Good Night, Sleep Tight: Helping Baby Sleep Better

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

New parents realize that their new baby’s needs will likely curtail their own sleep at night for the weeks and months ahead.

Babies’ small stomachs cannot hold enough to last all night. Along with those nighttime feedings, they will require changes as well — they may also simply wake up and need soothing to get back to sleep.

Parents can do quite a bit to lengthen the time that a baby sleeps, starting at about three months.

Missy Yandow, owner of My Goodnight Train in Rochester, calls the first few months after birth the “fourth trimester” because for one, babies’ sleep cycle hasn’t adjusted to the common circadian rhythm of sleeping at night and remaining awake during the day.

During this time, most babies just eat and sleep with little recognition of when it’s bedtime. Yandow said by the end of the fourth month, babies begin to consolidate sleep, meaning they sleep for longer time periods and start to nap more regularly during the day.

“Stop swaddling around eight weeks,” Yandow said. “Then, use a sleep sack to keep them warm.”

The cozy nightwear features arms and a neck opening, but is basically a zippered gown that opens at the bottom hemline for changes.

Yandow also said that a conducive sleep environment can also help establish good sleep habits. Keep the room dark, at the optimal temperature and quiet.

She added that it’s important to establish and maintain the same bedtime routine, such as a bath, feeding, burping and time to cuddle in a rocking chair. Putting babies down immediately after feeding can cause discomfort. They need a little time to digest.

“The same routine triggers production of sleep hormones,” Yandow said. “Place the baby down to sleep drowsy, but still awake.”

Since babies may awaken for a feeding or soothing, learn to tell the difference. Babies who are rooting — making sucking movements, turning their head to the side, sucking on their fist — need to feed.

“I recommend parents to discuss with their pediatrician or lactation consultant,” Yandow said.

Sometimes, a brief check-in is all baby needs.

Adriana Lozada, sleep educator and owner of Birthful in Rochester, wants parents to learn about their babies’ personality and rhythm right from the start. Some are just fussier than others. Some become over-stimulated more than others.

“Tune into the personality of your child,” Lozada said. “That can help when they’re around 3 to 6 months. Before that, it’s all instinct. Any effort to create schedules or restrict things will backfire.”

For instance, a young baby will need more naps and as naps phase out, the timing of the naps will change, too — and that’s developmentally expected, according to Lozada.

“Understanding that, you bring all the pieces together of your baby’s temperament, average sleep needs for that age, pattern and rhythm and how much help they need,” Lozada said. “You can bring a loose structure so you have an idea of what’s up and baby has some consistency that respects their individuality.”

While your best friends’ baby may sleep six hours at a time by 3 months (lucky them!), yours isn’t abnormal for waking. Neither baby is “right” but simply different.

What you do to soothe the baby makes a difference, as they have preferences, such as rocking, shushing sounds, white noise machines, pacifiers and swaddling; however, teaching self-soothing at around 4 months can help you get more sleep. Laying babies down while yet drowsy helps them learn they don’t have to have you help them transition into sleep.

“A good night’s sleep starts in the morning,” Lozada said. “Strengthening the circadian rhythm starts in the morning.”

She recommends exposing babies to light at their normal waking time to send signals to their bodies that it’s time to stop sleeping. When it’s time for the night routine, dim the lights and eliminate them until morning.

“The biggest thing to focus on isn’t trying to get the baby to sleep longer at night, but keep them awake longer during the day,” said Dr. Heidi Connolly, chief of Pediatric Sleep Medicine Services at University of Rochester Medical Center.

She said that newborns nap about three times a day, a few hours after they wake up, afternoon, and in the early evening.

If possible, eliminating the early evening nap can help.

“Newborns need to eat in the middle of the night, but after a few months old, they don’t really need to nurse in the night,” Connolly said. “Feeding them then encourages them to wake up and feed.”

Above all, ensure babies need to sleep safely. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that babies should sleep on their backs, alone, and in a crib with immobile sides containing nothing but a firm mattress and a fitted crib sheet. Babies do not need pillows, crib bumpers, blankets, stuffed animals, bottles or anything else in their cribs. Placing cribs near parents can keep babies safe, yet close by for feedings and comfort.

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