Good Sleep Habits from the Start

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Worried that your soon-to-be baby won’t sleep? There’s no magic formula, but these sleep tips will hopefully provide you with some assurance, and most of all, rest.

If there’s one thing that is universally true about caring for a newborn, it’s that the proud parents will be enduring some serious sleep deprivation. Although babies sleep a lot (we’re talking 16 to 17 hours a day early on), they also wake frequently and with several pressing needs.

Along with the new parents’ expected lack of Zs comes a sort of unexpected sleep naiveté. Is my baby getting enough rest? Where should she sleep? What time should she go to bed? When do I begin a bedtime routine? What is “sleep training”? What about SIDS?

Tired to the bone and confused by the massive amounts of infant sleep information out there—much of it presenting contradictory points of view—parents often feel as though they’re getting it wrong. But it’s important to remember that each family has different sleep patterns and needs. Establishing good habits is important, but whatever gets the entire family the best rest safely is the overall goal.

Sleep Parenting vs. Sleep Training

We live in a world of convenience. Every answer to every question is seemingly at our fingertips. For example, we can order groceries online and see them at our doorstep before dinner. This instant gratification of modern times has even trickled down to the way we view infant sleep. “Is your she sleeping through the night yet?” has been a common question for many years, but recent generations of parents have come to seek solutions to the so-called “sleep problem” of night-waking.

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“Sleep training” is a term that loosely covers many areas of parenting thought, such as Cry it Out (or CIO) or the Ferber Method, which both basically mean the same thing: letting baby cry for a period of time with a goal of teaching her to self-regulate, self-soothe and sleep for longer stretches through the night.

Some parents swear by some form of sleep training, but for others it comes with some level of guilt, misgiving or confusion. “My biggest regret in terms of sleep was the day I let my husband talk me into letting our son cry it out,” says Suzanne Thompson, a mother of two from Sacramento, California. “My sweet baby had cried so hard he vomited and then fell asleep in it. I’ve never actually admitted that before. It is still a huge source of shame and guilt for me, and needless to say, I never let it happen again.”

Parents often speak of crying themselves while incorporating CIO methods and recall “staying strong” on the other side of the closed nursery door. Why is this? Very simply put, we are biologically wired to go to our baby—no matter how exhausted or frustrated we might be. To ignore those cries goes against instinct and in turn raises the cortisol—or stress hormone—levels in both the parent and the child.

That’s not to say that it can’t work, and it’s certainly not to say that older babies can’t handle some independent fussing with nighttime sleep boundaries set by the parents. Experimenting with a reduction in soothing time and a wait-and-see initiative upon first cry is something known as “sleep parenting.”

Sleep parenting keeps the parent-child connection and the baby’s needs in mind. The term highlights the fact that parents are parents 24 hours a day. Children, and babies in particular, might have middle-of-the-night needs that are inconvenient to the parent, and the parent—or a trusted caregiver—should respond to those needs.

Understanding your Child’s Sleep

Such an important piece in understanding infant sleep is the realization that every baby is different. Some sleep characteristics are universal, but most are unique to the individual.

Consider the adults you know. Chances are you’ve encountered “night owls” and “morning people,” light sleepers and deep sleepers. Some of your friends may need 10 hours of sleep to feel sane, while others can cruise through the day energetically on a solid six and a half. Babies, too, have their own sleep characteristics.

“Temperament is the biggest factor in how babies sleep,” says Lisa Erbes, childbirth educator, lactation counselor and infant sleep consultant from Burnsville, Minnesota. “You cannot change your baby’s temperament, but you can change how you respond to your child’s particular sleep needs.”

Consider the adults you know. Chances are you’ve encountered “night owls” and “morning people,” light sleepers and deep sleepers. Some of your friends may need 10 hours of sleep to feel sane, while others can cruise through the day energetically on a solid six and a half. Babies, too, have their own sleep characteristics.

“Temperament is the biggest factor in how babies sleep,” says Lisa Erbes, childbirth educator, lactation counselor and infant sleep consultant from Burnsville, Minnesota. “You cannot change your baby’s temperament, but you can change how you respond to your child’s particular sleep needs.”

An example of adjusting to your baby’s temperament would be the evening routine: Most babies love baths and many respond to that activity by relaxing. However, some babies are easily overstimulated. For those infants, baths might be playful and exciting—which means it’s not a good idea, then, to bathe just before baby’s bedtime. This kind of discovery, of course, comes from trial and error. Get to know your newborn baby and respect her temperament. This will help you create an appropriate routine and get more rest.

