Sleep is essential to a baby’s healthy development. Sleep boosts the immune system, regulates hormones and fuels critical brain growth. New parents (especially moms) also need sleep. Numerous studies prove that sleep deprivation after delivery can cause anxiety, depression, irritability, head and body aches, as well as hypertension and insomnia. Getting too little sleep can also deplete a nursing mother’s milk supply.
But getting sleep after baby is often challenging. Having realistic expectations of how babies reallysleep, however, can help eliminate unnecessary stress and help you create an effective sleep plan. In the first twelve months, your baby’s brain and body is constantly changing and growing. These cognitive and physical growth spurts can seriously disrupt sleep. Here’s a quick guide to how babies sleep in the first twelve months.
Newborns and infants need to stay hydrated and gain weight. This explains why very young babies are up around the clock to feed. Don’t expect any discernable sleep patterns at first. As a rule, babies this age tend to get tired after an hour or two of being awake. During this exhausting time, maximize your own sleep by asking friends or family for help, limiting social commitments and visitors, hiring a babysitter so you can nap and sharing responsibility for night feeds with your partner. At this stage, many babies respond well to movement induced sleep in a swing, car, stroller or carrier.
Four to Six Months
At approximately fourteen to sixteen weeks, many babies experience what is commonly referred to as the “four months sleep regression.” This fitful phase in your baby’s sleep development can last for many weeks and is characterized by frequent waking and early rising.
This is a great time to contact a sleep coach to help you implement gentle, effect sleep techniques. These include creating a soothing bedtime/naptime routine and putting your baby to sleep in a semi-dark, non-stimulating environment. At six months, many babies are taking two or three naps a day, with a bedtime between 7:30- 8:00 p.m. When your baby “drops” the third nap, move bedtime up to 6-6:30 p.m. to prevent him from becoming over tired.
Six to Nine Months
While a baby’s brain and body are still growing rapidly, their sleep becomes more predictable. At six months, many babies are still up once or twice a night to feed. They need two naps at approximately 9:00 a.m. and at 1:00 p.m. with a 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. bedtime. By nine months, two naps each day continue, but night feedings are unnecessary. This allows babies (and their parents, hooray!) to sleep largely uninterrupted from 6 p.m. – 6 a.m.
Nine to Twelve Months
As babies near their first birthdays, many gear up to walk. This can be taxing, requiring a baby’s body and brain to work overtime. Stick to two naps and a 6 p.m. bedtime during this exciting, yet exhausting, time. At around twelve months, many of my clients call to say that their baby is “moving” from two naps to one. Stick with your regular routine. Most babies switch to one nap a day between 15-20 months, not before.
Over time and with help, your baby can become an easy, happy sleeper. In the meantime, find ways to keep yourself as rested as possible. Investing time and attention to your family’s sleep is well worth the effort, and will pay off for years to come.
Common Sleep Myths
Myth: “Skipping naps and keeping my baby up late at night will help him sleep through the night faster.”
Naps and age-appropriate bed times are critical to better night sleep. Inadequate daytime sleep can leave a baby over-tired and over-stimulated, making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep at night.
Myth: “I need to sleep train my baby from day one or he will learn bad habits.”
In the first 12-16 weeks after birth, a baby’s brain is too immature to respond to most sleep training techniques. Sleep coaching can be very effective for babies starting at around 4 months of age.
Myth: “My baby doesn’t look tired; she must need less sleep than other babies.”
All babies need approximately the same amount of sleep per day. Signs of fatigue are subtle and easily missed, especially in the first few weeks after birth. Yawning, face scratching, pulling the ears, a sudden lull in activity coupled with a “ten mile stare” as well as sudden crankiness or crying are all signs that your baby needs sleep.
Myth: “I should never rock, bounce, swing or nurse my baby to sleep.”
Many babies younger than 16 weeks need help falling asleep. After this time, a sleep coach can help parents implement sleep techniques that help your baby fall asleep on his own.
Myth: “Using formula or putting rice cereal in a bottle will help my baby sleep longer.”
Sleep is primarily a function of brain activity and maturation. Changing your baby’s diet will have little, if no effect, on sleep. Overfeeding or substituting formula or rice cereal for breast milk can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort like gas or constipation which, in turn, can disrupt sleep.
Myth: “If I let my baby cry at nap or bedtimes, it will scare him and break our emotional bond.”
There is nothing harder than hearing your baby cry. But crying releases endorphins and helps lower stress hormones in a baby’s bloodstream, making it easier for them to relax into sleep. Young babies should never be left alone to “cry it out”. If you suspect your baby is crying because he is tired-hold him and soothe him, but don’t try to deliberately stop the crying.
Myth: “My baby will outgrow his sleep issues if I just wait long enough.”
Healthy sleep habits rarely happen, they must be taught. Similar to toilet training or learning to ride a bike sleep training takes requires parental involvement, practice and consistency.
Editorial provided by Andrea Elovson, a baby/toddler sleep coach and founder of Sleepy Bug, a pediatric sleep coaching and education service. Sleepy Bug has been featured in local and national media outlets including Main Line Today Magazine and CNN Money.com. Andrea’s articles have appeared in Parenting, Kiwi and babyzone.com. Andrea lives with her husband and three children in Wyndmoor, PA.