There is nothing sweeter than watching your newborn baby sleeping peacefully—especially after countless bleary-eyed nights, lullabies and warm bottles. However, your little one's shut-eye isn't only a relief for you; it's crucial to her healthy development. With so much advice coming from friends and family about how and when your child should be sleeping, you might feel confused about what the proper sleep routine is for your little one. Your baby will have her own unique sleeping needs. In time, you'll intuitively be able to discover what sleep schedule works best for her. Something that works for your neighbor's baby may not work for yours—and vice versa!
A study published in 2005 in the Medical Journal of Australia took a group of parents with 3-week-old babies and had experts teach them for 45 minutes on the basics of a child's sleep cycle, including the "learned skill" of being able to fall asleep. After taking this class, these parents had their babies, who were now 6-12 weeks old, sleeping an average of 9 hours more per week than the control group—children of parents who didn't take the class. By educating yourself about healthy sleeping habits for babies, you'll help your little one get the rest she needs for growth and development in her first year. Here are some tips for getting your baby the rest she needs.
- All Aboard the Nap Train. When your baby is a newborn, 0-6 weeks old, she'll need lots of sleep. This rest will come in 3-4 hour naps, usually after feedings. At this point, she won't recognize the difference between day and night, so you won't want to worry about teaching her to fall asleep at specific times. Be sure your little one's room is dark, or just dimly lit, and that she has a safe crib for sleeping. Feeding, rocking or swaddling your newborn are all great ways to help her snooze.
- All by Herself. New parents often find themselves pondering about the many factors involved with teaching babies to fall asleep independently. "There is no research on this [when children should start to fall asleep independently]," says Brett R. Kuhn, PhD, C.BSM, a licensed psychologist and co-author of The Toddler Owner's Manual. "Parents have different values depending on culture and jobs, all children are different." Most little ones begin the process of sleeping on their own between 2-6 months old. "After 6 weeks, you can give your child the chance to fall asleep independently," says Dr. Kuhn, "but the process doesn't have to be done all at once." Dr. Kuhn suggests separating feeding from sleep initiation by moving your little one around after she's had her milk, and then laying her in her crib still awake, but tired. Gently soothe her to sleep with physical contact, such as stroking or patting her back. With time, she'll be able to slip off into sleep without trouble.
- All Night Long. "Sleeping through the night" is the Holy Grail for many new parents, but don't get frustrated if your baby isn't sleeping soundly for eight hours as soon as you expect. Thanks to the Internet and your mother-in-law, you might have preconceived notions about when your little one should be staying asleep, but it's different for every baby. "Research studies choose 5-6 consecutive hours [to show a full night of sleep] while parents want 8 hours," says Dr. Kuhn. "A lot of times parents get worried and consult experts when in reality their child is following a normal curve." Still, you can promote longer sleep periods as your newborn gets older by always making sure she's fed and has a clean diaper at sleep time. Also, try playing relaxing sounds each night—such as lullabies or the sound of lapping waves—to indicate it's time for shut-eye.
- Establish a Sleep Routine. Around 4-6 months, many parents choose to start a bedtime routine to promote long-term healthy sleeping habits. "A sleep routine which starts 10-15 minutes before bed signals the brain that it is time to fall asleep," says Dawn Huebner, PhD and author of What to Do When You Dread Your Bed. The key to a successful routine is consistency. After washing up and putting on pajamas, read a book or sing a song to your baby, but keep it the same every evening.
- Getting Out of Town. It's tempting to let your bedtime routine fall to the wayside when you're traveling or have relatives in town. However, the benefits of sleep are too important for your growing baby to let this happen. Schedule flights and car rides around your baby's feeding and nap times, and be sure to let relatives and friends know ahead of time that you'll be sticking to her sleep schedule. This will prepare everyone to get their "baby time" in during hours she's typically awake.
While there's still plenty of research to be done on sleep for babies, science shows shut-eye is key for growth and development. "We grow most effectively [when we sleep], the brain develops and healing occurs," says Dr. Huebner. In fact, a study conducted by the Emory University/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute showed growth spurts are linked to an increase in total daily hours of sleep for babies. Plus, any new parent can attest to a well-rested baby being one happy bundle of joy.
The path to helping your little one sleep a full night might seem tricky to navigate at times, but with time, love and a plan you're bound to succeed. Soon enough, your child—and as a result, you—will be sleeping soundly through the night.