Sweet Slumber

Winter is the time when everyone around us slumbers.  Birds and squirrels nestle into nests and spend hours upon hours just resting, creating a warm nest which they dash out of from time to time in order to find food. Toads and frogs sink into the warm mud deep under the frozen lakes and lie dormant, waiting until spring before jumping back into action around the pond.  Bears hibernate, spending all winter in a tired, growly, sleepy state.

And babies?  What about the babies? Is there slumber for babies during their first year of life? The answer, as many parents will agree, is usually a resounding “not as much as we thought”.

The early childhood staff at Hopkins was recently discussing the struggle parents often have in learning how to help their baby sleep–and in learning what is normal for babies in their first year. We have compiled a list of ideas and hints that may help parents develop strategies for helping their child sleep–and maybe find a way to provide sweet slumber for the whole family.

Is there a “normal” sleep pattern for babies from birth to 12 months?

Although there are general guidelines around baby sleep patterns, it is rarely helpful  to use a label such as “normal”, “good” or “bad” when we  talk about sleep habits.  It is generally accepted that babies from birth to twelve months sleep between 14 and 18 hours, divided between naps and night time. However, predictability in sleep patterns proves to be very difficult to put on a simple time line. The Hopkins staff remembered their experiences with their own children, and we found predictability around sleeping occurred within a span of baby being around six months to eighteen months. This predictability was completely thwarted during illnesses, daylight savings time changes, and developmental milestones affecting sleep patterns (for example when the baby is learning to crawl). When considering methods for helping baby get to sleep and stay asleep, instead focus on your specific family situation and determine if what you are doing is meeting the following goals: the methods are safe, they allow all family members to get the sleep they need, and they are methods you are comfortable with.

What can parents do to help baby sleep?

As adults we find that we need certain things in order to sleep.  Some of us need white noise, some of us need to read, some of us need a completely dark and silent room. Our children will also develop ways in which they begin to calm their body down for sleep.  During the first year of life, it is our job as parents to create an environment which helps baby learn how to slow his body down and drift off to sleep.  Here are some strategies to use that help lay the groundwork for sleep:

  • Develop a bedtime routine and remain consistent.  The bedtime routine should move the baby into a calm state.  Some activities in the routine could include: bath time, feeding, story time, rocking, massaging, singing, or something else that feels restful and special. The routine does not have to be long and complicated, but should be repeated each time so that baby understands these activities are leading to sleep time
  • Choose a consistent bedtime for naps and night time sleep. By sticking with a schedule, baby’s internal clock begins to be set to a regular sleep / wake schedule.  Therefore, he is more likely (hopefully) to become tired during the time that you would like for him to go to bed
  • Avoid active play an hour before bed time.  Instead, find calm and quiet activities that encourage baby to slow his body and his mind
  • Avoid any screen time–TV or computer–an hour before bed time. Babies are easily stimulated by this, even if they are not actively “watching” it
  • Lower the lights an hour before bedtime
  • Keep the room where baby sleeps calm and simple. Avoid mobiles, bright colors and lots of toys. Send a message through the environment that this area is a place for sleep, not play
  • When possible, put baby to bed drowsy, but not yet asleep. This allows baby the experience of falling asleep on his own. This is not always possible with very young babies, as feeding often results in that precious “full belly sleep” that we so cherish, but if the opportunity presents itself to allow baby to fall asleep himself, allow the baby to do so

Baby wakes in the middle of the night

Adults and babies wake up in the middle of the night naturally. In fact, babies around 12 months old are generally still waking up one or two times a night.  We as adults tend to put ourselves back to sleep so smoothly that we rarely remember we woke up at all. We have developed “self-soothing” skills. Babies will eventually learn skills for putting themselves back to sleep too.  Our night-time interactions with baby lay the foundation for this skill.

It is respectful and builds a trusting relationship when a parent attends to the needs of her baby–whether the needs are being met during the day or the night. It is also important to remember that one of the baby’s core needs is for sleep, and that a parent will likely be more in tune to the child’s needs if she is getting enough sleep herself.

We can attend to the needs of our child during this first year while also reinforcing the idea that night time is for sleep by using some of the following strategies:

  • Keep the room dark when you go to your child during the night
  • While attending to their needs be loving, but as “boring” as possible
  • Remember that the strategy you are using to help your child go to sleep now will likely become a sleep association–the child will  be looking to these methods in the months to come as a means of helping him go back to sleep. Build habits you feel comfortable with
  • Some babies make noise as they sleep–crying out or whining or groaning. Remember that these noises do not necessarily mean a baby is in distress. Allow the baby a moment to drop back into sleep herself before entering the room to comfort her. If baby continues to cry, then you know she needs you. If she doesn’t, she has begun working on the skill of soothing herself to sleep

Normal disruptions in sleep patterns

Just when a parent feels like the family has hit upon a sleep system that is working for everyone, baby is likely to enter a stage that shifts her ability to sleep.  This is due to normal development. The following ages and stages often result in baby’s sleep being disrupted:

  • around 4 months, baby’s brain goes through a cognitive shift, and this often disrupts sleep
  • around 8 months baby develops “object permanence”. This means a baby knows a parent is nearby and would prefer to be with them. Even at night. This often disrupts sleep
  • around 9 months baby learns how to fight sleep, even when he really needs it. This resistance can disrupt sleep
  • When baby learns a new motor skill–such as sitting up, crawling or pulling to a stand, this will disrupt sleep.  The brain is re-adjusting to such a huge motor activity, and sleep is disrupted

During these normal periods of sleep disruption, it is beneficial to continue to stick to the back-to-sleep routine that has been working. Stay consistent through these stages, and trust that baby will remember how to go back to sleep as he moves out of this stage of development.

Books for parents to read while awake at 2am

  • Touchpoints by T. Berry Brazelton
  • Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth
  • Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber
  • Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Sweet Dreams!



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