How to Establish a Bedtime Routine

Here’s the cold-hard truth: You should expect your baby to wake frequently during the day and night. “A newborn’s brain does not make sleep hormones. Their sleep patterns are driven by one thing … getting fed,” Erbes explains. “How long they sleep depends on how long it takes to eat, digest and become hungry again.” In other words, it’s personal—and perfectly normal.

Erbes goes on to point out, “The definition of sleeping through the night, for an infant, is five consecutive hours after midnight.” That’s right: five hours.

With your expectations in check, you can start to establish a simple routine that lets your little one know that it’s time to rest. Examples of routine building blocks might include:

  • Bathing
  • Massaging
  • Singing softly
  • Reading a story or singing a lullaby
  • Quieting the house
  • Dimming the lights

Amy Magneson, MD, OB/GYN in Mount Kisco, New York, recommends parents begin this process sooner rather than later: “Do it early! Start establishing a newborn sleep routine right when they get home—a routine of where they sleep, what their nap times are and what their bedtime is. They may not stick to it right away—and that’s OK—but if the framework is there, it will make things so much easier.”

Consider Co-sleeping

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorses room-sharing, but not bed-sharing. However, some pediatric studies show a decrease in the risk of SIDS when bed-sharing is done properly, intentionally and between an exclusively breastfeeding mother and her child. In fact, James McKenna, PhD, the renowned Notre Dame University anthropologist and longtime advocate of proximal sleeping between mother and child, and his colleague Lee Gettler, PhD, advocate for the use of a new word: “breast-sleeping.”

“Our baby sleeps in bed with us and snacks on [mom’s milk] whenever she is hungry. This is standard in many countries but not always accepted in the U.S.,” says Jesse Oquist, a father of three in McKinney, Texas. “Some mothers have said that they can’t get enough sleep when the baby has an open buffet, but my wife wouldn’t be able to get to sleep any other way.”

La Leche League International has been recommending the practice for years. They emphasize their own resource, “The Safe Sleep Seven.” All criteria on the list should be met (for baby and mom) before considering bed-sharing, without exception:

1| Mom is a nonsmoker
2| Mom is sober and unimpaired
3| Mom is breastfeeding, and her baby is:
4| Healthy and full-term
5| On her back
6| Lightly dressed
7| Mom and baby are both on a safe surface

If bed-sharing seems too risky, you can still make the most out of room-sharing. According to Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, says that co-sleeping “allows parents to closely monitor their infant all night long. And [because] their baby is close by, they can get more sleep than if they’re worrying about the little one who is in another room.”

Rooming with your bundle of joy doesn’t just help mama catch more Zs (now that you don’t have to go across the hall for every night feeding), but it also bolsters your bond with baby because she’ll quickly learn you’re there if she needs you. Pantley says room-sharing should incorporate the following three key factors to be successful:

Keep Baby Close

Your tiny snoozer should be near enough to wake you if she stirs or makes a peep. Place her nearby in a crib or bassinet, or consider a sidecar arrangement in which a co-sleeping device sits directly beside the main bed. This way, you can see and touch her while keeping her out of harm’s way.

Ensure a Safe Sleep Environment

Mom and dad’s bed is too soft and warm for baby, putting her at risk for suffocation and overheating. Her bed should comply with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standards—make sure that the mattress is flat, firm and smooth, that the fitted sheet stays secure, and that there are no crevices she could get wedged in.

Be Continuously Flexible

As your tot (and perhaps your family) grows, sleeping arrangements will go through a transformation process during the first year. (Hello, four month sleep regression and many, many milestones!) Pantley’s advice is to stay aware of everyone’s needs, make thoughtful decisions and go with the flow.

Trust your instincts

It’s been years since her struggle with CIO, and Thompson has spent a lot of time reflecting on the incident. “I read a lot of books because I research everything, but when it came right down to it, I did what felt right and kept my children content,” she says. “Feeding them when they were hungry, letting them sleep when they were tired and just following their cues as much as possible worked very well for me. It was exhausting and wonderful all at the same time.”

There’s plenty to consider when it comes to infants and sleep, but if there’s one takeaway we can all benefit from, it’s this: Start with a deep breath, follow your instincts, and do the best you can.

By Jen Wittes

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