For many new parents, the most difficult adjustment is lack of sleep due to baby’s inconsistent sleep patterns. New parents are often inundated with advice about how to get their baby to sleep better or longer. While it may not be the easiest adjustment, the reality is, babies are unlikely to have uninterrupted sleep for several months. In other words, the often-shared advice to “sleep when baby sleeps,” may prove to be a challenge
Day and Night Routines
According to Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and owner of Bedtime Bliss Sleep Consulting, Danielle Daly, newborns actually sleep for the majority of the day, but not all at once or all during typical nighttime patterns.
“Newborns typically sleep for 16-18 hours within a 24-hour period,” says Daly. However, their sleep patterns can be very unpredictable. She continues, “While newborns do produce melatonin, it’s not produced in a typical day/night rhythm until about the third month. This makes it easy for them to get their days and nights mixed up.”
It’s important for parents to help newborns fall into a better day/night routine. According to Our Lady of the Lake Pediatrician, Dr. Aimee Bergeron Ferrell, “Once babies are home, they will begin to adjust to their new surroundings, but it is a good idea to expose them to light during the day and darkness at night.” Exposing babies to the daylight and darkness will help them adjust to an appropriate sleep and wake cycle.
Babies Awake at Night
However, babies will still wake during the night. Newborns typically will need to feed anywhere from one and a half to every three hours, which can sometimes occur during the night.
Dr. Ferrell reminds parents not to expect babies to sleep through the night at least for the first three months. “Prior to three months of age, babies need to wake frequently to eat because their stomachs are not able to accommodate enough breastmilk or formula volume to sustain them.”
However, there is potential for sleep to eventually consolidate. According to Danielle Daly, there is even potential for excellent sleep as babies get older. “The circadian rhythm improves in babies around four months, and parents can expect sleep patterns to begin to improve; because at this age, babies are biologically more capable to sleep for longer periods of time.”
Daly reminds parents that during the first three years of development, the most amount of melatonin is produced in the body. This surge in the sleep hormone sets the stage for the potential for really great sleep. However, sleep is actually a skill that needs to be taught. According to Daly, sleep issues are often habit based and not a result in the inability to sleep. Dr. Ferrell encourages families to help babies learn to self-soothe. “Most babies, after the age of four months old, should be able to sleep anywhere from 8-10 hours and do not need to be fed at night.” Daly and Dr. Ferrell agree that the best way to encourage a good night’s sleep is through consistent bedtime routines. “Establishing a consistent nighttime routine early in the child’s life will also assure an easier transition to proper sleep,” says Dr. Ferrell.
Local mom, Ashlee LeBlanc Bergeron started with nighttime routines when her babies were very little. It was an opportunity for both her and her husband to spend bonding time with the babies and set the stage for quality sleep. “My husband would bathe the babies with music playing and he’d sing to them,” she says. “After their baths, I’d take them to their rooms to read a few books while rocking them.”
Daly suggests that incorporating soothing or calming activities into their routines, such as reading or baths, prior to bedtime, is helpful in encouraging good sleep habits for your children.
To further encourage good sleep habits for your children, Daly explains, “Put baby down early, ideally around 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. each night, and allow babies to fall asleep on their own.”
No matter what bedtime routine a family chooses to establish, both Dr. Ferrell and Daly insist that consistency is always key. Good sleep habits are formed over time and are strengthened by consistent routines.
Sleepwalkers at Night
Despite good sleep routines and establishing healthy sleep patterns, some parents may experience night walking or sleepwalking in their young children.
Local mom, Sachelle Stephens Kelly, was experiencing great sleep patterns with her middle child until he was moved out of his crib and into a regular bed. “He started night walking once he was moved out of his crib,” she says. “Sometimes we would find him in the den on the sofa with a pillow and blanket.”
According to Dr. Ferrell, sleepwalkers are usually unaware of what is happening. “This child is usually in a deep stage of sleep and is totally unaware that she is doing this. In fact, the child usually has no recollection of the episode afterward.”
Kelly recalls instances when her son would interact with her. “He can be up walking around and have a conversation with us, and then go right back to his bed to sleep,” she says.
While seeing a child while he or she is sleepwalking may be unsettling to parents, the most important thing to remember when dealing with a night walker is safety.
Both Daly and Dr. Ferrell encourage families to make sure that the home and surroundings are safe for the children.
“Parents should consider making sure that the sleepwalking child will not be able to access stairs and fall,” says Dr. Ferrell. “They should also make sure that all doors that exit outside are locked with a deadbolt so that the child can’t inadvertently let herself out of the house.”
One last key to good sleep for babies and young children is to place a limit on their screen time. Both Daly and Dr. Ferrell agree that screen time should be significantly limited prior to the children’s bedtimes.
According to Dr. Ferrell, “Children should not go to bed with a TV, phone, or tablet in their face.” This is probably a good habit for anyone who is trying to get to sleep as exposure to light can interfere with the pituitary gland’s natural release of melatonin; the hormone that helps people of all ages to always get a good night’s sleep. ■