Infant Sleep: The Tired Frontier

I met a couple the other day, soon-to-be new parents, who were terrified by the stories they were hearing from their friends about their babies sleeping.

“We can’t afford to lose sleep!” the husband said. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading online. Our baby is going to be in a crib in her own room, and we’ll teach her to sleep on her own through the night.”

But Mother Nature just chuckles.

All new parents hope for a baby that sleeps through the night; but the truth is, newborns require about 16-17 hours of sleep, and wake up every 3-4 hours for many reasons. (Most babies won’t sleep through the night until about a year old!) They get lonely, too cold, too hot, they can sneeze and wake themselves up, and they get hungry or thirsty.

Adults wake up for many of these same reasons. Babies, however, can’t soothe themselves, yet. Mom and dad can grab another blanket, or get a drink and go back to sleep. Babies cry to communicate to you that they need something.

Responding to your baby’s need quickly, when they first start to cry, has been shown to prevent the rise of the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in their bodies. High levels of cortisol can lead to anxious babies with slower brain development. It can affect the ability of parents to soothe their baby, the relationship between baby and breastfeeding mother, and teach baby that even though they cry, no one will respond.

It can be a hard decision for parents to consider what’s best for their family. So, how can you make sure your baby feels safe and loved while also getting enough sleep for yourself?

  • Sleep where baby sleeps best.

This can be done safely in your bed with you (for breastfeeding mothers), in a bedside bassinet, or in a crib in your room. If your partner is a light sleeper, you can have baby in his own room and you sleep nearby. This allows you to respond to your baby immediately without disturbing your sleep too much, and letting you go back to sleep more quickly.  Sometimes, babies can wake themselves up, but not necessarily need anything. Placing your hand on them, just to let them know you’re there can be enough to help them back to sleep.

  • Sleep when baby sleeps.

You may be feeling overwhelmed right now, but being rested helps you cope. Trying to do it all on very little sleep is a guarantee you will burn out, get frustrated, and miss out on appreciating a period with your baby that goes by too quickly.

  • Recognize your baby’s sleep cues.

Your baby will let you know when she’s tired: yawning, rubbing her face, getting fussy. It’s best to jump on those hints before baby gets over-tired and you miss that sleep window. Most babies will have their own sleep schedule that will make it easier to plan your day, and know when to anticipate that nap time.

  • “Parenting” to sleep

This can involve anything that helps them fall asleep: a calming bath, a feed, rocking chair, a drive, wearing them until they drift off, or laying down with them. Keep lights low, noise down, with as little stimulation as possible.

Also, for the most part, when they wake up in the night, what put them to sleep will help them go back to sleep.

  • Routine vs Schedule

Babies don’t know what time it is. They learn the routine connected to bedtime. This could be a warm bath, a boob or bottle, mom rocking them, dad rocking them, and then sleep. The associations with sleep are more important than watching the clock and getting them to bed at 7pm.

Remember, every baby is different, and as long as they are getting enough and sleep, they are happy and healthy, you’re doing a great job. Every family has their own challenges. If you’re worried that you may never sleep again, talk to a sleep educator to figure out your own personalized sleep plan to accommodate your baby’s needs, and what would work best for your family.



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