Sleep seems like a rare thing for new parents. Babies wake and need to eat so often, it can feel like they never sleep – which of course, means you don’t sleep either. After days and days of getting only a few hours of sleep here and there, it can really start to take a toll on your physical and mental well-being.
Babies’ sleep patterns seem so erratic, but there is a way to understand their needs a bit better so you can help them to get better sleep so you can get some much-needed rest. With a few tips and tricks, you can improve not only the quality of your family’s sleep but you may even find that you all start getting more sleep altogether.
1. Understand Sleep Cycles
For both babies and adults, there are interruptions in sleep when we change between light (REM) and deep (non-REM) sleep phases. Adults may not always notice these since we are pros at putting ourselves back to sleep. However, babies need a bit of help when they wake in the middle of the night. We will talk more about this in a bit.
Another big difference is the length between sleep cycles for adults and babies. Adult sleep cycles average about 90 minutes between phases, but babies’ are much shorter, ranging between 45-60 minutes depending on their age. So, not only do they need to eat about every two hours during the night but they are also waking between sleep cycles and unable to put themselves back to sleep again.
2. Keep Age in Mind
Babies’ sleep needs change frequently as they grow. They start out not sleeping much at night, resorting to several small naps over a 24-hour period. Eventually, as they start figuring out the whole night and day thing, the majority of their sleep starts to shift toward nighttime and they don’t need as much sleep during the day.
Here is the general sleep pattern that most babies follow as they grow:
- Newborns – will need about 8 hours of sleep during the day, and just about 8.5 hours of sleep at night.
- 1 month – will need between 6 and 7 hours of sleep during the day and 8 to 9 hours of sleep at night for a total 14 to 16 hours.
- 3 months – will need between 4 and 5 hours of sleep during the day and 10 to 11 hours of sleep at night for a total of 14 to 16 hours.
- 6 months – will need about 3 hours of sleep during the day and 11 hours of sleep at night.
- 9 months – will need 2.5 hours of sleep during the day and 11 hours of sleep at night. This phase will likely last until your baby is about 2.5 or 3 years old.
3. Dissecting Sleep Regressions
Just when you think you’ve got a good schedule going with your baby, you are bound to hit a sleep regression that will seem to undo all of your progress. These sleep regressions usually happen in association with a new cognitive or motor skill that keeps them from wanting to sleep.
Here is a list of the most common sleep regressions babies go through:
6 weeks – one of the first major growth spurts, causing increased hunger.
4 months – another growth spurt, increased hunger, excessive daytime sleep, and increased brain development. Possible teething.
6 months – more interactive, so they want to play. Possibly started solid foods recently which may cause indigestion. Lots of teething and likely trying to crawl.
9 months – object permanence understanding, so they don’t want parents to leave at bedtime. Starting to pull to standing.
12 months – walking and weaning, causing emotional distress and a desire to practice new skills.
18 months – peak in separation anxiety and growing independence to fight at bed and nap times.
24 months – needs less sleep, may fight naps, moving to a toddler bed from the crib, and possibly potty training.
4. Monitor Nap Length
A mistimed nap or one that runs too long can throw off your baby’s whole schedule. Yes, they do need to sleep, but you don’t want them to reverse cycle – sleep during the day and stay up all night.
Waking a sleeping baby can be tricky; most of the time it’s just best to let them sleep when they need it so you don’t upset them. But one thing you can control is WHEN they nap.
If you know your little one usually takes a two-hour nap and goes to bed around 8 pm, you don’t want to let them stay up until 4 or 5 before they take their nap. They still need enough time to be awake before they will be ready to sleep again.
5. Naps are Still Important
Now, of course, you don’t want to keep your baby awake if they are actually tired. In fact, an overtired baby won’t sleep very well. If they are too tired, they become over stimulated and may either fight going down to sleep or wake more frequently during the night.
Your child will likely still need some sort of nap until they are at least 3.5 or 4 years old, if not longer. Some children decide that they are done with naps by this age, but they may still need a bit of quiet time alone to refresh. Others may skip a nap for two days, take a nap on the third, and skip a couple of days again.
