Helping Your Baby Sleep Through the Night

One thing that might help you rest easy (if not rest, exactly) is the knowledge that there is, in fact, a very good reason why babies wake up as often as every 1½-3 hours around the clock. The most important job for a new baby is to learn to regulate its breathing. The second most important job is to grow — it must double its weight in 4 months. To accomplish this rather amazing task, a baby needs to drink a lot of milk, but can only take in tiny amounts — 5-7 milliliters — at a time. (On Day 1, an infant's stomach is the size of a small marble; on Day 10 it's the size of a ping-pong ball.)

So what does this have to do with sleeping? Newborn babies sleep a lot — 16-20 hours a day, but they also wake frequently to eat, usually every 1-3 hours, with one long stretch of 4-5 hours of sleep over 24 hours. This frequent waking and needing to eat means sleep deprivation for the new parent.

When does it end? Sleeping through the night usually starts between 6 weeks and 6 months of age and contrary to common perception, does not correspond with how much a baby weighs or if it has started eating solids. So how can you encourage your baby to sleep through the night?

Start by establishing certain routines right from the beginning. Keep nighttime quiet. Leave the lights off as much as possible, change a diaper only if necessary, and resist the temptation to play with the baby at 2 AM. For nursing mothers, lying down to nurse makes nighttime feeds easy, and also allows a mutually restful time for both mother and baby.

Co-sleeping (a mother sleeping with her infant) is also a good idea. While a modern, western view suggests that isolating a baby from its mother for sleeping is a good idea, scientific studies and common sense show that separation of mother and infant is not necessary. A mother's sounds, breathing patterns and smells all contribute to the regulation of the infant's breathing, arousal patterns, heart rates, sleep state, and body temperature.

Dr. James McKenna of Notre Dame University says in Rethinking "Healthy" Infant Sleep that we need to determine if unrealistic parental expectations, rather than infant pathology, play a role in creating parent-infant sleep struggles - one of the most ubiquitous pediatric problems in the country. It may well be that it is not in the biological best interest of all infants to sleep through the night, in a solitary environment, as early in life as we may wish, even though it is more convenient if they did so."

So even though it means interrupted sleep for mom and dad, a waking baby is a healthy baby. Just think about how often you would eat if you were trying to double your weight in four months! Odds are that you would interrupt your own sleep to get the job done.

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