SLEEP! One of my favorite topics. Helping mamas figure out how to get their little ones to sleep is one of my passions. I have helped so many friends and mom’s group friends that people now tag me on sleep posts…And I LOVE IT! After countless hours of research and working with a sleep coach here are some of my greatest findings.
The science of sleep
Yes, y’all. There is a science to understanding how little ones sleep. If you can understand the basics you can greatly impact your ability to help guide them to better sleep. So here is an overview of what I have learned through all my research:
- It isn’t that babies don’t know HOW to sleep (hello newborn that can barely keep their eyes open during a feeding), it’s that they need to learn how to FALL asleep and get themselves back to sleep when they wake at night. Once babies become more alert their brains are stimulated, and more often than not, OVERSTIMULATED. They need to learn how to shut down and fall sleep. This doesn’t mean that you should be expecting your infant to know how to do this immediately, it’s a gradual process but there are some simple ways you can help it along.
- Learning to fall asleep and get themselves back to sleep if they wake in the middle of the night is a DEVELOPMENTAL process. It’s important to pay close attention to their sleep cues, following recommended wake times, and understand that babies need WAY more sleep than most people realize.
- Babies sleep cycles are different from ours and they don’t start producing melatonin (the sleep hormone) until around four months. This is a HUGE change for their brains and can cause one of the first major sleep regressions. This is when sleep cycles start to become more pronounced. So they come out of deep sleep and have a hard time falling back to sleep (and a sleep cycle for an infant is about 45 minutes…so that is why so many babies start waking either every 45 minutes or every 1.5 hours during this 4 month sleep regression).
- Sleep regressions are REAL. They happen when babies make developmental leaps (read more about these here), are learning new skills, are going through a growth spurt. This means it’s important to pay attention to what your little one is going through. By observing their behavior you can often understand what is causing the sleep disturbance and then figure out an approach from there.
- You can build good sleep habits from day one. One of my go to references is Alice Callahan Ph.D and you can read some of her tips here. She has also written a book called The Science of Mom which you can order here. One of my all time favorite blog posts about sleep is written by Dr. Callahan and posted on Janet Landsbury’s blog. I specifically love that it talks about how you can build healthy attachment with your child while also encouraging independent sleep.
How much sleep do babies need? Way more than you think
Seriously. WAY MORE. And the more they sleep the better they will sleep. Being overtired or overstimulated is one of the biggest problems in infant sleep. Babies who are overtired have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. They are fussier, clingier and less content in general. Babies aren’t the only ones that need more sleep–in fact the American Academy of Pediatrics says most kids are not getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep can not only make kids generally cranky but it can impact their social, emotional and academic development, and can have an effect on their physical and mental health. So laying foundations for healthy sleep when your little ones are little, is a big deal. Also keep in mind that a day should be broken into two parts: day and night–each being 12 hours. So if they wake “for the day” at 7am, then they should be asleep for “the night” at 7pm. Once you get into toddlerhood this changes a little and their night becomes a little shorter.
Below is a chart the helps you visually see how long infants (and toddlers) should be awake in between sleep.
Babies gives us many clues that they are tired and I’m not talking about yawning (if baby is yawning you have missed your sleep window and are moving into the overtired stage). Sometimes we miss them because, let’s be honest, we are busy AF and overwhelmed as new parents or as parents with multiple kids. But if you have these cues in mind, and are following wake times, it makes it easier to spot a baby that’s starting to show sleep cues.
- Looking away from you if you try to engage
- Rubbing their eyes
- Rubbing their face against your shoulder
- Staring off/seeming very calm
An overtired baby is a baby that can’t sleep
Sleep begets sleep. That means: the better baby sleeps, the more baby sleeps. If you want baby to sleep, it’s best to put them down WELL before they “get tired”–this is the perfect time for them to start learning to fall asleep. If they are happy and just starting to get tired, they may be able to drift off. If they are overtired and cranky, not so much. Once your little one is yawning, they are overtired.
