Welcoming a new baby into the world is also about welcoming the newborn parent to the world, too. It is a time of joy but there is also a fair share of worries, confusion, discomfort and doubts. If your family is finding the adjustment a challenge, please know you are far from alone. Let’s take some time now to explore a bit more about your baby.

What is going on for your baby?

Adjusting to life outside of the womb can be stressful for many babies. 

This time is often called the "fourth trimester" because your baby has only ever known the warm, dark, secure and calm environment of their mother’s womb. Suddenly, the world is cold, bright, loud and hard. They need to adjust to the new sensations of hunger, feeding, digesting and weeing and pooing. Your baby has been nestled in with the soothing sounds of your voice and heartbeat their entire lives. They have never been put down. It is not surprising that this can seem like a scary and overwhelming time. 

The great news is, that even the most sensitive of babies, can have this time softened through simple acts of nurturing from their parents.

  • Holding your baby (particularly skin-to-skin) has a beautiful calming effect on your baby. It is also a naturally calming and bonding experience for the person holding them, too as oxytocin is released in response to your child [1]. 
  • Feeding your baby frequently and on demand (not to schedule) is also another way to settle your baby into their new world. This works because the act of suckling is in itself soothing, as is the satiation of any feelings of hunger or thirst, it also works as a form of pain relief against any new discomforts for your child. The closeness of being held while feeding is also calming for your baby [2].

How does this impact on sleep and settling?

Sleep and settling your newborn can vary a lot from baby to baby, and comparison is never kind to anyone. 

Your unique little one may require little in the way of soothing to find sleep but chances are, they need quite a lot. This is understandable when you realise that human babies are "carry mammals". Our baby’s body has been designed to thrive when in close contact with their primary caregiver (usually the birth mother). It is unsurprising to find that the majority of babies are calmest and most settled when in arms [3].

Babywearing tools like carriers, wraps and slings are often a fabulous way to keep your baby close, calm and settled while allowing you the freedom of two hands and movement. Babywearing has been used by cultures around the world from the earliest of days, and is a valuable tool in your parenting repertoire.

Learn more about babywearing safety here

Newborns don’t always have their days and nights figured out. To help them adjust, it is helpful to have their day sleep in natural light, with the normal hustle and bustle of your family around them. Catching some early morning sunshine also helps kickstart your baby’s circadian rhythm [4], and soon they will adjust to finding their more restful sleep at night.

Restful sleep at night will still be punctuated by wakings though. Your baby will need many feeds throughout the night throughout their newborn months and beyond, as they grow and develop at a phenomenal rate. By keeping your baby close to you in the night, you are able to reduce their risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) and promptly soothe them back to sleep after each awakening, with as little disruption to everyone's sleep as possible [5].

Sometimes, your baby will become distressed and require extra effort to soothe them in the night. Sometimes, discomfort from digestion or other pains might be difficult for your baby to work through. Many healthy infants will experience times of discomfort in the early months but this will resolve as their gut matures and they grow used to new sensations.

If your baby seems to be particularly distressed, hard to soothe, is fussing at the breast or bottle, their nappies are not a ‘healthy’ colour, they are not gaining weight sufficiently, or they seem generally unwell, please seek assistance. 

Is my baby sleep abnormal?

There are many things to consider that may be contributing to your baby’s unsettled behaviour, and they are well worth exploring to help you all find more comfort through your days and nights.

How does this impact feeding?

Newborns need to be fed frequently, and there is no prescribed schedule that can accurately meet your unique child’s feeding needs. This is even more important for a breastfeeding mum and baby, as any restrictions placed on feeding can impact on your supply and ultimately your breastfeeding relationship. Just as no two babies are identical, neither are two sets of breasts. For a baby to receive the amount of milk they need, when they need it, they must be able to nurse on demand -  even if little time has passed since they last fed [2]. 

It is important to understand the amazing comfort that feeding provides a baby. It helps their whole body relax, which is why it is normal for your baby to fall asleep at the breast or bottle. Suckling also provides natural pain relief for a baby who is uncomfortable for whatever reason [6].  It is also now recognised that breast milk has powerful immune building and boosting components [7], so it is normal for your baby to feed more regularly when they are fighting off germs.

Having trouble breastfeeding, combination feeding or formula feeding? The Australian Breastfeeding Association Helpline is free, and trained counsellors can support you no matter how you feed your baby.

Breastfeeding information and support online

Breastfeeding not working out? Here are some resources to support you.

How can you look after yourself, while you look after your baby?

