Sleep Begets Sleep
Research shows that when babies sleep, their nervous system settles. That means that sleep is part of your baby’s biology for calming. If your baby misses out on sleep or doesn’t sleep well, they may be missing out on the settling and calming that sleep provides. This can make for a very sleep-deprived, fussy, and cranky baby who may have more difficulty not only sleeping but also learning, interacting, and socializing. And the more sleep-deprived your baby is, the more difficulty your baby will have sleeping. Sleep-deprived babies need a lot more parent help to sleep and research shows that they also cry more. Remember the adage “sleep begets sleep.” Babies who are better rested will sleep better over all.
Babies are born with many different reflexes. You will know that your baby is having a normal startle or “moro” reflex because you will see your baby bring his arms out wide before bringing them back together. The startle reflex passes quickly, usually within a few seconds, but it can wake a baby who is sleeping. Some babies can drift back to sleep when their startle reflex wakes them but other babies will not be able to do this and they will wake from sleeping and begin to cry. Babies grow out of the startle reflex between 3-6 months.
Circadian Rhythm Development
When babies are born, their circadian rhythms are not fully developed. Baby’s circadian rhythms develop over the course of the first 2-4 months. Unfortunately for parents, this means that early on, baby may want to sleep more during the day and be awake more at night. You can help your baby’s circadian rhythm to develop by offering frequent feedings during the day, every 2-3 hrs, and opening the drapes or blinds in your home during the day, allowing in natural light. Exposure to natural light helps to set the circadian rhythm early on.
Introduce a Bedtime Routine
Early on, your baby will need even more of your help to sleep. You can help your baby to know that it is sleep time by introducing a consistent bedtime routine. You can start to do this around the time your baby is between 6-12 weeks old. Start the bedtime routine within 60-90 minutes after baby’s last nap. Keep the bedtime routine short, 15-20 min total, and repeat it night after night. A good bedtime routine may include a warm bath, or a short massage, singing a lullaby with baby on your shoulder or cuddled in your arms, or reading a short board book. If baby is crying, skip the bath or book and just get baby down to sleep. As you begin to do the bedtime routine consistently, you will see that your baby goes down to sleep more easily at bedtime. You can also do a short and simple 5-10 min pre-nap routine to help your baby go down for a nap.
Follow The Sleep Cues
When all else fails, follow your babies sleep cues. Babies are experts at letting parents know when they are getting tired and need sleep. Babies have early stage sleep cues and late stage sleep cues. Common early stage infant sleep cues include yawning, the area around your babies eyebrows turning red, your baby rubbing his ears, head, or eyes with his hand, or baby gazing off, also called “gaze avert.” Common late stage infant sleep cues include baby arching and becoming rigid, baby balling hands up into fists, and finally, baby screaming or crying hysterically. You can help you and your baby to avoid these late stage sleep cues by learning to pay attention to the early stage sleep cues and helping baby to get down to sleep early on their sleep window.
Developmental Stages Regress Sleep
Infant sleep development is anything but simple and when babies go through normal developmental milestones, you can count on their sleep regressing too. While some babies regress just a little bit other babies regress a lot more and will often have to relearn old sleep habits following the developmental milestone. Common developmental milestones are learning to roll, sleeping on tummy, crawling, pulling up to standing, talking, social milestones, and babbling/talking. Also, travel, illness, teething, mommy going back to work, can also regress your babies sleep. After a few nights on up to a week or two, your baby will begin to sleep better again. If your babies sleep doesn’t get back on track, you can use one of many sleep learning methods to help you and your baby get your needed sleep.
Keep it Consistent
It has widely been believed that babies would not learn how to sleep unless they were sleep trained. Studies addressing childhood sleep problems have only looked at sleep training methods that utilize crying as a solution. New research is now showing us that parents may use one of many different sleep methods to help a baby or young child to sleep, but that it is consistency that is key with regards to the sleep method being successful. In addition, research is now showing us that whether or not a sleep method is successful may rely upon an infant or child’s temperament and how they respond to a method. Future research will explore the idea that temperament plays a role in how infants develop soothing and settling patterns for sleeping and how parents’ perceptions of their infants sleep may also play a role in how their infants develop sleep patterns.
Babies Learn to Sleep From Parents
A strong emphasis has been put on newborns sleeping alone and independently as a way to foster self-soothing and sleeping. Parents have often been discouraged from co-sleeping because it may hinder their infant’s self-soothing skills and infant becoming too reliant on parents for sleep. New research is now showing us that newborns need to be close to us to help to develop sleep cycles and sleep safely. The research has been important enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that parents room-share with their babies the first six months (the AAP still advises against bed-sharing). It seems that babies need our help as they develop sleep cycles early on and learn how to sleep.
