“I’M EXHAUSTED! HELP! HOW DO I GET MY BABY TO SLEEP?”
I commonly receive this question from parents when their infant reaches about one month of age. The adrenaline from the excitement of the new baby has carried them for a while and it’s starting to dwindle. They expected to be tired, but maybe not this tired. And the initial help they had around the house, from the new grandmas and grandpas, as well as friends, is beginning to dissipate. This is when sleep deprivation begins to get old and tired (pun intended).
Newborns usually sleep about 16 to 20 hours in a 24-hour period. So why does it seem like they don’t sleep? Human beings of all ages have sleep cycles consisting of periods of lighter sleep, deeper sleep and brief or partial awakenings. Most of us have brief or partial awakenings every two to three hours and fall back to sleep immediately without any memory of waking up. However, babies usually wake every two to three hours and stay awake to have diapers changed or to be fed before they settle back into sleep.
My best advice for new parents is to change the way they measure good sleep. Instead of tallying the number of hours your baby is sleeping, track how long your baby is not sleeping. As a general rule, don’t let your baby be awake for more than one to two hours at a time. If the time they are awake goes on too long, your little one becomes overtired and over-stimulated, making it much more difficult to soothe them back to sleep.
Expectation Month to Month
Month one: Babies in the first month of life don’t have any patterns to their sleep cycles. This generally generates the frantic “HELP!” questions posed to me in my office.
Month two: In the second month, babies are more likely to have one slightly longer sleep duration about four to five hours long and, thankfully, it’s usually during the nighttime hours.
Months three and four: Between the ages of three and four months, babies start getting better at self-soothing. This means that they are able to fall asleep better on their own without a parent feeding or rocking them. This is the age that I advise parents to think about setting up good sleep habits.
A common mistake made by parents is that they think rocking their baby to sleep helps. What it actually does is teach the child that they need a parent to fall asleep. Instead, if a baby is left alone at the right moment and allowed to self-soothe, she will learn to fall back to sleep despite the every two or three hour sleep cycle awakenings. A more effective step to establish good sleep habits is to put your baby in the crib when she is drowsy, but not fully asleep, and then let her fall asleep on her own. You might hear a few minutes of fussiness at first, but as your baby gets better at self-soothing, this will go away.
Months five and six: By this age, babies tend to have a more predictable daytime schedule with a morning nap, and one or two afternoon naps. Most also are developmentally able to sleep for an eight to 10-hour stretch without a feeding. But unless your baby already knows how to put himself back to sleep on his own, you still will be waking to crying every two to three hours.
Some sleepless nights are to be expected with a new baby, but it doesn't have to mean months of sleep deprivation. Set your expectations, pace yourself for a six-month process and establish good sleep habits starting in month three or four. It’s much easier to establish good habits than it is to get rid of bad ones!
Dr. Star is an avid hiker and the mother of three. She has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for more than 20 years. While she treats most pediatric issues, she is passionate about the topics of Celiac Disease, breastfeeding issues, allergic conditions, sleep disorders and nutrition. She currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Highland Park Pediatric Associates a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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