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If only sleep were a less-perishable commodity — something parents could stock up and then draw on to help them though those exhausting first few weeks with a newborn. Unfortunately, sleep lost is lost forever, and new parents should prepare themselves early to find their own solutions to sleeplessness.
“Most people don’t bring a baby home from the hospital and expect it to sleep through the night,” says Richard Ferber, M.D., the controversial author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (Simon & Schuster, 1985) and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Ferber and others warn that continuous nighttime sleep generally eludes babies until at least 3 months of age — so keep your expectations realistic.
“There is nothing to be gained by trying to force sleep at the beginning,” says Ferber. “Physiologically, babies aren’t equipped to handle a more mature sleep pattern. The focus should be on getting to know your baby — his wants and needs.”
What about the parents’ needs? Irregular sleep may be normal for newborns, but it can leave moms and dads cranky and stressed out.“While parents need to accept they are going to be sleep-deprived, they must also make getting some sleep a priority,” says Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., pediatric clinical director at the Sleep Disorders Center of the Allegheny University of Health Sciences in Philadelphia.
So how do you get rest? “Nap when baby naps,” says Mindell. Even just closing your eyes can be beneficial. Mindell suggests sharing baby duties and letting go of housework. Some nursing mothers sleep with their infants, so neither of them has to wake up fully for middle-of-the-night feedings.
In her book, Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep (HarperCollins, 1997), Mindell tells parents to keep daytime waking periods active and to establish bedtime rituals as soon as possible after the infant is 8 weeks old.
Even at that early age, the rituals Mindell calls “sleep associations’’ can comfort babies. She suggests introducing “a transitional object that smells like the mother,” a piece of her nightgown, for example — to comfort older babies who are learning to comfort themselves.
Experts also believe there is no harm in letting the baby sleep in your bed, as long as the baby is safe from getting wedged against a wall or buried beneath pillows. “Sleeping in the same bed is a natural condition for mother and infant,” says psychologist John Herman, Ph.D., director of Pediatric Sleep Disorders at the Dallas Children’s Medical Center.
Holding, nursing or rocking your baby to sleep are popular bedtime rituals outlined by William Sears, M.D., in his latest book, The Baby Book (Little, Brown & Co., 1993). Sears advises parents to wait until a child is in a deep sleep before lifting the baby into the crib.
But be prepared to adapt with your baby. A new tooth or change in environment can send even the best sleep patterns into a tailspin. So sleep while you can. Before you know it, your baby will be a teenager, and you’ll be sleepless again.