Babies Need 10-12 hrs of Sleep At Night
Very often parents will ask me how they can attain the “holy grail” of infant sleep: twelve hours of straight sleep. Many opinion-based sleep books suggest that all babies can sleep twelve hours straight at night. This is simply not true and leads to parents to not follow their babies sleep cues and individual sleep needs, and worse, parents feeling like they may be doing something wrong if their baby doesn’t sleep twelve hours. The research shows that by 3-4 months of age, following the organization of your baby’s circadian rhythm development, your little one will need between 10-12 hrs of sleep at night and daytime sleep varies depending upon your baby’s age. The research shows that “sleeping through the night” may yet include one feed at night for a six-month old. Watch your babies sleep cues and signs of tiredness. If your baby is getting over-tired, your baby will be more difficult to put down and if they are not getting enough sleep at night, they will wake up cranky and tired in the morning.
Make Time for Cuddles
New research is showing that it’s the time your baby has with you before bedtime that might make a difference in how your baby sleeps. That parents emotional availability before bedtime may make for a better sleeping baby. That means that in the hour or two before bedtime, make some special one on one time just for you and your baby. Since the end of the day and bedtimes are often very busy for families, especially for families with more than one child, try to make just 15-20 minutes of one-on-one time with your baby or child before bedtime. Give your little one your attention and try to “be present” with your little one, making eye contact with them, and slowing down your interactions with your little one. Try to repeat this special time with your little one every evening.
Research shows that early on, in the first 3-4 months, up to 25-35% of babies may have colic or reflux and as a result, may have a more difficult time with sleeping. Possible reasons include digestive issues like reflux, when food may come back up just as they are going down to sleep or as they are sleeping. Also, temperament has been shown to play a role in how babies settle to sleep. Difficult-to-soothe or high needs babies may need a lot more parent help to go from active play or alert time to sleep time. These babies may be very curious and alert and may simply need more “wind down” time in order to fall asleep. And for some babies, they may have more difficulty regulating sleep. These can be colic babies or colic/reflux babies but also some premature babies and babies who may have had medical interventions or procedures at/around birth or early postpartum. For these babies, sleep may present a real challenge. Because sleep cycles and patterns develop over time and with parents help, these babies are going to need a lot more help and time to regulate settling to sleep and sleep patterns. Fortunately, around 4-6 months of age, most babies will grow out of their reflux or colic symptoms and parents will see the development of soothing and settling patterns that will better help their baby to get their needed sleep.
• Try your best to help your baby sleep every 1.5-2 hrs.
Babies who have greater difficulty sleeping can easily get sleep deprived. When this happens, it’s even more difficult for them to sleep. Pay attention to your babies sleep signs and get them down to sleep early in their sleep window.
• Block out all of the interesting things in your infants sleep environment.
These babies may need a very dark room or background sound, like a sound machine, or music in order to drift off to sleep. Use black-out-shades/drapes to darken the room where your baby sleeps.
• Help your baby settle and transition from alert time to sleep time.
These babies need even more transition time from playtime to sleep time. You will want to introduce a 10-15 min pre-nap routine so your baby can settle and get ready for sleeping. Keep it simple!
• Swaddle hands-up and at midline.
If your baby “fights” the swaddle, chances are they want their hands-up and in the fetal-tuck “hands-to-heart” position. Instead of getting rid of the swaddle prematurely, better to use a “hands-up” swaddle like the Hands to Heart Sleep Swaddle to help your baby to sleep “hands up.”
• Take a deep breath!
Research shows that a relationship exists between maternal anxiety and disorganized infant sleep cycles. It’s not clear why but it’s possible that babies are learning from us how to “regulate” their internal states. Before helping your high needs/fussy baby sleep, take a deep breath and do your best to slow down. After all, babies are learning from us how to slow down and settle down to sleep.
• Routine and consistency.
High needs, reflux, and colic babies may need even more consistency with their daytime schedule and routines. Do your best to follow a feed-play-sleep routine every 3 hrs. The rhythm and repetition of the schedule helps babies regulate and set patterns for sleeping and feeding.
• Get out of the house.
Parents of a high needs, colic, or reflux babies may be doing even more comforting and consoling with their baby. Research shows that postpartum depression and anxiety rates are higher for mothers of these babies. One of the reasons for this may be that mother’s of high needs babies may spend more time at home and alone. For this reason, and as daunting as it might be, try to get out of the house at least every day. Take a walk with your baby or meet up with another mom.
More than anything, ask for help, enlist your spouse/partner, extended family members, and friends to help with taking care of baby so you can get a break. Try some of these suggestions and remember that by 3-4 months of age, 75% of babies will grow out of their colic/reflux and you can try one of many different sleep methods to help to fade away irregular sleep patterns.