Q: My 5-month-old is not a good sleeper, and I’m getting so little sleep I’m barely functioning at work. My friends are urging me to do “cry it out” or some form of sleep training, but I’m confused, because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first six months and optimally for the first year!
A: New parents dream about the time when they are able to blissfully sleep through the night, but tending to a new baby is a 24-hour job, and 3 a.m. check-ins can become routine.
Letting babies “cry it out” and other sleep methods may not be ideal for every child. Before diving into new sleep methods and approaches, it’s important for parents to understand what affects a baby’s ability to sleep through the night.
Many factors can play a role in babies’ sleep patterns, but the need for food typically takes the lead in determining a baby’s capacity to remain asleep. When babies are born, they typically need to be fed every two to three hours. A baby’s ability to handle larger time increments without needing to be fed increases as their stomach grows. While there’s no “standard,” about 60 percent of babies over the age of 6 months are able to sleep in six-hour increments.
Every child is unique, and what works for one may not work as well for another. But there are some simple steps parents can take to help encourage the healthy development of their baby’s sleep schedule:
Don’t build a relationship between feeding and sleeping. Consistently falling asleep while nursing or taking a bottle with close physical contact can disrupt a baby’s process of learning how to self-soothe and fall asleep with ease on his or her own. Parents can help separate these two needs by making sure their baby does not fall asleep when breastfeeding or taking a bottle.
Develop a soothing bedtime routine. Creating a routine of simple steps — such as bathing, feeding and reading a story before putting your baby in his or her crib — can make a difference. Parents can create a similar, shorter version to help with nap time during the day. Over time, babies’ developing circadian rhythms will help them recognize “dark” means it’s time to sleep.
Put your baby in her crib when she is drowsy. Doing so will help your baby develop a relationship between sleep and her crib. Additionally, it will help your baby to be aware of the surroundings to prevent feelings of being scared or startled upon waking up.
Soothe and comfort your baby. When putting your baby to sleep in his or her crib, take the extra steps to “shhh” and pat him/her to create an atmosphere of comfort. To help your baby learn to fall asleep independently, slowly reduce comforting actions over time.
Watch for sleepy cues. Be aware of signs that your baby is ready for sleep, such as yawning, fussing, eye-rubbing and disengagement. The best window of time to start a sleep routine is before a baby is too tired.
Encourage nap time. Naps help build your baby’s routine and encourage sleep. It’s common for babies to need multiple naps a day as they grow and develop.
Respond to nighttime check-ins consistently. If sharing nighttime responsibilities with a partner, make sure you respond to your child in similar ways. Keep the room as dark as possible to avoid overstimulation while meeting your baby’s needs as quickly and quietly as possible.
Birth to Five Helpline
Southwest Human Development provides this free resource for anyone — parents, grandparents, caregivers and even medical professionals — with questions or concerns about young children. Bilingual and compassionate early-childhood specialists are available 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. Common topics include: challenging behaviors, potty training, sleep issues, colic or fussiness, feeding and nutrition and overall parenting concerns. Download the Birth to Five Helpline app to one-click call, text or email a question. birthtofivehelpline.org.
Please send parenting questions for this column to editorial@RAKmagazine.com.