Q & A: What Parents Want to Know About Baby's Sleep

One of the things expectant parents worry about is if they'll ever get a good night's sleep again after their baby's born. Here are expert answers to the most common questions.


Q: How much sleep does a newborn baby actually need? A: The average newborn sleeps a total of 14 to 18 hours a day, older infants from 13 to 14 hours, says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders 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, revised edition (HarperCollins). "The best way to judge whether or not your baby is getting enough sleep is to look at his behavior throughout the day," Mindell says. "If he sleeps 11 hours and is perky and happy, that's enough."

Q: My baby seems to have his days and nights confused. Should I do anything? A: "Encourage him to switch," Mindell says. "At night, keep the lights low, and move slowly when you feed him. Be boring. Make sure he is exposed to 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 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 the Los Angeles-based consultation service Sleepy Planet. "After about four months, if he's 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. When a baby is put to sleep a certain way and wakes up, he checks to see if everything is the same as it was when he went to sleep," Waldburger explains. "So if you nursed him to sleep, he will look for your breast. Same with rocking him or playing music."

Q: Should I try to get my baby's naptimes on a schedule? A: Look to your baby for his evolving schedule after about 3 months; before that, anything goes. "You don't have to be rigid," Mindell says, "but some structure helps both parents and baby. By 9 months of age, most babies naturally move to napping at around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m." But don't try to force your baby to follow a schedule just to make it more convenient for you.

Q: My baby has been sleeping in our bed. When and how do I transition him to his crib? A: Mindell says you should anticipate the future: "If you want the baby to be sleeping in his crib by a year, the best time to start making the change is at 3 months—before habits are firmly established," she says. That said, small steps are best. "Take a week—or several—and do the baby's bedtime ritual in his room," Mindell says. "Put him to sleep in his crib. When he wakes up at night, bring him into your bed." Then put him back in his crib. "Go slowly," Mindell adds. "It's a big transition." (Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against bed-sharing. To find out more, go to fitpregnancy.com/bedsharing. Also see "Sleep Close.")

Q: Could my constant worrying about getting my baby to sleep be affecting him? A: "Definitely," Waldburger says. "Babies are sensitive to a mother's cues. If you're not sleeping, you're more tired and stressed and your baby picks up on those vibes."

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 cry it out 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," Waldburger adds, "but we find that teaching babies how to calm themselves is really kinder in the long run. We suggest a long wind-down period with lots of cuddles and laughs, comforting with your voice and finally letting the baby soothe himself to sleep."

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