Having a new baby at home is a beautiful time of firsts for new parents. However, those who have had this experience know it can also be stressful – especially when your baby is having trouble sleeping (even with the best baby bedding). Studies show that 23–27% of new parents report infant sleep problems in the first six months of life. In order to reduce the likelihood that your baby will have early sleeping problems, read on for scientifically supported steps you can take.
What factors contribute to my baby getting a good night’s rest?
Before you run out and buy every new baby book or device that is “guaranteed” to help your baby sleep better, remember that infant sleep is big business! There are hundreds of websites and self-proclaimed “experts” who promote various “fail safe” suggestions for baby bedtime routines. Most of the individuals promoting these products do not have a sound understanding of the science behind infant sleep, which is a biologically complex and fascinating pattern of synchrony between the neuroendocrine systems of mother and infant. There is no one-size-fits-all program that will work for every baby; your child is unique, and their sleep needs will be, too!
A little bit of sleep science…
It’s important to remember that our bodies were designed to sleep – that means that your baby will eventually drift-off, even if their screams make you doubtful! Two biological processes essentially govern our sleep system: homeostatic drive (sleep pressure that builds up as duration of wakefulness extends) and our circadian pacemaker (internal biological clock). Homeostatic sleep pressure is a biological need for sleep that builds the longer you go without it. Eventually, the need becomes so powerful that it’s impossible to resist. Our biological clock is our innate sense of time that allows sleep to consolidate during the night. However, the biological clock needs to be set by accurate external cues such as light in the morning, regular mealtimes, and noise and activity throughout the day – otherwise, the clock gets confused, and the result is often sleeplessness and tears for your baby (and perhaps you).
There is remarkable variation in sleep needs and patterns from baby to baby, which means that comparing is not a useful (or helpful) practice. As long as obstacles to sleep are removed, you can trust that your baby’s little body was designed to produce just the right amount of sleep for them. There is no “ideal” amount of sleep for babies – years of research tell us that at two months of age, infant sleep varies between nine and 20 hours in a 24-hour period!
Should parents follow a bedtime routine?
A good bedtime routine will train your baby’s natural biological patterns and increase the duration of self-regulated sleep. Remember, it’s important to experiment in order to find what works best for you and your little one.
Help your baby build up enough homeostatic sleep pressure. If it’s a struggle to get your baby to sleep at night, try shorter naps or a later bedtime.
Keep your baby’s circadian rhythm in sync by allowing for accurate time cues: sunlight in the morning, daytime naps with light, and noise and plenty of daytime stimulation.
Stress and anxiety can interfere with sleep and can be mitigated with milk. Hormones promoting satiety and relaxation are produced during feedings, meaning that drifting off to sleep after a good meal is completely natural.
Babies hunger for mental stimulation, which also promotes relaxation. The best way to meet these needs is to live fully. Make sure you engage in time outdoors, socializing, regular exercise and other activities you enjoy – a win win for you and your child!
Your sleep is important, too!
Finally, remember to pay attention to your own sleep needs. Though it’s more likely that you will experience some sleep deprivation with a new baby (it will end, and you will survive), if you believe that you are struggling with insomnia, find some good resources (see Tips for Tackling Insomnia) or speak to a sleep professional – we’re here to help!