Infant Sleep – Top 10 Things You Need To Know

Parents often ask me about infant sleep and what to expect in terms of their new baby sleeping. The elusive “sleeping through the night” is every parent’s dream and desire. Getting to that point is a constant work in progress!

Here are the top 10 things you should know about your new baby and sleep:

1. Infants are not born knowing how to sleep.

This is a shocking fact that seems so counter-intuitive to what we want to believe! Sleep takes a long time to learn and master. Sure, your new baby certainly sleeps a lot, but as the weeks progress this sustained sleeping changes, and nights can become tough. The whole “sleep like a baby” term really doesn’t exist.

Although it may seem odd that your new baby really doesn’t know how to sleep, it’s actually a protective factor. Babies need to be able to wake readily if they need to eat, or if their airway is being compromised. If they “slept like a baby”, they’d miss these crucial moments and be in serious danger!

Two to four hour sleep stretches are normal to expect at the very beginning. After a couple of months, you should be nearing the 4-hour mark at nighttime.

2. Babies have a completely different sleep type and sleep rhythm than adults.

Babies tend to sleep much lighter than we do. And, they cycle through the various stages of sleep more rapidly as well. This means that when babies enter the normal lighter phases in a sleep cycle, and have the normal periodic awakenings (that we don’t even notice as adults), they often have difficulty “turning off” the world and returning to sleep as rapidly as adults can.

These sleep transitions through the lighter phases of the sleep cycle tend to happen at 45 minute intervals in your new baby. If you watch him/her sleep, you may notice that somewhere around the 45-minute mark, they start to become a bit restless. This can be a very tenuous time for sleep, and many babies struggle to make this transition from a lighter sleep phase into a deeper sleep phase.

3. Some babies are able to put themselves back to sleep from day one, whereas others struggle and need assistance getting back to sleep.

If you’re one of the (few!) lucky ones, your baby seamlessly transitions from lighter sleep to deeper sleep, and most likely, you’re having an easier time with sleep in general. If your baby is like most of their peers, this whole 
“getting back to sleep” part is a struggle. Instead of dreading this awakening (often referred to as the “45 minute intruder” because it tends to occur around the 45 minute mark-see point #2), you can actually help your baby make a smoother transition from light-to-deep sleep. Sometimes a pacifier is all your baby will need, sometimes is a few pats on his/her tummy or back, sometimes it’s a “dreamfeed” nursing session, or just a reassurance that you’re around.

Whatever strategy you have been using to get your baby to fall asleep generally applies here in terms of helping your baby stay asleep. If you rock, bounce, sing, “shush”, feed, etc to sleep, then you will likely have to return to this method to help your baby transition and stay asleep.

Helping your baby stay asleep is often something that eventually stops on its own over time, and as your baby grows and develops. However, it can also become a crutch that your baby relies on to get to sleep and stay asleep. Make sure that you’re not rushing in, and attending to every noise your baby makes. Give him/her a few minutes to try and settle him/herself. I remember that when my daughter was a few months old, she would move around and fuss between the 4-6am hours every morning. I fondly referred to this time as “the witching hours,” and grew to dread every early morning. I was rushing in and trying to “stop the problem” the second she started to get restless. Eventually, I realized that my well-intentioned “help” was actually causing her to wake more, and that if I just let her be, she often was able to return to sleep on her own!

4. Night feedings are important – to a point.

Most breastfed babies will need to eat during the night until around 9 months of age. After the 9-month mark, babies don’t technically “need” that nighttime nutrition. Formula fed babies may stop the night feedings slightly earlier, around the 6-month mark.

After the first month or so, don’t wake a sleeping baby at night to feed, unless your healthcare provider has told you otherwise.

Once your baby has passed the couple month mark, if your night feedings are frequent and you feel like your baby is only nursing for a minute or so, or taking only an ounce or two of milk, then it may be time to try another soothing method before offering food right away.

Some babies will naturally drop a nighttime feeding, whereas others may need some guidance.

5. Babies need to mature in order to have a long stretch of sleep.

Since sleep is a learned skill, it takes time for your new baby to master sleeping. This applies to both nighttime and daytime sleep. It usually takes somewhere between 4-6 months of life for your baby to figure it all out. Some babies don’t “sleep through the night” until close to a year of age.

