For most people, a baby’s sleep cycle is a strange and mysterious puzzle that seems to have little rhyme or reason. That makes some sense. After all, the world your baby once lived in was beyond the realm of space and time, built on the rhythm of a heartbeat and your occasional, muffled one-sided chats from the outside. Now that your kid has been thrust into a world of complicated stuff like time zones and daylight savings, what were you expecting? A train conductor? They don’t make pocket watches that small.
Luckily, the professionals from the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) are here to help. The first pediatric sleep facility in the country, the center at BCH evaluates and treats hundreds of troubled little nappers, all-night criers, and children suffering from any number of sleep disorders and comes up with ways to get them back to normal habits. Here, BCH Sleep Center Nurse Practitioners Jennifer Gingrasfield and Maile Moore offer their A-to-Zzz’s guide on baby sleep habits.
Four Fast Facts About A Baby’s Sleep
An infant’s sleep is weird. And the faster you come to terms with that, the faster you’ll have success wrangling your kid’s REM. Here are some things to take note of.
1. Initially, Their Sleep Cycle Is Short. Very Short.
For instance, the length of their average sleep cycle is shockingly short. “It only lasts only about 30-45 minutes,” explains Moore. “Then the baby will wake briefly and transition to the next cycle.”
Both she and Gingrasfield suggest this normal behavior has a tendency to trip up some new parents. “Often, parents will interrupt that transition by picking the baby up or trying to soothe them as they wriggle around a bit,” says Gingrasfield. She recommends fighting the inclination to intervene and, instead, watching the baby for 5 minutes or so. That’s because many times your kid isn’t fully awake, and will often resettle and go back to sleep without you.
2. They Need To Learn Night And Day
Light guides everyone. Our sleep cycles are governed by light and darkness, and our bodies send out a flood of drowsiness-inducing hormones when the sky starts to dim and a bunch of get-going hormones when the sun appears. Babies, being the tiny humans they are, haven’t spent all that much time on, you know, earth and their bodies need to learn this natural habit. “You can teach this by making sure that daytime is bright and stimulating and night is dark and boring,” says Moore. They’ll learn the opposite is true when they get to college.
3. Their Sleep Requirements Change
Gingrasfield and Moore point out that in general, newborns sleep 16-20 hours per day. That drops to 12.5-13 hours by 6-months-old. By 12-months-old your baby’s sleep need will be around 12-12.5 hours total. So, yeah, they like to keep you on your toes.
4. They’re Active Sleepers
Babies aren’t just wriggly during the day. “They move frequently during sleep,” Gingrasfield explains. “They smile, chew, cry out, suck, twitch, and even open their eyes.” So don’t get weirded out by their
When It Comes To A Baby’s Sleep, Consistency Is Key
The BCH sleep experts stress this above all else: You must have a consistent schedule and routine to be successful. If you don’t have one, you’re likely going to experience problems.
In fact, Gingrasfield and Moore both cite it as maintaining a normal schedule one of the biggest mistakes parents make. “That includes weekends,” says Moore. “A baby’s body clock does not understand that adults want to sleep later on weekends.” So don’t expect that to happen again anytime soon.
A routine can start as soon as you bring a baby home from the hospital. And while your baby’s natural schedule is going to be a bit shifty for a while, that shouldn’t keep you from establishing how bedtime happens: including lowering the lights, reading a story, and singing a song. Here are a few more suggestions:
KISSS (Keep It Simple, Short And Sweet)
“A typical routine should be short and sweet and move toward the bedroom,” says Moore. “It should only take about 15-20 minutes.” Plus, you should put your baby down where they’ll spend the night at just the right moment. Which is …
Sleepy But Not Asleep
You may be tempted to rock and cuddle your baby to sleep and then put them down. That could backfire, explains Gingrasfield. “Let your baby learn the sensation of falling asleep in the crib or bassinet where they will spend the night,” she says. “That way, when they wake 45 or 60 minutes later, they will not need to look for help to fall back to sleep.”
Gingrasfield and Moore suggest cultivating a space that’s “calm, quiet, cool but not cold.” They also stress it should be screen-free. That goes for anyone an hour prior to bed. Plus, no need for white noise or pre-recorded lullabies.
The songs, while relaxing, may make it difficult to go back to sleep if they’re not on when your baby wakes. And not having white noise will help your baby learn to adjust to sleep even with normal household noises, as long as a sibling isn’t jumping rope during nap time.
Staying Alert About Sleep Problems
Gingrasfield and Moore suggest that many sleep problems really can’t be addressed until parents have established an age-appropriate and consistent daily sleep schedule. They explain that having such a routine in tact will help you know when a baby’s having an issue with sleeping too much or too little. It will also help when approaching any sleep training method or trying to get your kid to sleep on their own.
So when should you ever be worried? “Honestly, only if sleep is significantly outside of the normal range and usually only if accompanied by other symptoms,” says Moore.
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