Do you ever wish you could get a parenting do-over? I would apply my free pass (all right, one of my free passes—I would need a small stack) to go back and attend to my second baby’s sleep habits. Because my first child was a calm, happy girl who could sleep just about anywhere—in restaurants, at the movies, on cross-country flights—I wasn’t sure what to do with my much needier son when he came along three years later. Finn wanted to be held all the time. He always seemed tired, but he wouldn’t sleep when I tried to lay him down for naps. My husband and I asked each other, “Have you ever seen an infant with dark circles under his eyes? Why won’t he sleep?”
I wish I’d had a little more knowledge in my arsenal back then. As I’m learning more about infant sleep patterns, I wonder if Finn could have napped more successfully if I had been aware of his biological clock, putting him down when he needed to go down, not when it was convenient for me. My boy is now a healthy, active 6-year-old who hasn’t napped in years, but it’s not too late for you! Get informed, and get that baby napping like a pro.
Sporadic sleep in the early days
The typical newborn sleeps for about 16 hours out of every 24 in the first months of life. Naps may be short but frequent—your wee one needs his sleep, but he also wants to wake up to eat.
Baby’s sleep, like ours, consists of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the brain is very active; this is the sleep state where dreams occur. Concurrently, NREM is a deep sleep when the body and mind really slow down. Newborns experience longer periods of REM sleep than older children or adults, perhaps because their brains are developing so swiftly. (This might also explain why newborns often seem to be light sleepers.) Of course, both sleep states are extremely important, and your little one will experience both at every successful nap.
In the beginning, baby’s sleep habits are borderline nocturnal. Think about his schedule in the womb: During the day, mom’s movement lulls him to sleep. But at night, she lies still, and he becomes more alert and active. These habits are often apparent after birth until newbies get the hang of daytime life.
To help your little one learn the difference between day and night, provide periods of engagement during the day. Between feeding and napping, give baby some conversation, eye contact, tummy time or peekaboo. Allow him plenty of daylight, and don’t worry about silencing the noise of the household.
At night, your babe will wake up for feedings, but when he does, keep the lights low, don’t talk much, and put him back to sleep when he’s done eating. After a while, he’ll get acclimated to the daytime/ nighttime habits of the home, gradually sleeping less during the day and more at night. Do not attempt to deprive baby of daytime naps in hopes of getting a few more hours of sleep at night. It doesn’t work!
Getting into a routine
Over time, your newborn’s REM sleep will decrease as his NREM sleep, or deep sleep, increases. By three months of age, tots still need 13 to 15 hours of sleep per 24, but naps are longer and more predictable. Polly Moore, PhD, author of The Natural Baby Sleep Solution, recommends putting baby down for naps at regular intervals based on a biological rhythm called the basic rest and activity cycle (BRAC).
The BRAC is species-specific. For humans, it’s a 90-minute cycle. Moore found that infants consistently exhibit sleepy behavior in tune with the BRAC, growing tired 90 minutes after they last awakened. “After 90 minutes of wakeful- ness, the baby has completed the alert phase governed by his inner clock,” says Moore. “This is when the baby has the best chance of falling asleep quickly and easily.”
When your little one does fall asleep, he might stay down for a brief nap or several hours—either way, he’ll be ready to snooze again only 90 minutes later. Moore adds that as baby (and parents) become in tune with the 90-minute rhythm, naps are likely to assume a 90- minute pattern as well. “You’ll probably start to see naps that last either an hour and a half or three hours,” notes Moore. Sleep sessions will grow longer—especially at night—as baby gets older, but the 90- minute multiples will remain discernible throughout the first year.
Keeping at it long-term
“This is not a program of putting the baby ‘on a schedule,’” Moore emphasizes. “Rather, the approach is to learn to follow your baby’s inner schedule, your baby’s own internal sleep and wake rhythms.” While your newborn is likely to follow the 90-minute pattern of alertness at least until his first birthday, it’s beneficial to learn to recognize signs of sleepiness in your baby so that you can quickly soothe him to sleep before he regains alertness. Signs may be subtle, but as he gets older, you’ll notice him yawning, rubbing his eyes, losing eye contact or otherwise exhibiting sleepy signals. When you recognize these signs and promptly get him down to sleep, baby will get the rest he needs. Otherwise, he will become alert again and miss his nap window, even though he might be exhausted on the inside.
Vacations happen, schedules vary, and sometimes your kiddo falls asleep in the car when you wish he’d waited until you got home. However, if you make an effort to put baby down for predictable daily naps at home, he’s more likely to get the rest he desperately needs through the first year and into toddlerhood.