It’s never too early to establish good sleep habits for your baby.
“Yeah, right,” you think to yourself, as you bounce a fussy baby on one hip, load the dishwasher with your free hand, and read this article on your phone.
In reality, it might be easier than you think.
Set realistic expectations
A good sleeper, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), is not a baby who sleeps without waking for 10 hours a night. The AAP defines a “good sleeper” as a baby who wakes frequently but can get himself back to sleep. Not that it makes 3 a.m. feedings easier, but frequent waking is developmentally appropriate. “Breastfed newborns normally wake every two to two and a half hours to feed. Bottle-fed infants typically wake every three to four hours,” says Dr. Gwen R. Wurm, a pediatrician with the University of Miami Health System.
Naturally, every child is different. Low birth weight babies must feed more frequently. Colic keeps some infants from sleeping. (Probiotics may help – ask your doctor.) And just when baby sleeps through the night – bam! He catches a cold, hits a growth spurt, or starts teething. “Be flexible with any of these guidelines and remember, anxious parents create anxiety in children," says Dr. Wurm. "Check with your pediatrician if sleep issues are ongoing.”
Establish that "day is day, night is night"
Your baby spent nine months in utero without light. No wonder he’s power napping through the day and wants to party all night. Not so fast, junior.
“Babies are exposed to maternal heart rate and hormonal cues that indicate night and day. They sleep when they want to, but since our bodies are programmed to light and dark, you can help them develop healthy sleep rhythms. From the very beginning, establish that day is day, night is night,” Dr. Wurm says. During the day, let your baby sleep when he needs to, but don’t close the curtains or tiptoe around and get outside as much as possible. “Natural light is the best thing we’ve got going for our circadian rhythms. Use your environment – get your child out in natural light during the day and for an evening walk at dusk.” Most strollers do a good job protecting infants from direct sunlight, wind, and germy neighborhood kids. Use mosquito netting at dusk to guard against bug bites.
When bedtime approaches, dim the lights, turn off electronics and allow things to quiet down. Minimize stimulation – no playtime, minimal noise or light and no checking Facebook on your phone. Your baby’s room should be dark or lit only by a night light. Dr. Wurm suggests that parents keep middle-of-the-night feedings “quick and boring.”
“After feeding, when your baby is in a calm, almost meditative state, put them back in the crib, on their back. Use a pacifier, mobile, or gentle music if necessary. By placing them in the crib while they’re alert but calm, they learn to fall asleep on their own. Babies that get used to being rocked to sleep become dependent on it.”
To wake the baby - or not to wake the baby. That is the question.
Some babies need to be awakened at night in order to thrive. “Even though a five or six pound baby should wake during the night to feed, he may not get the same physiological signals as a seven to eight pound baby who knows when to feed. Work with your doctor to make sure your baby is on track with weight gain.” The AAP offers tips for waking newborns when necessary.
When your baby reaches a healthy weight, usually at four to six months, Dr. Wurm believes it is okay to let him fuss a little when he wakes in the middle of the night. “Many parents jump at the first sound. Give the baby a chance to soothe himself, usually two to four minutes, before intervening.”
When all else fails, call Grandma.
When sleep deprivation takes its toll, call in reinforcements. Take night time feeding turns with your spouse or ask a relative to help. There is another option if you don't have family nearby. “If your baby goes to sleep at eight, you might gently rouse him around midnight to feed.” This approach might buy you a few hours of uninterrupted slumber. If baby doesn’t wake up, let it go.
Room sharing > bed sharing
Some parents keep their baby in bed with them as a way to get more Zzzz’s. To prevent unintentional harm or sleep-related death, the AAP recommends “room sharing not bed sharing”. Dr. Wurm agrees, but acknowledges, “If you are going to bed share, you need appropriate guidelines.” When sleeping with your baby, remove extra pillows and blankets. Never bed share with your baby if you or your partner are:
- Heavy sleepers
- Overly tired
- Using alcohol or other intoxicating substances
Managing modern life
Babies are not immune from the stresses of modern life. When you pick up your baby from daycare at 5:30 p.m. and he dozes off during your hour-long commute, he may need a later bedtime. That’s perfectly fine, just avoid electronics, says Dr. Wurm. Babies, toddlers or older children can stay up later to accommodate family work schedules, as long as they are getting adequate sleep and families are playing outside or interacting with each other, without screens. "We know that increased screen time increases ADHD, behavior and sleep problems (in older children). Unless you’re expecting an emergency call, keep your phone out of sight. If you must check it hourly, do so away from your children. Remember, children think their parents are far more interesting and attractive than any media.”
With time and patience, those sleepless nights will become a mere memory. “Those first six months go so fast," says Dr. Wurm. "The baby stage doesn’t last forever.” You may even find yourself yearning for those exhausting, yet endearing moments.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune.