Sleep is important at every age, helping us to be happier and healthier. When it comes to babies, sleep also helps them grow and develop.
As parents, there are ways you can help your child get enough sleep (newborns typically need 16 hours every 24 hours), according to Jean Twomey, PhD, who works with families whose babies have regulatory disorders such as colic and sleep through the Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic in the Center for Children and Families at Women & Infants Hospital.
"Sleep influences the baby's mood and when babies don't get enough sleep, they may be fussy and irritable," she notes.
It may sound odd, because we tend to think of sleep as something babies do well, but parents really can help their babies be better sleepers. Creating a predictable bedtime routine can be the first step to helping your baby get enough sleep, she explains.
"Soothing, predictable routines help a baby prepare for night time sleep, and can be a close and loving experience for parents and their baby," Dr. Twomey says. "For families experiencing difficulties with their infants' sleep, making bedtime the 'anchor' of the day can be a good starting point for establishing a bedtime. Instead of thinking of the baby's day as revolving around when he or she wakes up in the morning, try to think of the day as revolving around the infant's bedtime."
She suggests you can do this by:
- Making sure the bedtime feeding takes place during the time planned for the bedtime routine
- Spacing naps so the your baby will be sleepy at bed time
- Avoiding naps for two hours before bedtime
- Choosing a bedtime that works for the family, but considering when your baby gets tired. When infants get over-tired, it can make it harder for them to fall asleep
Once you set a bedtime for your baby, create a pleasant experience for the whole family that can include:
- A quiet feeding, a bath, low lighting, soft music either sung by you or from a mobile or music box, sharing a picture book or rocking gently
- Doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place every night so your baby can develop sleep associations that will help him or her fall asleep and fall back to sleep during normal night-time wakings
- Waiting for your baby to become used to the routine, and then placing him or her into the crib, on their back, when drowsy but still awake
"Infants who experience difficulties with night-time wakings may be looking for the same activities that helped them to fall asleep at bedtime. Babies who require a lot of help from their parents at bedtime may look for the same help in the middle of the night. That is one reason we stress the importance of the bedtime routine. We also recognize that parents who are working so hard to help their babies fall asleep at bedtime usually have infants who have trouble falling asleep," Dr. Twomey notes. "It is important to determine if there are medical reasons contributing to the baby's sleep problems."
By six months of age, most infants are able to sleep through the night and do not need a night-time feeding. "Sleeping through the night" is defined as not waking between midnight and 5 am. However, research shows that 25 to 50% of babies over six months still wake up during the night, often to eat. Dr. Twomey says it can be helpful for night feedings to be quieter and less interactive than day-time feedings so the baby doesn't wake up fully and to help the baby learn the difference between days and nights.
You can introduce naps with a shortened version of the night-time routine. It can be helpful to have regular nap times based on knowing when your baby tends to get tired. Waiting for the baby to signal that he or she is tired (for example, rubbing the eyes) may actually make it harder for the baby to fall asleep because he or she is over tired. For children taking one nap a day, making that nap after lunch helps create a clear routine.
Back to Sleep
Keeping the routine organized – the soothing words of a classic tale, the baby's favorite lullabies, the softly glowing bunny light – is only part of what you need to be doing at bedtime. Making sure your baby has a safe sleep environment is also key.
Women & Infants embraces the "Back to Sleep" campaign introduced by the American Academy of Pediatrics to promote safety in the crib. Since its introduction, the campaign has noted a decline of more than 50% in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) cases. According to the campaign, all babies should be:
- Put on their backs to sleep
- Placed in a safety-approved crib with a well-fitting sheet on the mattress
- Laid down with nothing covering the head
- In a crib with no pillows, blankets, sheepskins, stuffed animals or bumpers
- Kept away from cigarette smoke
- Dressed for the temperature in the room; to avoid letting your baby get too hot, dress him or her lightly and set the room's temperature in a range that is comfortable for a lightly clothed adult
Sometimes, all the common tips do not seem to help your baby fall asleep. Dr. Twomey and other experts with the Center for Children and Families and the Crying, Colic and Sleep Clinic are available to help. If your baby or even an older child has challenges around sleep, call them at (401) 274-1122, ext. 8935.