Babies and Sleep

Ann Douglas's picture

by Ann Douglas

sleeping babySleep. It's the stuff of which dreams are made -- particularly when you have a newborn baby. Ann Douglas, author of The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby, has some information about your new baby's needs.

Erratic sleep patterns

A long day of parenthood is finally drawing to a close. You abandon your plans to fold that last load of laundry, heading for bed instead. You no sooner fall into a deep sleep when you're awakened by the only member of your family who seems to be getting enough rest: your baby! If you're feeling a bit frazzled and exhausted by your baby's erratic sleep patterns, you're not alone. According to Dr Richard Ferber, author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, newborn babies typically sleep about sixteen or seventeen hours per day, but rarely for more than a few hours at a time.

Evolving over time

Fortunately, babies' sleep patterns evolve over time. "During the first few weeks of life, a baby's patterns are erratic," said Dr Deborah Lin-Dyken, a developmental pediatrician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "By age three to six months, however, most babies have switched to a circadian rhythm in which they sleep more at night than during the day."

It's at this point that most babies are ready to start sleeping through the night. According to Dr Alan Greene, a pediatrician in San Mateo, California, babies are able to make this transition more easily if their parents have helped them to learn how to differentiate between night and day during their first weeks of life.

To help young babies to learn the difference between night and day, Greene suggests that parents expose their babies to normal household noise during their waking hours, and engage in plenty of direct eye contact - something that babies find particularly stimulating.

"The most powerful wake-up activity is direct eye contact. When your baby locks eyes with you, it's almost like she's drinking a double latté. Her heart beat speeds up, her blood pressure rises a bit, and she becomes more awake." Greene also suggests that parents stroke their babies' feet during the daytime because this stimulates the pineal gland which helps in the regulation of the body's circadian rhythms. At night, the amount of stimulation should be kept to a minimum, and parents should rely upon a series of pre-bedtime rituals designed to cue the baby to the fact that the sandman awaits!

Interrupted nights aren't always a problem

While some babies start sleeping through the night largely on their own, others seem determined to stubbornly resist their parents' attempts to encourage them to abandon their nocturnal habits. Still, while it can be exhausting to have your sleep disrupted night after night, not everyone sees parenting a night-waking baby as a problem. Some parents -- particularly ones with other children who demand their time and attention by day -- may actually cherish a few stolen moments alone with their baby in the wee hours of the morning. Others, while not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of losing sleep, simply accept the fact that the baby is not yet ready to sleep through the night, and resolve to make the most of the situation while they wait for their baby's sleep patterns to mature.

Some parents (especially those in dual-working or single-parent households) may have a strong need to encourage their babies to sleep through the night as soon as possible. "For Joshua's first six weeks, Shannon was on maternity leave, so we were able to get up with him and she could catch up on her sleep during the day," said James Tew of Elgin, Illinois. "As she reached the end of her leave, we tried to get him adjusted more to our schedule, by putting him down to sleep at certain times and not picking him up if he woke during the night. That took some self discipline, since our first instinct was to go quiet him or give him a bottle, but we stuck to that. It actually only took a couple of nights before he slept through the night."

The Family Bed

Other families come up with different methods of coping with their night owls. According to biological anthropologist James McKenna of the University of North Dakota, many parents choose to take their babies to bed with them because it enables them to get more sleep. Because there is still a bit of a taboo about the so-called "family bed," many parents are unwilling to admit that they sleep with their babies, despite the fact that such co-sleeping arrangements are the norm for the vast majority of babies worldwide and there are many proven benefits to both mother and child. "We've been mis-schooled as to what is normal and beneficial for babies," said McKenna.

Mary Lynn Carver of Dallas, Texas, feels that her decision to sleep with her son Ryan during his first months of life was good for their entire family, but stresses the importance of having both parents committed to the idea. "Both the husband and the wife must agree about the sleeping arrangements or it will cause problems. I was very lucky in this regard as my husband Jeff and I both enjoyed the extra sleep as well as the chance to get to know our baby. When we started putting Ryan in his crib at night, it was great to have our bed back, but Jeff said he missed holding hands with the baby as they went to sleep."

The Ferber Method

Many parents choose to use the so-called Ferber method of teaching their babies to sleep through the night. This method involves responding to a baby's nighttime crying at timed intervals (i.e. five, ten, fifteen minutes), and minimizing the amount of nighttime interaction between parent and child. Suzi and Joe Prokell of Richardson, Texas, relied on such a technique to teach their eight month old son Jacob how to sleep through the night. "The rewards were immediate. He's slept through the night ever since and he's been much happier during the day."

While the Ferber method is considered to be highly effective, most parents see a tremendous improvement in their child's sleep patterns within a period of days, not everyone sings its praises. Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a pediatrician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and the author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is one of its most outspoken critics. He argues that it makes more sense to leave well enough alone, and encourages parents to respect -- rather than attempt to alter -- their baby's emerging sleep patterns. "Parents can't change the evolving rhythm of a baby's sleep patterns any more than they can change the seasons," he said. "What's more, parents who artificially interfere with their child's sleep patterns risk doing more harm than good."

Sleeping through the night

Most sleep experts agree that any attempts to encourage a baby to sleep through the night should be left until the child is at least six months of age. "Prior to that time, a child's brain and nervous system are simply not sufficiently mature to enable him or her to sleep through the night," explained Dr Charles Pohl, the director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While your first solid night's sleep following the birth of your baby may be a long time in the making, eventually it will come. In the weeks and months that follow, you may find yourself surprised by a sudden aching longing to find yourself pacing the floor by the light of the moon with a precious newborn infant cradled in your arms.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including the bestselling "The Mother of All Pregnancy Books." She regularly contributes to a number of print and online publications, is frequently quoted in the media on a range of parenting-related topics, and has appeared as a guest on a number of television and radio shows. Ann and her husband Neil live in Peterborough, Ontario. with the youngest of their four children. Learn more at her site, having-a-baby.com.

Copyright © Ann Douglas. Permission to publish granted to Pregnancy.org.