Just know what is appropriate for your child’s age and personality, encouraging them to nap or rest when they need it.
6. Respond Appropriately
One mistake many parents make is running to their sleeping child as soon as they start crying. The truth is babies stir a lot in their sleep, so those noises may not actually be them waking up. If you rush too quickly, you may actually wake them up and do more harm than good.
Instead, try to exercise caution while still letting your child know you are there for them. Gently enter the room and provide some comforting or calming words without picking your little one up. You’ll be surprised how much the comfort of a parent can help a baby doze off without you needing to touch your child at all.
7. Allow Baby to Self-Soothe
One of the most important skills you need to teach your baby when it comes to sleep is self-soothing. This is not an ability they are born with, but it is critical for helping everyone get a good night’s sleep.
Remember earlier when we talked about sleep cycles? Teaching your child to self-soothe will help them learn to fall back to sleep on their own when they wake up in the middle of the night. It will prevent you from having to jump up to comfort them every time.
8. Get Rid of Sleep Associations
The key to self-soothing is getting rid of any sleep associations your baby may have. A sleep association can be a routine or object that they rely on in order to fall asleep. It may be rocking or feeding your baby until they fall asleep, or it could be a specific stuffed animal or pacifier that they always need with them.
While there is nothing wrong with these things in themselves, it can create a problem for your baby’s sleep in the long run. When they wake in the middle of the night, they may become easily distressed when they find that their pacifier has fallen out and they can’t find it. Or they may be waiting for you to come and rock or feed them again so they can go back to sleep.
9. Create an Environment that Welcomes Sleep
Both parents and babies need to have an ideal environment in order to get the best sleep possible. If you don’t have certain things in place, you may be uncomfortable or distracted too much to sleep.
Set up the nursery and the bedroom with blackout curtains. You will be surprised by how much a little bit of light outside your window can disrupt your sleep. Keep the rooms at a comfortable temperature so that everyone doesn’t get too hot or cold. Also, try to keep some white noise playing, which helps to drown out outside noises without being disruptive to sleep.
10. Wrap Your Baby up in a Swaddle
Babies are born with some crazy reflexes, particularly the Moro – or startle – reflex. It’s a defense mechanism that helps babies regain their balance when they feel like they may be falling. This reflex, though, can really cause an obstacle for your baby’s sleep.
Just when your baby starts to drift off, you may notice their arms flail out, which wakes them up and causes them to have to start all over again trying to go to sleep. To help stifle this reflex, you can try swaddling your baby.
Be sure to use specific swaddle sacks that fasten closed. Wrapping your baby in a swaddle blanket is dangerous. If your baby is able to wriggle loose during the night, the loose blanket becomes a suffocation risk.
11. Reduce Stimulation
Every experienced parent knows that a child who is too wound up before bed will have a harder time going to sleep. They need time to calm down and chill in order to prepare for sleep. After all, you can’t expect them to go from 100 to 0 in a matter of seconds.
As it gets closer to bedtime, start reducing the amount of stimulation around your child. This means turning off the TV – the blue light can disrupt and prevent sleep – and putting away overstimulating toys. Opt for calm activities like coloring, reading, or puzzles right before bed.
12. Set Bedtime Routine
Babies thrive on routines. When you have a routine established, it helps them anticipate what is coming next so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise. And routines are especially helpful when it comes to bedtime.
In addition to reducing stimulation as bedtime draws near, you can create some sort of “tradition” you guys follow each night. It may include a warm bath with lotion massage after, brushing teeth, story time in bed, singing songs together, or having a few minutes of cuddles together to talk about the events of the day.
13. Be Prepared for Difficulty with Twins
It may be a no brainer, but it’s worth mentioning – or reminding – that life with twins will look much different from that with a single baby. It may be relatively easy to get a single baby on a schedule or establish a routine with them, but there is no guarantee that two babies will cooperate with each other.
There isn’t much you can do if your twins don’t want to work on the same schedule. It is just something you have to mentally prepare for. You will probably be awake more as you have two to look after with two different schedules. Just hang in there; one they are older, they will fall into a better routine with each other.
