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Raising a Newborn: It’s All About Balance

If you’ve recently had a new baby join your family or your little one will be with you soon, congratulations! 

Having a newborn was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had, and like for many other parents, it was also one of the most challenging.

In this article:

  • What your newborn needs
  • How their needs differ
  • Feeding vs. sleeping
  • Responsive feeding
  • Getting the balance right
  • Feeding, sleeping and your baby’s natural routine
  • Don’t forget about the parents!

What your newborn needs

Newborn babies have very basic needs. They need to be fed, kept clean, dry, warm, and comfortable, they need to sleep, and they need to be loved. Essentially, that’s it! 

So why is having a newborn such hard work?!

Though their needs are basic, they all need to be met in differing amounts, and finding that balance can be a challenge for us as parents.

How their needs differ

When your baby arrives, you’ll notice they will spend different amounts of time meeting or satisfying their own needs throughout their day and night. 

For example, they’ll spend a huge amount of time in their early days sleeping but much less time getting their nappy changed (unless they have a day or two of those fun poo-explosions that go from head to toe, of course). In the same way, they might spend a large portion of their day and night feeding, but being bathed will only take up a small amount of time (unless the poo-explosion happens again!). 

Where we come in as parents is in making sure that the balance is right. If it’s not and one need is getting far more attention than necessary, another need is then being forgotten, and it’s likely your baby won’t feel content and they won’t be settled. 

Feeding vs. sleeping

Your newborn will spend the bulk of their time feeding and sleeping. 

When it comes to feeding, they need to learn how to feed, and their stomachs are so tiny that their feeds need to be small and frequent. As they grow older, they will become more efficient feeders, and their stomachs will become larger so they can take in bigger volumes of milk (1).

Newborns also spend a significant number of hours sleeping within each 24-hour period (2)

Both feeding and sleeping are crucial for your baby’s growth and development, and success with one is very often reliant on success with the other – hungry babies don’t sleep well, and overtired babies don’t feed well! 

Yet something I see very often in families struggling with sleep is that they inadvertently prioritise feeding over sleeping by trying to feed responsively or “on demand”.  

Responsive feeding

Responsive feeding means paying attention to your baby’s hunger cues and offering a feed when they show them to you. Sometimes though, crying (a late hunger cue) for whatever reason can be misinterpreted as a demand to feed. While a feed can be about more than just nutrition for your newborn (3), there’s a potential issue here:

If your baby is feeding very frequently, when are they getting the sleep they need?

It’s important that newborn babies feed enough, but it’s equally important that they have sufficient opportunity to sleep too. 

Responsive feeding is also about watching for signs that your little one is full when they’re feeding, for example, turning their head away or falling asleep (4). If they do these things but still don’t settle, they’re likely communicating another unmet need with you – perhaps that they’re tired and want to sleep.   

Getting the balance right

So how do we achieve the balance our newborn needs?

It’s simpler than you might think. 

If you watch closely, during the day, newborn babies will follow a very simple pattern of sleeping, feeding and being awake. It’s a cycle that is repeated throughout the day. Then when it gets to night-time, the cycle changes to sleeping and feeding. 

What you need to do is pay attention to this natural pattern and respond accordingly. 

Feeding, sleeping and your baby’s natural routine

Once a baby wakes in the morning from their overnight sleep, it’s important they have a nice, full feed (offering both breasts or the full quota of formula) to start their sleep / feed / wake cycle. This will sustain them through their small period of awake time and their long nap, before they need to be fed again. 

A baby that doesn’t have a full feed will follow this with a short nap. Lots of small “snack” feeds over the day and throughout the night can mean lots of small, interrupted sleeps over the 24-hour period. The feeding needs will be met, but the sleep needs won’t. 

Small naps mean your baby is literally “skimming the surface” and they won’t be getting the deep, restorative periods of sleep they need to feel refreshed and well-rested.

The longer this pattern of constant feeding and not enough sleeping continues, the more exhausted, irritable and chronically overtired your baby will become. They might get all the love, comfort and food they need, but when it comes to sleep, they’ll be missing out. 

Don’t forget about the parents!

Up to this point, I’ve only talked about your baby and their needs, but there’s someone else whose needs are important too:

You. You need plenty of sleep too.

Too often, a parent’s needs are brushed aside because they think – or they’re told – they should be feeding their baby constantly because “that’s what the baby needs to feel loved and nurtured”. 

As a result, they miss out on the rest and sleep they so desperately need and deserve, and being the loving and caring parent they want to be becomes very, very hard.

Remember – it is possible to take good care of your newborn and take care of yourself. 

Your sleep will be disrupted when they join your family, but do your best to maintain balance when it comes to meeting their needs by learning and responding to their natural cues. This will help you all sleep well in the weeks, months and years to come.       
 

References

  1. Jain, S. (2023). How Often and How Much Should Your Baby Eat? Healthy Children.Org from the American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/how-often-and-how-much-should-your-baby-eat.aspx   
  2. Wielek, T. (2019). On the development of sleep states in the first weeks of life. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0224521. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224521 
  3. UNICEF. (2022). Caring For Your Baby At Night And When Sleeping: A guide for parents.  
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. (updated 2023). Is Your Baby Hungry or Full? Responsive Feeding Explained. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Is-Your-Baby-Hungry-or-Full-Responsive-Feeding-Explained.aspx
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