Sleep regressions suck. Seriously. One minute you have a baby that is sleeping great and seemingly out of nowhere they are waking up more often or can’t seem to settle themselves. Sleep regressions often go hand in hand with developmental leaps or when your little one is learning new skills like sitting, standing or walking. Basically their little brains are on overdrive with developing and learning and it makes it harder for them to settle. During a sleep regression the best possible thing to do is try to stick to you routine as much as possible. Comfort baby when needed but also try not to begin any new habits.
Good sleep habits from day one
Everyone always asks how I ended up with “such good sleepers”–the truth is, I worked to provide them with opportunities to develop good sleep habits from day one. I think that all babies have the ability to become good sleepers–it might come more naturally to some than others (because all babies ARE different) but if you begin introducing solid sleep habits from day one you’ll be in much better place than someone who doesn’t. And it isn’t all that hard, I promise!
- Help them figure out days and nights. During the first few weeks make sure that the lights are on and the house is “noisy” during the day. Once it’s evening, turn the lights low or off and have the house as quiet as can be (harder if you have crazy toddlers running around, I know). This helps babies learn that daytime is for being awake and nighttime is for sleeping. We used to put the older kids to bed and then turn the lights totally off and watch TV in the dark with the sound on low.
- Pay attention to wake times and do whatever you need to do during the first few months to get babies sleeping by those wake time windows. Don’t worry too much about habits, but also pay attention to what habits you might be creating…..it’s a fine line
- Start letting baby attempt to put themselves to sleep. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, try to put baby down well before the wake time window closes (so they are at their most relaxed) and see if they start to drift off. If they don’t or they start to fuss, no worries. Pick them up, rock them, nurse them. Just try again, and again. The more chances they get to practice the more likely they will learn to sleep independently (it’s a process!)
- Pause before you respond to every little noise. I don’t mean let them cry. I mean pause. Like wait a few seconds. So many times a baby will just make a little gurgle and we will run over to pick them up. It could be that baby is just making a little noise but that they are still asleep. Also, a note on “crying” in older babies….Listen for a minute to see if your baby is actually crying. If they are just fussing or protesting going to sleep, or babbling to themselves or practicing their pterodactyl screeching (like my 6 month old is currently in the habit of doing) don’t rush in. Let them be alone for a little–even if it’s just a minute or two.
- Make the room as comfortable for sleep as possible. This includes a white noise sound machine (not one that makes actual sounds like rain or crickets!). We love the Marpac Dohm one because it’s an actual little fan inside so it doesn’t loop. Everyone one in my house has one, including us. I notice a HUGE difference in my sleep if I don’t have it on. We also use black out shades.
- Swaddle in the early months (0-3 months). Pay attention to whether baby likes their arms in or if they seem to want access to their hands. Babies will sometime “fight” the swaddle but stick with it–they have a reflex called the Moro reflex that makes their little arms flail and will wake them up (that’s why swaddling is so effective at helping babies stay asleep longer. Also think about it this way. you baby was just all squished up inside your uterus for 9 months. Having the pressure from a swaddle helps them feel more secure. There are two swaddles that I would recommend. We love the Woombie for arms in. It zips from both ends, which makes middle of the night diaper changes much easier (don’t unzip their arms and they will fall asleep faster!), and they can’t break out of it. They also have a vented one for warmer weather and a convertible one that can help you transition out of the swaddle. If you find baby likes to rub their face or is starting to try to get their hands close to their mouth they may prefer an “arms up” type swaddle like the Love to Dream–both my daughters preferred getting to their hands and this worked much better for them. It does take a little trial and error.
- Use a wearable blanket when babies are ready to transition out of the swaddle–usually around 3-4 months. We own many different wearable blankets but my favorite BY FAR is the Woolino. Wool is a natural fiber that helps regulate body temperature. This sleep sack also grows with baby so you don’t have to buy multiple sizes (so while it’s more expensive than some, you will only be buying ONE vs every size while baby grows). They also have one with feet which is great once you have a walker. If you want something that’s cotton I would recommend the BabyDeedee sleep sack. The quality is amazing, they have really durable zippers unlike some of the other cotton sleep sacks we have tried–and they also have snaps on the top of the shoulders for ease of use.