From A to ZZZZs: Solving Baby Sleep Problems

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by Ann Douglas

While your nightstand may be overflowing with books about pregnancy and birth, you may want to add a baby sleep book to that stack, too. Getting the sleep facts of life before your baby arrives on the scene can help you to be a more rested new parent. Here's a quick guide to get you started.

Top Seven Strategies for Preventing Baby Sleep Problems

  1. Try to get your newborn to bed when he is sleepy but not overtired.
  2. Use the power of daylight to reset your newborn's sleep-wake clock.
  3. Provide your newborn with a sleep environment that is sleep enhancing, not sleep inhibiting. Make sure your newborn's sleep environment is safe, too.
  4. Start thinking about how you're gradually going to teach your baby self-soothing skills. (You want to start teaching your baby these skills by the time he is three- to four-months of age -- the time when babies are capable of learning about sleep associations.)
  5. Think about how you're going to ease your newborn into a more regular sleep and nap schedule. (Pay attention to his evolving sleep-wake rhythms and you'll start to see patterns start to emerge.)
  6. Avoid highly stimulating forms of activity right before bedtime or your newborn may be too wound up to go to sleep.
  7. Don't forget to practice good sleep habits (don't overdo it with the caffeine or the alcohol, particularly close to bedtime; and make sure you're getting enough physical activity to be physically tired at the end of the day) and make sleep a priority for yourself, too.

Problem
"Everyone in my life keeps passing along different baby sleep advice. Even the experts don't agree! I don't know who to believe."

What to try
It is confusing-and overwhelming. But you'll lose a lot less sleep over sleep once you accept that there's no one-size-fits-all sleep solution. Before you settle on any sort of sleep training method, make sure it's the right one for you and your baby. Your parent intuition will help you to come up with a customized sleep solution-perhaps the best elements of some "off the shelf" sleep solutions or something uniquely designed by you to meet your child/family's needs.

Problem
"My baby startles into wakefulness the moment I get him to sleep. Then I have to start trying to get him to sleep all over again."

What to try
You can minimize the likelihood of startling once baby is in bed by minimizing transition to sleep environment: smell, temperature, noise, motion/vibration. As baby gets a little older, you'll want to start thinking about encouraging a self-soothing routine, but while the colic is the primary concern, make soothing your baby the priority.

Problem
"Our newborn is waking up every two hours to be fed. We're hardly getting any sleep."

What to try
Your newborn is growing at such a rapid rate that she needs to dine around the clock in order to take in enough calories to fuel that growth. (Her stomach is still very small, so it can't hold much food at one time.) Because you can't do much about the frequency of these feedings, you need to work on the other side of the equation-maximizing your opportunities for sleep and boosting your energy in other ways. Here are a few tips:
• Sleep when the baby sleeps (or make daytime sleep a priority as much as you can).
• Have your baby room in with you and simplify nighttime parenting by only changing your baby when your baby actually needs to be changed in the night (soiled diapers or very wet diapers).
• Call for backup (e.g., your partner, family, friends, postpartum doula, and anyone else who may be willing to pitch in).
• Boost your energy through exercise and ensure that you're consuming ample quantities of high-quality foods.
• Learn to manage the stress that goes along with being chronically sleep deprived. Talk to a friend or join a moms' group (face-to-face or online).

Problem
"My baby hates sleeping on her back, but I know this is the sleep position that leading health authorities recommend."

What to try
It's important to place your baby on her back to sleep (unless, of course, your baby's health-care provider has recommended an alternate sleeping position) because this is the position that has been proven to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If your baby is unhappy sleeping in this position, you may want to try swaddling your baby (wrapping her in a sheet or thin blanket). Just make sure that she doesn't become overly warm and that the swaddle can't become unwrapped. You don't want the sheet or blanket to cover her face.

Problem
"Our "high needs" four-month-old wants to be held for long periods of time. She spends a lot of time nursing for comfort, and she can't seem to sleep unless she's in physical contact with another human being."

What to try
You've discovered what countless other parents of "high needs" babies have discovered before you: "high needs" babies are "high needs" 24 hours a day! There's even hard evidence to back up this parental observation. A University of Reading, UK, study found that children with more challenging temperaments take longer to master basic sleep skills and need more help from their parents to master these skills. While other four- to five-month old babies may be ready to start to learn to soothe themselves to sleep, "high needs" babies may or may not be ready to master this skill at the same time as their age-mates. Research has also shown that parents of "high needs" children need to be more persistent in implementing consistent bedtime rituals, consistent bedtimes, consistent wake times, and teaching their children self-soothing behaviors.

Problem
"My eight month old wakes up every hour on the hour all night long. I'm not getting any sleep at all."

What to try
Most babies don't have a biological need to be fed in the night on a regular basis once they reach about five to six months. (Of course, some breastfed babies choose to nurse for comfort in the night well into the toddler years.) If you'd like to reduce the frequency of your baby's night-time feedings or wean your baby off those feedings altogether, try:
• Offering your baby something other than food when he first wakes up.
• asking your partner to check on your baby. (Remember, mom = food.)
• making sure baby's actually waking up in the night-not just making noises in his sleep.
• giving baby a chance to get himself back to sleep if he's making "talking" or "mild complaining" sounds that sound more like someone who's half-awake and mildly disgruntled than someone who is in distress. We don't want to try so hard to prevent our babies from experiencing any sort of frustration, however brief or mild, that we deprive our children of the opportunity to develop valuable self-soothing skills (the foundation on which "sleeping through the night" rests).

Problem
"My nine-month-old was sleeping through the night, but now he's started waking up again."

What to try
You're not going back to square one when it comes to sleep, even if it feels that way. This is just a temporary blip on the road to sleep nirvana. Chances are your baby is experiencing one of the following two common scenarios:

1. A developmental breakthrough. If she's learning to pull herself up to a standing position, for example, she may feel "driven" to practice that new standing up skill at 3 am-only to discover that she can't get herself back into a seated or lying down position.

2.Separation anxiety. Keep your baby close to you during his waking hours. Remember separation anxiety is the ultimate compliment to you: you're special!

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 republish granted to Pregnancy.org.