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Understanding the Sleep Pattern to Help your Baby Sleep Better

Sleep is very important for a child’s health and well-being. Good sleep habits start from birth.

Babies need to sleep more than adults do. But babies don't go to sleep for a longer stretch of time when they're very young. They follow the sleep-wake cycles throughout the day with longer stretches of sleep in the night. But these cycles vary from baby to baby.

Research conducted on infants showed that: only 16% of six month old babies were sleeping straight through the night (i.e., an approximate of 5 hours!), more than half woke occasionally, 9% of the babies woke most nights and 17% woke more than once every night.

9 Understanding the Patterns:

Babies do not know the difference between day and night. They sleep as and when they can with no regard to the time of day or night. Newborns love to be fed breast milk and so they keep demanding to be fed every two hours during the first two months of their birth.

Other reasons for waking from sleep could be discomfort, also babies wake up quite often as they reach new milestones. These can be physical (such as rolling or crawling), emotional (separation anxiety) or neurological.

Once the babies are three months to a year old, the sleep pattern changes and gradually the babies will sleep more during the night and less in the day. By six months, babies enjoy sleeping for about 12 hours at night briefly waking up once or twice only to pass urine; and the daytime naps would stretch to a maximum of two hours. This sleep pattern mostly continues till the babies are 12 months old, by the time they reach 24 months of age usually the daytime nap is dropped.

8 Phases of Sleep in Babies:

Just like we adults, babies too go through phases of sleep. Many of us feel that we sleep like a log, but ideally speaking, we simply don't fall deep asleep for the whole night to wake up in the morning. Instead, we too go through different sleep cycles.

Like us, babies too go through sleep cycles about five times a night; from drowsiness to light sleep, to deep sleep through to dream sleep (Rapid Eye Movement ─ REM). They return through deep sleep and light sleep to the illusive, before going down again from drowsiness down through light sleep and dream sleep into deep sleep.

In dream (REM) sleep, except for occasional twitches and irregular breathing, the babies’ eyes scoot back and forth under their eyelids, while the rest of the body is still. This sleep is thought to be necessary in babies because it's considered to be the phase where extraordinary development of the brain takes place. Dream sleep is lighter and more easily disturbed. This is the time when we can see our baby cry, smile or giggle in their sleep.

You can learn to anticipate when you're baby is going to wake up

In quiet (non-REM) sleep, the babies’ breath is regular and deep, sometimes with a big sigh. This is when we can see the baby makes some sucking movements or just startle suddenly. All these sudden movements of the whole body are considered to be perfectly normal.

These sleep cycles range from somewhere between 50 minutes to an hour long and probably increase at three months of age to the adulthood to about an hour and a half. 

7 Managing Baby Naps:

A nap-time routine is a good idea. The key to good sleeping habits is managing your baby’s naptimes. Avoid letting your baby take a nap late in the day because it could interfere with the following night’s sleep.

Make your baby take a nap(s) in the early part of the morning and/or in the afternoon and, as the baby gets older, the nap time can be had shortly after lunch with a substantial gap before bedtime. This way the baby will have time to build up a new stock of experiences and can manage dream sleep in the night.

So, include a quiet cuddle and short story in a darkened room before it is time for the baby to have a nap.

6 Sleep Rhythms of Babies:

New born babies are familiar with the sounds we make, the still and quiet night, the music we play at home, etc., because babies have been listening to these sounds for about two months before they are born from the womb.

Like us, the baby’s sleep-wake cycle is all related to the daily rhythm of life like feeding, the body temperature and the release of hormones which influences the natural biological cycle, or circadian rhythm, that our bodies need to pass through every 24 hours. We all fall asleep when our body temperature and the levels of our adrenal hormones drop; we wake up when these levels of hormone and body temperature rise.

Sleeping has it's own chemistry

It's scientifically known that falling asleep when our body temperature and hormone levels are high is difficult, as is the difficulty in waking up from sleep if these levels and body temperature are low. This is the reason why we have jet lag when we travel across time zones, and this is the reason workers doing shifts have to learn to manage their unusual hours of working.

Thus, this also explains why some parents find it hard, compared to others, to cope with their baby waking up frequently in the night. 

5 Teaching the Difference Between Day and Night:

Some babies stay wide awake through the night. As parents you can’t do much about this, but once your baby is about 2 weeks old, start teaching your baby how to differentiate night from day.

When your baby is active and awake during the daytime, maintain the day light and brightness everywhere in the house, play and interact with your baby as much as you can, and don't try to minimize or quiet the various noises and sounds that take place during the day like the phone, the doorbell ringing, music being played, or the use of the dishwasher or washing machine if need be.

Similarly, avoid playing with your baby in the night when s/he wakes up for his/her feeding or when they wet the bed or for a diaper change. Keep the lights dim and avoid any loud sound/noise. The baby will gradually take the hint that its night time and go to sleep.

Babies can be put into a schedule if you're persistent

It's natural for parents to rock and nurse their baby to sleep because they feel that their baby sleeps better that way since nothing else seems to work. But don’t make it habitual, your baby might expect you to do the same thing every time s/he wakes up. This routine will eat into your sleep time and make you sleep deprived and tired.

This also doesn’t imply that you impose a rigid sleep routine on your baby. Instead work on getting your baby to sleep soundly, for longer time and at a regular fixed hour.

This could be the right time to try some type of sleep training, but see how your baby reacts to it. If your baby doesn’t seem to be ready, slow down; give him/her some weeks’ time before you try again.

4 Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Your Baby

Babies learn with the right cues when it's time for them to sleep. For example, if the baby is put to sleep in the crib, over time the baby will understand that this is the place to sleep and will learn to sleep whenever the baby is put in the crib.