The first few months after a baby are about prioritising rest wherever and whenever you can. This is particularly important for the person who gave birth. It is not always realistic to come to a full stop, but it is essential to recognise that rest is not a luxury but a basic need to facilitate your recovery from pregnancy and birth. 

Keeping your baby close day and night helps your connection and communication develop and attune. 

If you have people in your life who can offer you support, please allow them in to ease your load. Cooking nutritious meals, care of older children, holding your baby while you shower or attend appointments, cleaning and laundry are all ways to actively support a new parent. We were always meant to raise our children with the support of many, not just the parents.

Explore more about adult and family sleep

Learning about safer sleep options for your family is also crucial to keep rested. Having your baby in your room within arm’s reach for ease of care throughout the night lowers their SUDI risk, and also helps keep your fatigue as low as possible. Having a little box of supplies (spare nappies, wipes, change mat, a spare suit, spare breast pads, water bottle) with a little book light attached can also minimise the disruption of nighttime changes. 

Breastfeeding is also protective against SUDI. While it may be challenging in the early days and weeks, once established, nighttime nursing is often the quickest and easiest way to soothe your baby back to sleep.  Amazingly, it also helps breastfeeding mothers fall back asleep, as breast milk releases a sleep-inducing hormone [8].

Learning to side-lie nurse can be very helpful for many nursing mothers, particularly when you are feeling very tired and are at risk of falling asleep on an unsafe surface (such as a nursing chair or sofa) with your baby. Read more about preparing a shared sleeping surface and safer shared sleep options that may work for your family.

If you find that you are really struggling, not feeling yourself or unable to sleep even when the opportunity arises, please speak to a trusted care provider about accessing support. One in seven new mums and one in 10 new dads will experience postnatal depression and anxiety.

Help and support are available, and you deserve to feel better. There are also free helplines available through PANDA - 1300 726 306 and Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

Summary

Your baby is so new to this world. They will find huge comfort in your warmth, contact and care. Take this time to rest, recuperate and get to know each other. The adjustment to your new lives and roles can feel quite overwhelming but you will grow and learn together. By keeping each other close and being realistic with yourselves and your baby, you will find your way.

You are doing incredibly important work right now. Well done.

Image credit: Vida Images

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REFERENCES:

[1] Moore ER, Bergman N, Anderson GC, Medley N. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Nov 25;11(11):CD003519. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003519.pub4. PMID: 27885658; PMCID: PMC6464366.

[2] Little, E. E., Legare, C. H., & Carver, L. J. (2018). Mother-Infant Physical Contact Predicts Responsive Feeding among U.S. Breastfeeding Mothers. Nutrients, 10(9), 1251. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10091251

[3] Esposito, G., Setoh, P., Yoshida, S., & Kuroda, K. O. (2015). The calming effect of maternal carrying in different mammalian species. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 445. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00445

[4] Yates J. The long-term effects of light exposure on establishment of newborn circadian rhythm. J Clin Sleep Med. 2018;14(10):1829–1830

[5] Peter S. Blair, Helen L. Ball, James J. McKenna, Lori Feldman-Winter, Kathleen A. Marinelli, Melissa C. Bartick, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, Michal Young, Larry Noble, Sarah Calhoun, Megan Elliott-Rudder, Laura Rachael Kair, Susan Lappin, Ilse Larson, Ruth A. Lawrence, Yvonne Lefort, Nicole Marshall, Katrina Mitchell, Catherine Murak, Eliza Myers, Sarah Reece-Stremtan, Casey Rosen-Carole, Susan Rothenberg, Tricia Schmidt, Tomoko Seo, Natasha Sriraman, Elizabeth K. Stehel, Nancy Wight, and Adora Wonodi.Breastfeeding Medicine.Jan 2020.5-16.http://doi.org/10.1089/bfm.2019.29144.psb

[6] Harrison D, Reszel J, Bueno M, Sampson M, Shah VS, Taddio A, Larocque C, Turner L. Breastfeeding for procedural pain in infants beyond the neonatal period. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Oct 28;10(10):CD011248. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011248.pub2. PMID: 27792244; PMCID: PMC6461192.

[7] Cabinian A, Sinsimer D, Tang M, Zumba O, Mehta H, et al. (2016) Transfer of Maternal Immune Cells by Breastfeeding: Maternal Cytotoxic T Lymphocytes Present in Breast Milk Localize in the Peyer’s Patches of the Nursed Infant. PLOS ONE 11(6): e0156762. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156762

[8] Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Marchini, G., Winberg, J 1993, Plasma cholecystokinin concentrations after breast feeding in healthy 4 day old infants. Archives of Disease in Childhood 68(1),46–48.