If you are a first time parent and the pressure to have a ‘good baby’ is making you feel like a failure, take heart. Despite a conspiracy of silence among parents (nobody wants to feel judged), little night howls are more normal than you might think – according to long term research at Bristol University (the Avon longitudinal study), at six months only 16% of babies were sleeping straight through (in infant sleep studies all night is only five hours!), over half woke occasionally, 9% did so on most nights and 17% woke more than once every night.
Why Do Babies Wake?In the early days, babies need to wake and feed to maintain an adequate supply of breast milk. They also have short sleep cycles and frequent arousals and the younger the baby, the more arousals are normal. According to researchers such as Professor James McKenna, from the university of Notre Dame, Indiana, these arousals may play an important protective role against SIDS: babies need to arouse if there is a breathing obstruction or if they are too hot or too cold (both SIDS risk factors). As well as reasons such as discomfort or hunger, it is also common for babies to wake as they reach new milestones and these can be physical (such as rolling or crawling), emotional (separation anxiety) or neurological – one common example of this is that at about 26 weeks, babies start to perceive distance so can become confused when they realise mummy or daddy are moving away and as a result, they become more clingy.
Smart SleepBabies spend around 50% of their sleep cycles in active (REM) sleep. It may be easier to accept your baby’s light sleep if you see this as ‘smart sleep’, playing an important role in brain development. During active sleep there is an increase in the production of certain nerve proteins –the building blocks of the brain – and blood flow to the brain nearly doubles compared to the deepest sleep state. It is also thought that the brain uses active (light) sleep to process information and this may explain why babies begin to wake again as they enter new developmental stages and ‘practise’ new skills (such as crawling) in their sleep.
Helping Your Baby To SleepOf course, simply knowing that you are not the only one soothing little might howls or that your baby’s wakefulness isn’t your fault, will not solve your sleep problems. So, if you are thinking that even five hours uninterrupted sleep would be a dream come true, there are some gentle strategies you can try to help your baby, and you, to sleep better.
Sleep Tip #1: Know Your Baby’s Sleep SignsNone of us like being kept awake when we are craving sleep, so rather than waiting until your baby is ‘past it’, put her to bed as soon as she shows sleepy signs such as becoming quiet, yawning, making “jerky” movements, frowning or knitting her eyebrows and clenching her fists into tight balls, losing interest in people and toys, and fussing. If you miss this window of opportunity, your baby is likely to become grumpy and find it difficult to settle.
Sleep Tip #2: Introduce Bedtime RitualsBedtime routines can become cues that help even tiny babies wind down and become conditioned to fall asleep. From the earliest days, give her a warm relaxation bath just before bedtime (tip – wrap and cuddle your newborn dry so she isn’t upset by her startle reflex).
Sleep Tip #3: A Magic TouchSilent nights could be at your fingertips: Research from Miami University showed that infants and toddlers who were massaged daily for one month, for 15 minutes prior to bedtime, fell asleep more easily by the end of the study.
Sleep Tip #4: Soothing SoundsThe calming, repetitive sounds of traditional lullabies recall the ‘womb music’ your baby heard before birth (your heartbeat, and fluids whooshing through the placenta). Baby music that incorporates elements such as the rhythm of the maternal heartbeat can have remarkable soothing effects, especially if played continuously through the night.
Sleep Tip #5: Rock A Bye BabyThe motion of a rocking chair or being carried in a sling will lull baby to sleep. So will a special-purpose baby hammock – and as baby moves and arouses during the night, her movements will start the hammock rocking.
Sleep Tip #6: All Snuggled UpThe startle reflex, a primitive survival reflex that produces spontaneous, jerky movements, even in sleep, can be disturbing (literally). Provide a sense of security by swaddling your newborn – wrapping him firmly in a gauze or muslin sheet (in summer) or a soft shawl in winter. Gradually wrap more loosely and discard the wrap as this reflex disappears (by around three months.
Sleep Tip #7: Cut Out CaffeineIf you are breastfeeding, caffeine can create a vicious cycle: you drink coffee (or tea or cola) to give you a hit, baby gets a boost of stimulant through your milk – and becomes restless. Newborns are particularly vulnerable to caffeine: a newborn may take up to ninety seven hours to get rid of caffeine in single cup of coffee (through your breast milk), so several cups of coffee could mean a very wakeful baby!
Sleep Tip #8: Daytime FeedsTiny tummies need frequent refills, but soon your baby will start sleeping at least one longer stretch between feeds. If baby sleeps more than four hours between feeds during the day, it is reasonable to GENTLY unwrap him and offer a feed, then he might save his longer sleep for nighttime. However, be patient if he is not ready to alter his pattern.
Sleep Tip #9: Try A Top Up FeedWhatever time your baby was last fed, gently offer a feed just before you go to bed yourself (don’t wake him, he will suck in his sleep) and, with luck, his longer sleep may coincide with yours.
Sleep Tip #10: Teach Baby Day From NightTeach baby the difference between night and day by keeping the lights low and attending to him quietly during night feeds. Save animated play and chatter for daytime.
Sleep Tip #11: Do Not DisturbAvoid waking baby during night feed times by changing the nappy either before or half way through a feed, not when baby is all ‘groggy’ and full. If baby is falling asleep during feeds, so only having a short feed, try changing the nappy half way through, then offering the other breast.
Sleep Tip #12: Let Baby Suck Up To The BossFalling asleep on the breast is one of the easiest ways for most babies to settle. This is due to hormones released while your baby feeds but if you are concerned about it becoming a habit, alternate feeding with other sleep cues and take heart: he may still like to snuggle up to a breast when he’s twenty one – but it won’t be yours!
Sleep Tip #13: Share SleepResearch shows that mothers and babies who sleep together (co-sleeping means within reach of each other, not necessarily in the same bed) share the same sleep cycles, so these mothers get more sleep overall. Remember SIDS risk reduction guidelines – maintain a smoke-free environment (don’t bed share if you or your partner are smokers); put baby to sleep on his back; avoid overheating (use blankets rather than doonas); keep baby’s head uncovered and use a firm mattress (no waterbeds). Both parents should avoid alcohol and medications that reduce awareness of baby. See Sleeping With Baby: Safe Co-Sleeping Tips and Is It Safe To Sleep With My Baby?
Sleep Tip #14: A Little Bit Of MummyIt’s not exactly a substitute for you, but if you slip your own soft, unwashed tee-shirt over baby’s mattress, she will be comforted by your familiar smell as she sleeps.
Sleep Tip #15: Stop The ClockSimply knowing how long you are awake can be enough to make you too tense to get back to sleep, or it may encourage you to rush your baby and make him feel anxious. If you see your baby’s waking as a genuine need, it could help you to enjoy this precious cuddle time: feel the softness of his skin, breathe in his delicious smell and snuggle!
Author: Pinky McKay
Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), infant massage instructor, mother of five and the author of Parenting By Heart,100 Ways To Calm The Crying, Sleeping Like a Baby, Toddler Tactics and her baby massage DVD, ‘Gentle Beginnings’. Based in Melbourne, Pinky regularly holds workshops and is available for mothers groups and conferences. See her website at http://www.pinkymckay.com.au.