Helping a baby sleep at night is a coming together of biology and social learning. New parents need to understand and partner with both forces in order to help their little one learn to sleep at night.
First, a stomach the size of a walnut cannot hold enough food to sleep all night. This is a simple fact, but one which parents need to remember. Second, a baby’s circadian rhythm is still developing. Melatonin begins moving from the mother to the fetus around 7 months’ gestation. It is not until 6 weeks after a full-term birth that the baby has the “chemistry” to distinguish day from night. Natural sleep cycles affect a baby’s sleep as well. All babies will move between still/deep sleep and active/light sleep about every hour at night. Babies need to group the cycles together without waking up in order to sleep for an extended period of time.
Babies (and grown-ups as well) associate going off to sleep with something: quiet music, a cuddle, a feather pillow bunched to just the right angle. Babies learn to associate going to sleep with suckling the breast, being rocked, skin to skin contact. However, if they ONLY learn to fall asleep under these conditions, they will be unable to get themselves back to sleep once they awaken during the active sleep phase.
1. Recognize (and find comfort in) the fact that you are not alone. You will experience several months of fatigue that all loving, competent parents undergo.
2. Nap during the daytime when your baby naps. Housework can be done for the next 20 years and need not be done now!
3. Make baby’s daytime sleeping and nighttime sleeping environments different: nap in the sunny, family room, and have “bedtime” in the quiet, darkened bedroom. (This helps to establish circadian rhythms.)
4. Learn to distinguish the two sleep cycles: still/deep sleep and active/light sleep. (See www.hugyourbaby.com “sleep”.)
5. When the baby wakes up from active/light sleep after only a short nap, talk quietly to her without picking her up and see if she will return to still/deep sleep. (It is easier to practice this during the day time at first.)
6. If you see her wiggling, smacking her lips, flashing her eyes open, and even making baby sounds – WAIT – and see if this is active/light sleep. Let her squirm a few minutes, and often she will return to still/deep sleep.
7. If it is time for your baby to eat and he does not wake up, wait for him to move into active/light sleep before you use your tricks to rouse him.
8. If your baby falls asleep while nursing, give her a little jiggle when you lie her down. This will help her move briefly back to active/light sleep and let her practice getting herself from this sleep cycle to the still/deep sleep cycle.
9. Notice how your baby contributes to comforting himself: bringing his hand to his mouth, making sucking movements, using the fencing reflex, “Spacing Out.” (See www.hugyoubaby.com “Crying”.) As he practices these efforts to comfort himself, he will be learning the self-regulation needed to sleep at night.
10. Be kind to yourself. Take a bubble bath. Ask for a back massage. Babies notice a mother’s tension, and just a brief “time out” for you can increase your baby’s ability (and yours!) to get a good night’s sleep!