he was 6 weeks-old (yes, he was exclusively breastfed; no- I don’t have insane amounts of creamy milk); and
  • getting 1.5-2 hour naps in the bassinet DAILY by the time he was 2 months-old

Here’s some proof for you:

Now, in case it wasn’t clear, I did NOT sleep train my newborn for him to learn this. Rather, I applied the advice to my own baby that I had taught thousands of other families.

And MAN was it worthwhile.

Applying these techniques allowed me to have a happy, well-rested newborn and allowed ME to be well-rested! I could actually ENJOY the newborn stage, which is something you can’t put a price tag on.

Side note- JJ was wearing the Miracle Blanket in this video. I’m a huge fan.

“But how am I supposed to do all this when I have other kids?”

I love this question. In fact, JJ was baby #3 and my my girls were 7 and 4 when he was born. So I get it!

I actually twist the question around and respond with the following: “How could I NOT do all this when I have other kids?” Afterall, introducing all these healthy sleep habits for my newborn meant that I was more well-rested, allowing me to feel calmer and more relaxed for my older ones. Prioritizing JJ’s sleep hygiene also meant that he barely ever cried for longer than a few minutes. This is because I (almost) always knew what JJ needed!

To say that “doing all this” led to a HUGE decrease in stress for myself and my family is the understatement of the century 🙂

The birth of my newborn sleep program

Not surprisingly, I had SO much demand from other moms who wanted their newborns to also sleep like champs without any sleep training. So I made an affordable and accessible program that teaches you EVERYTHING you need to know about maximizing sleep without having to sleep train your newborn THAT WORKS!

**In fact, JJ became such an amazing sleeper so early on in life that he served as the inspiration for my newborn sleep course called “Getting a Head Start: Get Great Sleep with a Newborn”. If you’re expecting a new baby or you’ve got a newborn at home and you’re looking to establish healthy sleep habits for your baby from day 1, this program is for you!**

When CAN someone sleep train their baby?

I want to make an important note that newborns always have different temperaments and readiness for independent sleep. Some newborns may naturally develop self-soothing skills and “get it” right away, while others may require more time and patience. Don’t turn yourself into a pretzel trying to get your screaming newborn to fall asleep on his own if he’s not having it. Simply try again the next day- or next week.

That being said, once your baby is in the 4-6 month age range, sleep training DOES become a possibility if your little one isn’t sleeping independently and/or sleeping longer stretches of sleep at night. If it’s challenging for you to get your little one to sleep at bedtime and naptime, and your baby is still waking frequently at night, sleep training can be VERY helpful when done properly!

Wrapping up

While I never recommend a parent to sleep train their newborn, be assured that there ARE gentle approaches that prioritize meeting a newborn’s needs while encouraging healthy sleep habits early on (a win-win for everyone). Don’t underestimate the importance of using the 5 S’s, establishing a healthy sleep environment, introducing a bedtime routine, eliminating overtiredness, maximizing daytime feeds, and putting your newborn baby down drowsy but awake once a day.

This process can require a bit of time, patience, and consistency. It’ll be worth, though- I promise.

Have you joined my free Facebook group yet?

Come join my FREE Facebook community group where you can get your sleep questions answered by experts, get access to free sleep tips and regular Q&As, and where you can connect with other sleep-loving parents of little ones! Can’t wait to personally connect with you there 🙂

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My favourite sleep products for newborns

Check out the following links mentioned in this article of some of my favourite products for your little one’s nursery:

*I may earn a commission from links on this page at no additional cost to you, but I only recommend products I love.

Other articles on baby sleep

The Snoo bassinet- what you need to know before you buy it
Pacifiers- the good, the bad, and when to use them
6 month old wake windows and sleep schedules
Baby sleep cues and the truth about what they mean
How to transition your little one out of the swaddle

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