14. Try Aromatherapy
Essential oils have become quite popular recently. With so many people searching for ways to live a more natural and healthier lifestyle, they have begun replacing more and more chemical-based products with oils.
Some of these oils – like lavender, frankincense, cedarwood, and bergamot – have been known to help aid in sleep. You can diffuse these in your room and/or your baby’s to create a more inviting sleep environment.
These oils can also be used topically. Combine them with a neutral base oil (like sunflower) to give your baby a pre-bedtime massage. You can even add a few drops to your own bath water or your evening cup of chamomile or lemongrass tea to help prepare your body for sleep.
You do need to be wary when using these topically with your baby. Their skin is so sensitive; you will need to watch out for any allergies that may arise from their use. If you have any questions or concerns, consult your pediatrician before using oils with your baby.
15. Avoid Diaper Changes in the Middle of the Night
It’s natural to want to change your little one’s diaper after they have eaten. After all, what goes in must come out, right? While this may be fine during the day sometimes, it is really not a good idea at night when you and your baby wake up for feedings.
Diaper changes require too much movement. You need to take off clothes and diaper, which will make your baby cold – at least colder than they were when they were asleep. This plus the movement required to take the old diaper off and put a new one on is enough to have your baby fully awake and ready to go in the middle of the night.
Save diaper changes for right after your baby wakes up. They are not very likely to poop in their sleep – it requires too much concentration and their signature poop face – so a bit of pee between sleeping and waking is fine.
16. Address Physical Complications
There are other factors outside of your control that may be affecting your baby’s sleep. Depending on their age, they may be teething – and let me tell you, teething wrecks a baby’s sleep. They may not be fussy all the time, but they will definitely be awake more at least.
Colds and other illnesses, particularly those that affect the sinuses and nasal passages, can also affect sleep negatively. You will find your baby waking often, frustrated that they are uncomfortable and unable to breathe through their nose.
There is only so much you can do to try to alleviate the discomforts from these conditions. If you need a topical gel for teething or cold medication in order for your baby to find some comfort in order to sleep, go for it. Just make sure you follow directions closely and use something age appropriate.
This is a touchy subject for many people. There are those that are completely against co-sleeping for fear that something will happen to the baby. And there are others who swear by it and absolutely love the convenience.
Now you may think that co-seeping would have just the opposite effect – I mean having your baby in the same room would just wake you up more often. However, if you are breastfeeding, co-sleeping can help everyone get better sleep.
Instead of having to get out of bed repeatedly, all mom has to do is roll over and feed the baby lying down. The baby doesn’t wake up all the way and everyone goes back to sleep much faster and easier.
Just a quick note: ALWAYS practice caution when co-sleeping. Do not allow blankets and pillows near your baby’s face, do not place them next to someone who sleeps very deeply, and do not fall asleep while you are feeding your baby.
18. Introduce Bottles
You can also entertain the idea of introducing your baby to bottles even if you are breastfeeding. This will allow dad to help more at night so both parents can take turns getting up and feeding during the night.
You may choose to pump some milk to keep stored in the fridge and/or freezer so your baby can still have breast milk, even if dad does the feeding. Or you can substitute some night feedings with formula if you find it is easier.
19. Relax Your Mind and Body
It is just as important that you prepare yourself for sleep much in the same way you prepare your baby. Your body needs to know what is coming, allowing it to settle and unwind for the evening before you climb into bed.
Try to stay away from your phone or the TV right before bed. The blue backlight disrupts sleep since it stimulates the brain and actually makes it think it is day time. If you are a reader and find yourself reading e-books at night, see if your phone has a night setting, which changes the backlight from harsh blue to soft yellow, which is easier on your eyes.
How many times have you gotten into bed, ready to finally get some sleep after a long day, only to find that your brain simply won’t turn off? You think about all the things you didn’t do today, the things you need to do tomorrow, and of course, that thing that happened 10 years ago that still bothers you.
Establish a yoga routine to help stretch your body and calm your muscles. Keep a journal next to your bed so you can unload all of those things running through your mind so you won’t have to think about them until tomorrow.