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As the mother of three, I have personally experienced the devastating effects of sleep deprivation with young babies. The early days with newborns are physically and emotionally exhausting, and I have vivid memories of attempting many different strategies in order to get my own babies to fall or stay asleep. In my professional work with new parents, the topic of how to get babies to sleep has been brought up in almost every class I have taught over the past 15 years. As a culture, we’ve come to believe that getting our babies to sleep should be our top priority as new parents.
But what if we’ve got it all wrong? There is no denying that we all need to sleep, and the effects of ongoing sleep deprivation can be very harmful both physically and emotionally. However, by having unrealistic expectations about how babies sleep and why they wake, we can set ourselves to feel like we are failing every time our babies’ sleep patterns don’t match up with our society’s standards for sleep. Therefore, I’d like to propose a shift in our thinking when it comes to baby sleep challenges. Let’s start by revising our expectations of our baby’s sleep by coming to a better understanding of the science behind sleep, along with the developmental progression of baby sleep patterns.
In utero, babies are “held” in a small, dark space and they experience gentle movements as their mother moves throughout her day. The baby will experience movement and hear “shushing” sounds from it’s mother’s body. Nutrition is provided continuously from the placenta, so hunger is not experienced until after birth. Babies in utero sleep about 90-95 % of the time, as sleep is how their brain develops and helps them to grow to prepare for their “birth” day.
Newborns are born with complete dependence upon their caregivers. They require frequent feedings, frequent diaper changes, and ongoing soothing for comfort. Therefore, the first days and weeks of life with a newborn are spent supporting the baby’s transition from womb to world. This typically means that your baby will prefer to be held over being put down in a crib or bassinet, and you will probably feel like your baby sleeps a lot throughout the day and night.
Newborns are not born with the ability to produce the sleep hormone, melatonin, nor do they have a circadian rhythm until they are closer to 3 months of age. Therefore, new parents should expect to have very inconsistent sleep as they provide care and comfort to their baby throughout the first 12 weeks of life. A newborn’s sleep cycle is also unique in that it is short and consists of only 2 stages: light sleep (active sleep) and deep sleep (quiet sleep). These short sleep cycles of 45-60 minutes allow for frequent wakings which are protective in nature.
The frequent wakings are also essential for your baby’s nutritional needs. A newborn’s stomach capacity is very small, therefore your baby will need to wake to eat every 2-4 hours day and night. You may experience one longer sleep stretch from your baby during these first weeks of life, but in general we expect that healthy newborns will wake frequently. The biggest challenge of this period is the parental adjustment to this drastic change in their normal daily routine, along with the frequent wakings which result in a drastic loss of sleep. New parents can overcome some of these challenges with a lot of support from friends and family who can help by providing meals and help with household chores, as well as help with the baby throughout the day which can allow new parents to take frequent naps to try to make up for lost sleep.
An adult needs approximately 4-5 completed sleep cycles each 24 hours, which equates to about 7-9 hours of sleep. Since sleep is disrupted with a newborn’s frequent wakings, a new parent should try to take several naps throughout the day and night in order to achieve multiple completed sleep cycles. Therefore, throughout the newborn period of the first 12 weeks, new parents should focus on ways to ensure they have the support and help they need at home with their baby so that they can rest and nap in a similar way that their newborn does.
Having a baby that will only sleep in your arms can be a challenge for some new parents. On the other hand, some new parents may feel differently and argue that it is biologically natural for a baby to sleep when held close to their caregiver. That’s the thing about parenthood, everyone is on their own unique journey. What feels like a challenge for some can be a conscious choice for others. If you feel like you are struggling with a baby that will not sleep unless being held, it is important to recognize that our babies need us for comfort. Being held is almost always your baby’s preference, so in order to help your baby gain some independence for sleep, you will need to support your baby’s ability to self soothe.
Most babies will attempt to self soothe by using their hands to touch their face, touch their hands together, or to suck on their fingers. If your baby cannot get to their hands, they cannot learn how to self soothe. Therefore, it is important to give your baby access to their hands from birth. Try not to use baby mittens or hand coverings, and if you choose to swaddle your newborn, swaddle your baby with their arms up to give them their hands for comfort.
The other reason that babies prefer to be held during sleep is that they often prefer the position and the gentle motion and sounds that they experience while being held. A baby needs to learn the skill of sleeping independently on their back. For safe sleep, it is important to give your baby a safe sleep environment and place them on their back for every sleep. Many babies will struggle with this, and will need ongoing support from their caregivers as they learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep independently.
To help your baby with this skill, practice laying them in the crib or bassinet frequently. Place them in their own sleep space and if they are slightly drowsy, stay close and put a hand on their chest. If the baby begins to fuss, gently pat and begin “shushing”. Providing repetition of sound and slight movement will help to calm the baby and help them to fall asleep. The more times you repeat this process, your baby will come to understand what to expect when placed down for sleep and you should be able to begin removing some of the comfort techniques slowly as you determine your baby’s ability to relax, self soothe and fall asleep independently. Be patient with your baby during this process, as it may take a while to get to a place where you can just put them down with no fussing. A consistent routine is the key to helping your baby know what to expect as they learn how to sleep on their own.
