You know how good it feels to get a full night’s sleep: You awake refreshed and ready to face the world. But while adults usually prefer a seven- or eight-hour stretch, newborns typically sleep in two- to three-hour spurts. As a new parent, how do you reconcile that difference?
“If your aim this year was to get more sleep, you may have made a mistake nine months ago,” says pediatrician Jay Gordon, M.D., co-author of Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed (and a Peaceful Night’s Sleep!) (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). Interrupted sleep will be the norm for some time, Gordon adds, but not forever. In the meantime, you and your baby can learn to adjust to each other’s patterns—
“For the first three months, your job is to follow your baby’s lead, promptly responding to cries for food, diaper changes and comforting,” says George J. Cohen, M.D., editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Sleep (Villard Books, 2002). As your baby gets older, you can determine where she sleeps, her going-to-sleep routine and how you will respond to nighttime wakings.
Location, location, location: The usual options for where your baby will sleep are a crib in her room, a bassinet or “co-sleeper” next to your bed, or your own bed. If you’re tentative about having your baby in bed with you, consider this: Breastfed babies who sleep in bed with their mothers nurse more and gain weight easier, according to studies at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Also, the closer your baby is to you at night, the more easily and quickly you will be able to respond to her needs.
No matter where your baby sleeps, make sure the mattress is firm and there are no crevices where she can get stuck. Never place pillows or comforters near your sleeping baby, and always put her down to sleep on her back to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Easing into a ritual: Use room temperature, light and noise to signal to your baby that it’s time for sleeping or waking. The room temperature should be cool for sleeping: between 65° F and 70° F, according to Cohen. In the morning, open the blinds and go outdoors with your baby to signal that it’s daytime.
Many babies will fall into a natural rhythm of napping in the morning and afternoon. You can help your baby find this rhythm by following a loose routine. “Putting your child down for her nap at the same time every day helps set her internal clock,” says Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night (Harper Perennial, 1997).
Before bedtime, dim the lights, rock your baby, play quiet music and talk softly to help ease her toward sleep. Start your routine at the same time each night. Also give your baby opportunities to fall asleep on her own: Watch for signs of tiredness, then put her to bed when she’s drowsy but still awake.
In the middle of the night: Babies can be noisy sleepers, whimpering or crying out in their sleep. Listen to or observe your baby before responding so you don’t inadvertently wake her, Cohen says. “Learn to distinguish between sleepy cries and cries of hunger or pain,” he adds. “Give your child a few minutes to settle herself, but respond quickly to distress.”
Richard A. Ferber, M.D., director of the Sleep Laboratory at Children’s Hospital in Boston, gained notoriety for suggesting that parents let babies cry for progressively longer periods of time. Other experts recommend that you scale back your interactions without letting your baby cry it out by herself. For instance, when your baby is 9 to 12 months old, you can respond to her nighttime wakings by talking to her gently and rubbing her back rather than by picking her up and holding her. This allows her the chance to learn to fall back to sleep by herself.
Finally, remember that you needn’t struggle alone. Talk with other parents and your doctor. And take comfort in the fact that despite your own temporary sleep deprivation, your baby will certainly get the sleep she needs.