Newborn Babies and Sleep

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted with permission of McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Publishing from The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley, © 2002.
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Congratulations on the birth of your new baby. This is a glorious time in your life. Whether this is your first baby or your fifth, you will find this a time of recovery, adjustment, sleeplessness, sometimes confusion and frustration, but—most wonderfully—of falling in love.

Babies younger than four months old have very different sleep needs than older babies. This article will help you understand your newborn baby’s developing sleep patterns and will help you develop reasonable expectations when it comes to your baby and sleep.

Read, Learn and Beware of Bad Advice

Absolutely everyone has an opinion about how you should handle sleep issues with your new baby. The danger to a new parent is that these tidbits of misguided advice (no matter how well-intentioned) truly can—if we are not aware of the facts—have a negative effect on our parenting skills and, by extension, our babies’ development. The more knowledge you have, the less likely other people will make you doubt your parenting decisions.

When you have your facts straight, and you have a parenting plan, you will be able to respond with confidence to all the well-meaning but often contrary or incorrect advice.

So, your first step is to get smart! Know what you are doing, and know why you are doing it.

The Biology of Newborn Sleep

During the early months of your baby’s life, he sleeps when he is tired—it’s really that simple. You can do very little to force a new baby to sleep when he doesn’t want to sleep. Conversely, there is very little you can do to wake him up when he is sleeping soundly.

A very important point to understand about newborn babies is that they have very, very tiny tummies. New babies grow rapidly; their diet is liquid, and it gets digested quickly. Breastmilk gets digested very quickly. Although it would be nice to lay your little bundle down at a predetermined bedtime and not hear a peep from him until morning, even the most naïve among us knows that this is not a realistic goal for a tiny baby. Newborns need to be fed every two to four hours-and sometimes even more often.

During those early months, your baby will have tremendous growth spurts that affect not only daytime, but also nighttime feedings as well, sometimes pushing that two- to four-hour schedule to a one- to two-hour schedule around the clock.

Sleeping “Through the Night”

You have probably heard that babies should start “sleeping through the night” at about two to four months of age. What you must understand is that, for a new baby, a five-hour stretch is a full night. Many (but nowhere near all) babies at this age can sleep uninterrupted from midnight to 5 a.m. (not that they always do), a far cry from what you may have thought “sleeping through the night” meant!

Here we pause while the shock sinks in for those of you who have a baby who sleeps through the night but didn’t know it.

What’s more, while the scientific definition of “sleeping through the night” is five hours, most of us wouldn’t consider that anywhere near a full night’s sleep for ourselves. Also, some of these sleep-through-the-nighters will suddenly begin waking more frequently, and it’s often a full year or even two before your little one will settle into a mature, all-night, every night sleep pattern.

Falling Asleep at the Breast

It is very natural for a newborn to fall asleep while sucking at the breast, a bottle or a pacifier. When a baby always falls asleep this way, he learns to associate sucking with falling asleep; over time, he cannot fall asleep any other way. A large percentage of parents struggling with older babies who cannot fall asleep or stay asleep are fighting this natural and powerful sucking-to-sleep association.

Therefore, if you want your baby to be able to fall asleep without your help, it is essential that you sometimes let your newborn baby suck until he is sleepy, but not totally asleep. When you can, remove the breast from his mouth and let him finish falling asleep without something in his mouth. When you do this, your baby may resist, root and fuss to regain the nipple. It’s perfectly OK to give him back the breast and start over a few minutes later. If you do this often enough, he will eventually learn how to fall asleep without sucking.

Waking for Night Feedings

Many pediatricians recommend that parents shouldn’t let a newborn sleep longer than three or four hours without feeding, and the vast majority of babies wake far more frequently than that. (There are a few exceptional babies who can go longer.) No matter what, your baby will wake up during the night. The key is to learn when you should pick her up for a night feeding and when you can let her go back to sleep on her own. Editor’s note: Consider the more natural approach of having your baby sleep with you, where you can tend to her needs instantly and seamlessly.

This is a time when you need to focus your instincts and intuition. You should try very hard to learn how to read your baby’s signals. Here’s a tip that is critically important for you to know: Babies make many sleeping sounds-from grunts to whimpers to outright cries, and these noises don’t always signal awakening. These are what I call “sleeping noises,” and your baby is nearly or even totally asleep during these episodes. I remember when my first baby, Angela, was a newborn. Her cry awakened me many times, yet she was asleep in my arms before I even made it from cradle to rocking chair. She was making sleeping noises. In my desire to respond to my baby’s every cry, I actually taught her to wake up more often!

You need to listen and watch your baby carefully. Learn to differentiate between these sleeping sounds and those awake and hungry sounds. If she is awake and hungry, you’ll want to feed her as quickly as possible. If you respond immediately when she is hungry, she will most likely go back to sleep quickly. But if you let her crying escalate, she will completely wake herself up, and it will be difficult for her to go back to sleep. Not to mention that you will then be wide awake, too!

Help Your Baby Distinguish Day from Night

A newborn baby sleeps about 16 to 18 hours per day, and that sleep is distributed evenly over six to seven brief sleep periods. You can help your baby distinguish between nighttime sleep and daytime sleep, and thus help him sleep for longer periods at night.

Begin by having your baby take his daytime naps in a light room where he can hear the noises of the day-perhaps in a bassinet or cradle located in the main area of your home. Make nighttime sleep dark and quiet. You can also help your baby differentiate day naps from night sleep by using a nightly bath and changing him into sleeping pajamas to signal the difference between the two times.

Watch for Signs of Tiredness

One way to encourage good sleep is to get familiar with your baby’s sleepy signals and put him down to sleep as soon as he seems tired. A baby cannot put himself to sleep, nor can he understand his own sleepy signs. Yet a baby who is encouraged to stay awake when his body is craving sleep is typically an unhappy baby. Over time, this pattern develops into sleep deprivation, which further complicates your baby’s developing sleep maturity. Learn to read your baby’s sleepy signs, and put him to bed when that window of opportunity presents itself.

Make Yourself Comfortable

I’ve yet to hear a parent tell me that he or she loves getting up throughout the night to tend to a baby’s needs. As much as we adore our little bundles, it’s tough when you’re awakened over and over again, night after night. Since it’s a fact that your baby will be waking you up, you may as well make yourself as comfortable as possible. The first step is to learn to relax about night wakings right now. Being stressed or frustrated about having to get up won’t change a thing. The situation will improve day by day; and before you know it, your little newborn won’t be so little anymore-she’ll be walking and talking and getting into everything in sight during the day, and sleeping peacefully all night long.

Editor’s note: Again, consider co-sleeping or attachment parenting to make the transition to regular sleep patterns easier and more natural.

About Author: Elizabeth Pantley


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