Sleep regressions are actually a normal part of your baby’s healthy development. We prefer to think of them as sleep progressions, because your baby will typically be progressing towards a milestone or developing some new skill when they occur. Sleep will often get disrupted during these times, and these sleep disruptions can be very challenging for parents. The first time we typically see a change in sleep occurs somewhere around your baby’s 4th month. The reason we see this sleep disruption is because it is usually around this time that a baby’s sleep architecture changes.
For the first 3 months, your baby’s sleep cycle is broken into only 2 stages: light sleep and deep sleep. Around four months of age, this changes and your baby’s sleep cycle changes to be more like an adult’s sleep cycle with multiple stages. Sleep is a developmental milestone, and this is the first big development your baby will reach. in sleep! Therefore, you may experience more frequent wakings or challenges with bedtime during these times.
We also see sleep disruptions that happen as a result of physical developmental milestones such as rolling, sitting up, crawling, and walking. Your baby’s brain and body are growing at exponential rates, and these changes will usually impact sleep. Additional impacts on sleep include teething, illness, and changes such as travel/vacations. Remember, these challenges are a part of normal, healthy development for your baby! Try to remain consistent with your routines and this will help your baby during this period of transition.
If you are struggling with the effects of sleep loss due to your baby’s sudden sleep changes, it is important to remember that you may need a nap or a much earlier bedtime after multiple sleepless nights. You may not be able to control how your baby sleeps, but you do have control over your own sleep routine. An essential nap of approximately 90 minutes that which allows you to make up for lost sleep cycles may be necessary for you to feel more like yourself. If a nap isn’t possible, make it a priority to go to bed earlier during this challenging time.
Nighttime sleep is very different from daytime sleep for babies. All babies will require frequent daytime naps throughout most of their first year of life. The amount of naps and length of naps will vary depending on your baby’s age, temperament, and your family’s lifestyle. Short naps can sometimes be very frustrating for parents. It is especially frustrating when we know our babies seem very tired and we get them down for a nap, only to have them wake up after 30 minutes! However, it is important to remember that it is completely normal and healthy for babies to have naps that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to over 3 hours.
Daytime naps occur as a result of something called homeostatic sleep drive. This is a sleep pressure that builds in our body as the length of awake time increases. This is where the popular phrase “wake windows” comes into play, as many parents will try to determine the length of time that their baby can be awake before they begin showing sleepy cues again and need a daytime nap. Wake windows should be used as loose guidelines for determining your baby’s nap routines. It is more important to be very aware and responsive to your baby’s cues for sleep, and try to put your baby down for a nap as soon as you begin to see those sleepy cues. Catching early sleepy cues should result in your baby going down for a nap much easier.
However, there is no way for parents to control how long their baby’s nap will last, as this is completely dependent on your baby and when they wake. Many babies will show patterns of sleep that allow parents to predict when their baby will need to nap and how long they will nap. However, there will always be variations of these sleep patterns simply because there are many different factors that impact sleep patterns and why babies wake up. Therefore, although a consistent sleep routine is important, you should also feel like you can live your life as you need to. If you need to go out and do errands, let your baby have one nap on the go in the car seat, stroller or even in a baby carrier that you wear. If you happen to have a day where naps are way off your baby’s normal pattern, plan to aim for an earlier bedtime to help your baby get a better chance to make up for lost daytime sleep.
Every baby is on their own developmental curve when it comes to reaching their milestones. As noted earlier, sleep is one of those developmental milestones. Therefore, when your baby is developmentally ready, they will begin to have more consistent longer stretches of sleep.
Because sleep and feeding are intertwined in the first 6 months of life, many babies will continue to wake for a feeding even beyond 6 months of age. This is one of the reasons that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that sleep training should not happen much earlier than around 6 months of age. The other reason goes back to that notion of self-soothing and falling asleep independently. Babies need time to learn how to self soothe, which can directly support their ability to fall asleep independently. No one actually “sleeps through the night”. We all rouse and wake up at points throughout the night, we just may not remember waking, or we are so used to having the skills to fall back to sleep that we don’t really think about the effects of waking up through the night.
For our babies, it can be a completely different experience because they may wake and need their caregivers for various reasons, including basic comfort during the night. Until our babies mature and develop the ability to self soothe and fall back to sleep independently, they will continue to need us during the night. It is completely normal and healthy for babies to need care and comfort during the night. It is challenging and frustrating for us as parents to have to wake up with our babies night after night, and there is no denying that parents need to address their own sleep needs. Some parents may choose to sleep train their babies when they are desperate for sleep. We like to call this sleep learning. There are several methods of sleep learning for parents if they choose to do this with their baby. If this doesn’t feel like the right choice for your family, that’s fine too! As noted earlier, when it comes to parenting, we are all on a unique journey and what feels like a challenge for some can be a conscious choice for others.
Baby sleep challenges can often cause much stress and concern for parents. However, it is important that parents understand baby sleep, developmental milestones and have realistic expectations about what their baby is capable of when it comes to self soothing, falling asleep independently, and actually making it through the night without feedings and parental comfort. It is important to know that eventually, your baby will be a better sleeper. In the meantime, it is also important to make your own sleep habits as healthy as possible. Utilize your support system to help with your baby, take naps when you’ve had sleepless nights, and try to have a consistent bedtime routine for yourself. By controlling your own sleep habits, you will feel more rested and have more energy as you support your baby through the development of their sleep milestones.