The First Year
Sound Sleep Habits
There’s No Magic Formula, But Specific Regimen Helps Baby Snooze
Our baby is almost 2 months old and we haven’t been getting much sleep. We know that babies this age are unpredictable, but Ramsey seems to be all over the place, sometimes content to sleep in our arms, sometimes in her crib (which is in our room for now), sometimes at the end of the night in our bed. I know that some people feel fine about co-sleeping, but neither her dad nor I feel comfortable with that. Daytimes aren’t much better, although she will often sleep in the car or a stroller for two or more hours! What can we do?
You are right that a 2-month-old isn’t at a stage when you can expect her to be consistent. Some babies have an innate daily rhythm, and these babies have proud parents — or at least lucky parents — but even more predictable babies are usually waking to feed twice a night. So what can you do now to ease your baby’s transition from wakeful newborn to eventual good sleep habits?
Right now, all you can control for Ramsey is her sleep environment and her patterns of falling asleep. You can’t be sure if anything you do will make a difference right away, but I can assure you that you can set the stage for future good sleep.
All of us sleep better in an atmosphere of calm. So why is it that expectant parents are encouraged to design a crib and nursery (and house) as if the circus were in town? Many babies arrive into the world with an abundance of toys, mobiles, decorative bed linens and wall decorations. Of course, the folks who sell things want you to believe that the more stimulation you provide, the better off your baby will be in the long run. But if you want your baby to sleep well, her sleep area should be quiet and soothing, not stimulating.
If you put a young baby in a crib with a mobile hanging over her face, she will try to focus on it — that won’t help her to sleep. If she is highly visual, any bright colors will cause her to attend, not relax. The more interest you provide, the more she will be wakeful, even if she is tired. So the first step to good sleep is to clear the crib of everything except her sheet and a thin breathable bumper. Put the mobile over the place you change her and the toys or decorations on the floor where you play. Later on she might have a special small blanket for a lovey, but not until she’s able to reach out and grab it — at 3 to 4 months.
Next, you want to make the room as dark as possible for nighttime sleep and naps. The fancy nightlight or the lamp with the spinning shade is fine before bedtime, but the light they cast can interfere with a baby’s sleep. As your baby gets older, darkness will stimulate the release of the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin, which further aids in falling asleep.
Cover all windows with blackout shades, not just curtains, because sunlight slipping in through cracks will keep the room from being sufficiently dark. You don’t have to make a big investment, but if you are staying in the same house or apartment for more than a year, it’s worth it to get shades that fit tightly. A quick and inexpensive option is to use black garbage bags stretched to seal out the light, using blue >
painter’s tape so that you can easily open and shut the “curtains” without damaging walls. If Ramsey is sleeping in your room, you’ll need shades there, too, and you’ll have to navigate in the dark in order for her to be able to sleep without interruptions. You’ll probably sleep better in the dark as well.
If you need some light to see your baby at night, use a baseboard night light or the hall light, that’s it. And beware the glow of electronics, including a baby monitor. You may need to block those lights by repositioning or taping the light source.
When Ramsey is in your room, a barrier between your bed and her crib will muffle the sounds of your turning and movement as well as the scent of your milk. Many babies are able to settle themselves back to sleep much better after parents move the crib behind a screen or curtain (you can attach a curtain to the ceiling with a cable track like in a hospital if a screen doesn’t fit or seems unwieldy for your space).
Use a white noise machine as part of your baby’s sleep cues. Turn it on whenever you place her in her crib, and keep it on unit wake-up time. The monotonous drone of white noise helps baby’s sleep. That’s part of the reason they sleep well in cars. You don’t need a fancy machine with waves and rainfall and heartbeats, just the basics. The noise of inexpensive machine is more reliable than a humidifier or fan and easier to pack if you travel. Set the volume to a middle range of 55 to 65 decibels.
White noise is not only soothing in its monotony, it also blocks a lot of noisy household disturbances. Forget the advice about how babies should learn to sleep despite outside noises. Anyone who has ever been awakened by a car alarm can tell you that is nonsense. Predictable background noise is one thing, but a for a baby any outside noise can be stimulating because almost everything is unpredictable when you are brand new.
When a baby is unpredictable, parents often respond by trying to be flexible, and in many ways that’s a good approach. If you are doing everything you can to help a baby nap and he doesn’t fall asleep, why not just get out of the house and go for a walk or visit with friends? That’s sometimes good approach to staying sane, but if the result of being flexible is that you are exhausted all the time, the approach may wind up making you feel worse instead of better. Only you can judge, but here’s the ideal way to eventually shape good sleep habits.
Start nighttime sleep at the same time every night, ideally between 6-7 p.m. If Ramsey usually falls asleep during feeding, consider feeding her a little earlier and then just holding her while she falls asleep. If she can fall asleep easily being held, try putting her in her crib and patting her rhythmically. Most babies need some parental comfort while they fall asleep in the early months (and providing that comfort can be an especially sweet time). However, the less you do, at least some of the time, the less dependent Ramsey will be on a parent every time she rouses to repeat the same actions. Right now, for example, Ramsey may be hungry most of the time she wants to nurse at night. In another month, she may rouse and just suck a little bit, not from hunger but because it’s the only way she has ever fallen asleep. So providing her with alternative methods of soothing is a good idea.
The middle of the night “schedule” is going to be unpredictable, but if the room is dark and you only interact for feeding, not even a diaper change, Ramsey will probably sleep longer.
Begin the day at about the same time every morning by turning on lights and opening shades. That’s the time for your baby’s first big feeding of the day because it is the time your milk supply is greatest (Mother Nature knows it’s morning.). If Ramsey isn’t hungry, that will be your first clue that she is getting more milk than she needs at night.
Most newborns won’t stay awake for more than an hour after they feed. That means a lot of naps. During the day, try to have Ramsey nap in the bedroom in the dark when you can. You may not want to be home all day, or be able to stop what you are doing every two hours, but you want her to build an association of winding down and falling asleep with the same place she sleeps at night.
As Ramsey gets older, she will become easier to figure out. You’ll start to notice that she gets a little fussy or distracted or quiet before you see more signs of fatigue such as yawning or rubbing her eyes. If you respond to the first set of signs rather than waiting until she is overtired, she will actually soothe more easily.
There is no formula for teaching a newborn baby to sleep better. Yes, there are many books that tell you it can be done, but sleep books are like diet books — the reason there are so many is that no solution is perfect. And just like the diet formulas that promise instant results, the sleep formulas that guarantee success are often impractical or just plain unworkable. Babies are babies, and they do learn to sleep better as they get older.
Meg Zweiback is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She has helped thousands of Bay Area families meet the challenges of everyday life with children. She is the author of four books for parents including Keys to Toilet Training. Her website www.bringingupkids.com has downloadable information and handouts for parents and teachers.