Sweet dreams, baby! 10 things to know about infant sleep

We all enjoy a good night’s rest, but you don’t really think about how crucial every minute of it until parenthood hits you. When the baby comes along, sleep slowly becomes something that constantly crosses your mind. Having a better understanding of your little one’s sleep can be the key to being well-rested yourself. Here are answers to 10 common questions about infant sleep.

1. Babies dream, even in the womb

By the third trimester, fetuses spend most of their time asleep, and at least 50 percent of this is in REM, the stage in which dreams occur. Newborns also spend half their sleep time in REM (while adults spend roughly 25 percent). Most sleep experts agree this means that babies dream a lot, but what they dream about — the shapes on their crib mobiles, mom’s breast, the sound of a dog barking — is still a mystery.

2. All babies wake up at night

Even “good sleepers.” In fact, all infants (as well as all kids and adults) wake up routinely throughout the night, usually when they return to a light phase of sleep. The difference among babies is that some know to change positions, rock back and forth, or nuzzle their blankie and fall back into another deep sleep. Others, who don’t have their self-soothing techniques down, will call out for help.

3. Shorter sleep cycles

Adults cycle through all phases of sleep every 90 minutes, but infants do so every 60 minutes. The progression of sleep stages for infants is also different — they can go directly into REM sleep (in which you might see your little one smile, twitch, or kick to indicate she could be dreaming), or they can first pass through a quiet sleep and get to REM later. This more rapid cycle can mean for shorter naps in young babies. Adults almost always go from light to deep sleep and then into REM.

4. Sleep begets sleep

The old adage is true. It doesn’t work to deprive your baby of sleep, try to keep her up longer during the day, or keep her up in the afternoon so that she’ll sleep longer at night. A lot of babies get fussy, overtired, or hyperactive when they are sleep deprived, and their stress hormone levels rise, making it more difficult for them to sleep well at night. The only exception here is that it’s important that your baby doesn’t nap too late in the day as to interfere with bedtime. Having her last nap end by 4:00 p.m. so she’s ready for a 7:00 p.m. bedtime is a good idea.

5. Catnaps are normal

It’s very common for babies to sleep for 20-40 minutes at a time during the day, especially if they are sleeping on their backs (where we should put them for safety reasons). These short naps are because when a baby shifts into a new sleep phase, startles, or moves, she may not have the ability to put herself back into another deep sleep successfully. Once babies get more comfortable rolling and self-soothing, naps will get longer.

6. Sleep gets worse before it gets better

During the middle of the first year, most babies go through a period of sleep regression, in which they suddenly start to wake up more often. Even a baby who was sleeping long stretches can start calling out periodically in the middle of the night. Most parents assume this means their baby is hungry, but nighttime wakings are more likely due to developmental changes in cognitive and motor skills (in other words, a busy brain) that make soothing back down to sleep more difficult. If this happens, try comforting your baby by the least invasive method first (like shhh-ing, putting in the pacifier, or rubbing her back). Only pick her up if none of those work.

7. Feeding at night after six months

Doctors and sleep experts agree that most babies are physiologically capable of going 11-12 hours at night without feedings by the age of six months. Of course, if you’ve been feeding her at night, then your baby will be legitimately hungry, but if you wean slowly from night feedings, she will compensate during the day. If your baby has any health concerns you’ll want to check with your doctor before weaning from night feedings. And breastfeeding moms may want to pump or “dream feed” their baby before they go to bed to maintain their milk supply.

8. Make friends with the early morning

Babies are programmed to respond to light cues and wake with the sun, so 6:00 a.m. is a perfectly reasonable time for a baby to rise (as unreasonable as it may feel to you). The key is that if your baby starts her day at this hour, she’ll be ready for her first nap by 8:00 a.m. and will be ready for bedtime at 7:00 p.m. The time your baby wakes up in the morning helps her set her internal clock for the day, so it works in your benefit not to have her sleep in too late.

9. Give your baby a little space

Putting your young baby down while still awake may be one of the best things you can do. Babies are little habit-machines, so if yours is accustomed to having you rock her to sleep, who can blame her for wanting that at every bedtime? Babies’ ability to self-soothe changes so quickly over the first year, but they need space and the ability to practice. See if you can avoid swooping in when your baby is just grunting and kicking in her crib — go in only when she starts the full-blown cry.

10. Most babies don’t grow out of sleep problems

Studies suggest that babies who don’t sleep well at one year of age also don’t sleep well years later. That’s probably because habits build on themselves, and the routines and expectations you establish in the house in the first years really influence sleep down the line. Setting up an early and consistent bedtime and addressing any problems that keep your baby up for long stretches at night after six months of age is a good idea. But remember that quality sleep comes in many forms — for example, if your co-sleeping baby is getting her full 11-12 hours (with some short feedings) and you’re getting your 7-8 — there’s no reason to think you need to change.

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