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Expert answers to new parents’ most common questions about this crazy-making topic
Q: My baby seems to have his days and nights confused. What can I do?
A: “Encourage him to switch,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center, Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep (HarperCollins). “At night, keep the lights low and move slowly when you feed him. Be boring. Make sure he gets bright light in the morning, and keep him as busy as you can during the day. Make noise. Play with him.” In other words, during the day, be interesting.
Q: Are bedtime rituals really important?
A: Yes. “Sleep time should be consistent,” Mindell says. “Each family has to develop its own routine, but doing the same activities in the same order every day helps the baby anticipate what will come next.” Mindell suggests doing three or four winding-down activities for a total of 20 to 30 minutes; these can include massages, baths, lullabies, prayers, rocking, nursing and reading.
Q: If I rock my baby to sleep, won’t he become dependent on it?
A: “If you are doing this and your baby is sleeping all night, don’t worry,” says Jennifer Waldburger, L.C.S.W., co-owner of Los Angeles-based Sleepy Planet and author of the book and DVD The Sleepeasy Solution. “After about four months, if he is waking up, you probably need to let him do the last little bit of falling asleep on his own. You can still rock him as part of the wind-down process, but put him down drowsy, not asleep.
Q: Should my baby nap on a schedule?
A: Look to your baby for his evolving schedule after about three months—before that, anything goes. “You don’t have to be rigid,” Mindell says, “but some structure helps both parents and baby. By age 9 months, most babies naturally move to napping at around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.” But don’t try to force a schedule on your baby for your convenience.
Q: When can I put my baby down to sleep and go have a glass of wine?
A: Waldburger and other experts suggest that when he’s about 5 months old, you can experiment with letting your baby cry a bit at night. (That does not mean letting him scream for hours.) Try starting with five minutes, Waldburger suggests; if that’s too hard to take, pick him up after three minutes. “It sounds cruel not to pick up a crying baby,” she says, “but we find that teaching babies how to calm themselves is really kinder in the long run.”
Being close to his mother regulates a baby’s heart rate, immune system and stress levels and makes breastfeeding easier, says James McKenna, Ph.D., director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “It also keeps the baby in lighter phases of sleep so he can practice arousing and going back to sleep, which is good in case of any problems, such as sleep apnea.”
It may also be linked to a decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A bedside or freestanding (but nearby) bassinet is a good option. Various experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise parents not to sleep with their babies because of the danger of suffocation.
If you are a strong believer in the family bed, safety is paramount. “Make sure no one is a smoker, that there are no other children in the bed and that neither parent has used drugs or alcohol or is excessively tired,” says McKenna. (Also see “Protect Your Baby From SIDS, below”)
✱ Always place your baby on his back on a firm mattress, never on plush mattresses, waterbeds, sofa cushions or any other soft surfaces. These precautions should be taken anywhere he sleeps, such as at day care or grandma’s house.
✱ Make sure that your baby’s face and head stay uncovered during sleep. Dressing him in a wearable blanket, or “sleep sack,” is ideal.
✱ Never place blankets, fluffy comforters, bumpers, pillows, stuffed toys or other soft objects in the baby’s crib.
✱ Keep the room at a comfortable temperature and don’t over-bundle your baby; overheating has been linked to SIDS. Running a fan in the baby’s room has also been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.
✱ Do not expose your baby to cigarette smoke.
✱ The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends offering pacifiers from the age of 1 month to 1 year at naps and bedtimes to help reduce the risk of SIDS.