6. What is “sleeping through the night?”

For some babies this can mean sleeping somewhere between 10-12 hours at night.  For others, this may be 7-8 hours. All babies need about 14-16 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period once they are a couple of months old. This amount of sleep is usually spread out among the 24 hours, with the bulk of sleeping done during the nighttime. However, some children may only sleep 7-8 hours at night, and then take a few long daytime naps, whereas others may get close to 12 a night and take a couple of short naps.

A lot of what defines how your baby will sleep is his/her temperament.

Some of what determines their sleep schedules is how you choose to set up sleep.

7. Sleeptime routines are important!

By around 4 months of age your baby should start establishing a sleep pattern. This means that your baby will be getting the bulk of his/her sleep during the night, with 2-3 naptimes during the day. Around 4 months of age, babies also are more aware of their surroundings. This means that they can easily be over-stimulated and kept awake by bright lights, noise, people, etc. Because of this fact, it’s essential to create good, solid sleeptime routines.

  • Try to have some calm and quiet time starting a few minutes before you intend to put your baby down for a nap or bedtime.
  • Turn off the lights. Blackout shades are often a lifesaver!
  • Turn off the sounds, unless it’s a white noise machine or soft/soothing music.
  • Speak in quiet, slow voice. Try not to do too many songs, or stimulating activities.
  • If you chose to feed to sleep, make sure you’re consistent with your method.

This can be frustrating for many parents because you feel housebound when your baby is napping. Remember that the number of naps decreases fairly quickly, and this short term “annoyance” will end up serving you and your baby well.

Doing the same things every time before you put your baby down to sleep helps him/her to understand what’s coming next. Most babies thrive on routine.

Establishing good sleeptime routines at the beginning will help set you up for successful sleep as your baby grows and develops.

8. An overtired baby has trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.

Although this sounds counterintuitive to us, a baby who is overtired and/or over-stimulated has a much more difficult time settling down and “turning off” things around them. This makes it much harder for these babies to actually fall asleep and stay asleep!

Once you miss the window of opportunity regarding sleep, it can be a struggle to get your baby to rest easily. This is in part due to a release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released when your baby is over-stimulated, overtired, and/or stressed. It can inhibit the body’s natural ability to sleep.

There’s a famous baby sleep saying, “Sleep begets sleep”. This is SO true. Babies who are well rested tend to sleep better and longer. I didn’t believe it until I had my own children, and saw this in action!

All of this being said, you cannot make your baby sleep. Simply provide them with appropriates places and times to sleep. A good rule of thumb is to try and place your baby down somewhere between 2-3 hours after they have awakened (from the night or a nap).

9. How should my baby sleep?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all babies be put to sleep on their backs. (The “Back to Sleep” campaign.) In addition, it is strongly recommended that babies sleep on a firm mattress without any stuffed animals, accessory bedding, bumpers, or anything else in their sleep space. These are all protective recommendations to help set up the safest sleeping environment to protect against SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

Somewhere between 2-4 months of age your baby will likely learn how to roll from their back to their tummy. If they can roll, you can’t stop them. In most cases, babies actually prefer to sleep on their stomachs and tend to sleep better once they can roll. This is also largely due to the fact that they can now position themselves comfortably for sleep. There is no need to rush in and roll them back over, however, the AAP still recommends always placing your baby on their back to sleep regardless of if they will roll.

Many parents ask me about the safety of breathable bumpers in their baby’s cribs. No bumpers are a good idea…breathable or not. All bumpers pose a suffocation and entrapment risk.

Do not place anything (but a pacifier) in the crib with your baby until they are over 1 year of age. It is ok to use safe sleep sacks/swaddles, but no loose blankets, lovies, pillows, stuffed animals, etc.

10. How do I know when my baby is tired?

Tired babies tend to start getting fussy before they are ready to sleep. They may rub their eyes, start sucking (when you know they’re not hungry), squirm, yawn, and rub their faces or ears. Know your baby’s “tired signs” so that you can put them down before they reach that overtired stage.

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