The Ever-Elusive Sleeping Baby



I’ve met a mom of a sleeping baby. I try to smile politely while I cry inwardly. A month after bringing home my first baby, the phrase “sleeping like a baby” really bothered me. Mine refused to sleep! After an hour of crazy antics to lull him to sleep he would finally nod off only to wake up at the tiniest disturbance. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to have a sleeping baby, instead of a screaming one.

On the Sleeping Habits Page you learned about pregnancy naps and pregnancy insomnia. Once baby arrives, parents have all new problems with sleep. Here are some simple tips and resources for the exhausted parent.

Babies sleep differently

Next time you have the chance, watch a sleeping baby. You will notice that as he nods off he will twitch and move, breathe rapidly, and have rapid eye movement. Babies enter sleep through REM instead of plummeting into deep sleep like adults. This means that half an hour into your sleep, you’re limp and hard to wake, while half an hour into baby’s sleep, she could wake up at the slightest disturbance.

Babies also cycle through deep and REM sleep faster than adults. During REM sleep, any little thing might wake you up. When this happens in the middle of the night, you might get up and get a sip of water or go to the bathroom, or just adjust your covers or roll over and go back to sleep. You have this vulnerable wakeful period every 90 minutes to two hours. Babies go through this vulnerable wakeful period every hour or even every 45 minutes!

Research suggests that the intense brain activity of REM sleep helps baby’s brain develop properly. All these wakeful periods have a purpose. This way, your new baby won’t sleep hours and hours and begin to starve, or get too cold/too hot, etc. This wakefulness helps you keep your sleeping baby safe. Later, baby’s tummy grows and no longer needs nighttime meals. Baby also acquires a layer of fat and his or her metabolism slows down allowing for better temperature regulation. Unfortunately, the pattern of wakefulness doesn’t just disappear when its useful days are over.

A sleeping baby who just woke up at the end of a sleep cycle has no idea how to get him or herself back to sleep! Imagine you fall asleep in your nice cozy bed. Two hours later you wake up on the cold hard kitchen floor. How did you get there? How disorienting! If baby fell asleep in your arms or sucking, and now find himself in a crib with nothing to suck on, baby is very distraught indeed! Any parent who has been awakened by crying every 45 minutes all night long needs to know how to help this situation!

The Five Ss

You might know how to swaddle a little bit. You might think you know how to shush a baby. But really, until you’ve seen Dr. Harvey Karp, you are probably not fully equipped to soothe, turning a screaming baby into a sleeping baby. Dr. Karp has a video that will teach you how the five Ss: Swaddle, Side-Lying, Shush, Swing and Suck will turn on your baby’s calming reflex. Click here to see an interview with Dr. Karp.

All the Way to the Wet Noodle Stage

Have you ever put what you thought was a sleeping baby down only to have baby wake up and cry? As if baby has a sensor on her back that knows you are trying to remove her out of your arms! You experience this frustrating event because baby is not yet in deep sleep when you try to put him down. Instead of putting sleeping baby down as soon as the eyes close, wait about 20 minutes, until you can lift the arm and drop it like a “wet noodle”. I have read lots of advice about putting baby down “drowsy” but not asleep. If you can accomplish that, congratulations. My babies refused such tactics. I found that waiting until I had a deeply sleeping baby before attempting any transferring made for less stress on everyone. You’ll know when baby is old enough to start putting him or her down “drowsy”. (Or, you can be like me with my 14 month old who I still don’t put down until she’s a wet noodle. But she sleeps for four hours after that, so I don’t mind the cuddle time.)

Where Should Baby Sleep?

The topic of co-sleeping, or having your baby in your bed with you, always sparks controversy. In many nations around the world, cosleeping is the norm. Cosleeping has pros and cons.My favorite “pro” of cosleeping is that your sleep cycle will synchronize with your baby’s sleep cycle. Instead of being jarred awake in the middle of your deep sleep, you and baby will wake together. If you can learn to nurse in your sleep, you will wake up in the morning having no idea how often you nursed in the night, because you didn’t fully wake up. I experienced this with both of my children (in fact, I’m still experiencing it with my toddler). The cosleeping con is that there is a baby in your bed.

You can achieve the best sleeping baby situation when you have a variety of sleeping arrangements to choose from, getting the best of all worlds. Try having baby start in his or her own space: a bassinet, crib, co-sleeper, or mattress on the floor. If baby wakes up before you go to bed for the night, continue to put baby back in his or her own space. The first time baby wakes after you are asleep, move baby to your bed.

”Must… Have… Routine!"

You know who you are. You just have to have your baby on a schedule or your brain will ooze out your ears. I do not and will not ever endorse “cry it out” methods. Follow your instincts, and you will know what works for your family. Gina Ford in, “The Contented Little Baby Book” has excellent routines that worked wonderfully for my daughter and saved my sanity. Ford does, however, recommend “cry it out”. I was able to use her schedules without her methods. You might do the same.

Enough Is Enough

Sometimes, nothing you do seems to help with the exhaustion. Know that it is “okay” to ask for help. Just because Baby does not sleep, does not mean you have to be mommy martyr. If you need to nap while someone watches the baby, so be it. As you learned on the Healthy Sleeping Habits Page, you need both deep and REM sleep. Baby needs a sane parent.

This, too, shall pass. My son never slept for more than 45 minutes in a row for a year. Then, all of a sudden at 18 months old, he started sleeping through the night! Now, at age 3, he puts himself to sleep, sleeps 12 hours, and rarely needs us in the middle of the night. My daughter did not sleep long anywhere but in my bed for a year. Now, she sleeps longer and longer stretches in her own space. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I promise that before your little one goes to college he or she will be sleeping in his or her own room all night!

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