Mostly, after your baby is three months, the sleeping habits tend to become more predictable and the schedule more regular. In fact your baby will definitely give some indication to you if it’s time for him/her to sleep. So maintain a sleep diary to help you recognize your baby’s regular sleeping pattern.

But there are almost about a quarter of young children below five who have sleep problems and they either refuse to go to bed or keep waking up from their sleep in the night.

You'll need to adjust your strategy as your baby grows older

Watch out for the cues your baby shows if s/he is tired like rubbing eyes, pulling on ears or being fussier than their normal self. Put your baby to sleep in bed if you see any of these cues of sleepiness. Gradually as a parent you will develop this sixth sense of understanding better your baby’s daily sleep rhythms and patterns and intuitively make out when your baby is ready to nap.

There are some of these healthy sleep habits you can try for your baby:

For your New born:

- Don't try to keep your newborn awake in the day time. Keeping him/her awake can overtire him/her and the baby might have more trouble sleeping through the night. In fact napping will help your baby to sleep better at night.

- If you see your baby is drowsy, put your baby to bed even though s/he is awake. Ensure that your baby is sleeping on his/her back in the crib or on a solid firm surface. Don't keep any soft items like plush toys or pillows next to the baby in the crib.

- You can cuddle and rock your baby to sleep. Babies need to feel your warmth so cuddle up!

- Avoid giving a pacifier to your baby for comfort, especially when you're still breastfeeding.

- Keep the lights dim in the room your baby is sleeping in.

For Your Baby (6 months to 1 year old):

Normally babies at this age sleep for an average of 14 hours a day when their regular routine of bed time, wake time and nap time is quite well set. But you'll also notice that either your baby naps for as little as 20 minutes at a time, or for 2 to 3 hours at a stretch. And these naps can be twice or thrice in the day time. You should:

- Try to maintain a regular nap time and consistent bed time sleep schedule.

- Do not let your baby go to bed with a bottle to avoid tooth decay.

- Do not feed your baby when they wake up in their sleep during the night provided they demand for it.

- Help your baby to go back to sleep if s/he wakes up crying in the middle of the night by gently stroking his/her forehead, gently patting on his/her back. Also, check as to why your baby awoke crying; was s/he feeling cold or feeling too hot, or did they have a bad dream.

For Toddlers (1 to 3 years)

Most toddlers sleep for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, but it's common to see children at this age struggling and resisting going to bed or having some sleep problems. Hence:

- Continue maintaining a sleep schedule that your toddler is familiar with, because it's more important for your toddler to have a fixed schedule.

- Try eliminating the nap late in the day as it may affect his/her night time sleep schedule.

- Help your child to relax and settle down half an hour before bed time to listen to stories and/or do quiet activities at around the same time each day.

- Make the room conducive and cozy to sleep.

- You can put on a soft, soothing music to comfort.

- Be gentle, but firm if your child resists to go to bed.

- If your baby needs a soft toy or pillows to feel secure then you can give them one.

3 Deciding the Best Place for Your Baby to Sleep

The best arrangement you can provide for your baby is to let your baby sleep where the baby is most comfortable. It could be the baby’s own crib or cradle either kept in their own room or in their parents’ bedroom, some babies like to sleep where all the family members sleep, other babies love to snuggle beside their mother on her bed in parents’ bedroom.

There is never a right or wrong place for babies to sleep. The majority of the parents prefer using various sleeping arrangements at various stages of their child’s first two years of growing up. Be open to different sleeping arrangements that could be helpful to your baby’s developmental needs and your family situation.

2 SIDS Risk Reduction Guidelines

You may put your baby to sleep in the crib or may share the bed with your partner and baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that as parents you follow these set guidelines to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome):

- Always put your baby down to sleep on his or her back.

- Always use a firm mattress for routine sleep and not car seats or waterbeds.

- Keep soft toys, objects, pillows blankets or loose bedding out of the crib.

- Do not use wedges and positioners.

- Offer your baby a pacifier at nap time and bedtime.

- Avoid covering your baby's head or overheating.

- Do not use home monitors or commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS.

- Make sure your baby gets all recommended vaccinations.

- Maintain a smoke-free environment (don’t bed share if you or your partner are smokers).

- Both parents should avoid alcohol and medications that reduce awareness of baby.

Breastfeeding is recommended.

1 Consistent Bedtime Rituals

If your baby enjoys the consistent bed time you've set, your baby will familiarize with the ritual and go to sleep and stay asleep for a long stretch of time.

Early and consistent bed times are no longer common in many households due to the modern lifestyle where either both the parents are busy working for a living and often come home late, or some parents love to party late at night, so their older babies and infants don't usually go to bed until their parents do.

Some families prefer to have a late afternoon nap and find going to bed late more practical, their babies usually don't have a bed time ritual.

Familiar bed time rituals need to be set for the baby to sleep, like giving a warm bath, rocking, nursing, listening to lullabies, etc., to make the environment conducive for the baby to sleep well. Set a pattern every night. Your baby will quickly take the cue and follow the routine. This works best for the parents too.

The sooner you establish a bedtime routine (say when your baby is as young as 6 or 8 weeks old), the better. The baby’s brain develops at an amazing rate throughout the first year of its birth and fine-tunes itself according to the input it receives from the environment and like a computer stores thousands of sequences that become patterns.

Capitalize on this principle of early infant development; patterns of association. When baby clicks into this early part of the bed time ritual, s/he is set up for the whole pattern resulting in his/her drifting off to sleep.

Enjoy night-time parenting!!

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