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Encouraging Baby's Best Sleep

Sleeping Baby in Carseat

Before you had a baby, you likely took sleep for granted; it was something you did about eight hours a day, and if not, well, you'd catch up on the weekend. Enter newborn, and suddenly all bets are off. Newborn sleep -- and for that matter, baby sleep and toddler sleep -- bears no resemblance to the simple adult ritual to which you've become accustomed.

Children's sleep needs and the actual structure of their slumber -- how much they dream, how deeply they sleep -- is growing and changing along with their brains and bodies. Here's everything you need to know about your new baby's sleep habits. Hopefully, a little knowledge and some simple tips will help all of you rest easier.

You've probably heard people say that pretty much all newborns do is eat and sleep. While this statement is true, it's also wickedly deceptive. Newborns may sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, but not in large, several-hour blocks. Some babies awaken every 20 minutes, others every three hours. In other words, you can pretty much count on being awake with your baby while the rest of the world blissfully dozes on.

Because it takes time for a baby's brain to establish its circadian rhythm -- an inborn biological clock that creates sleeping and waking patterns -- she can't distinguish day from night and won't be able to sleep in larger blocks of time until 6 weeks or so.

And let's not forget the feeding factor. Newborns are hungry little creatures with tiny stomachs. Breastfed babies need to eat every two-and-a-half hours (breast milk digests very quickly); bottlefeeders about every four hours. Your best bet? Sleep when baby sleeps. If you breastfeed, pump milk so Dad can give baby her 3 a.m. feeding.

As a new parent, it's vital that you know the facts on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Though doctors aren't entirely sure of its cause, SIDS is thought to occur when a baby doesn't get enough oxygen while sleeping and suffocates, usually in the first year of life.

The theory is that the baby "rebreathes" her own breath because of too much bedding surrounding her nose and mouth. Therefore, she breathes carbon dioxide instead of air and is robbed of oxygen. Other research has shown a link between sleeping in a hot room and SIDS.

Fortunately, there's a lot that parents can do to help prevent it, and the steps are very simple. Keep baby's room on the cool side to be safe. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends clearing baby's crib of blankets, stuffed toys, and pillows, and -- most important -- always placing baby on her back when she's ready to go to sleep.

Since these recommendations were developed, there's been an 80 percent reduction in SIDS cases.

Making a Baby Burrito

There's a good reason maternity ward nurses wrap babies up into tight little bundles. Because newborns are used to being packed tightly in the womb, replicating it on the outside helps them sleep better. Here's how to wrap up your own little baby burrito:

  1. Lay a light, soft blanket on a flat surface; a heavier blanket may make baby too warm. Place it in a diamond shape, corners pointing up and out.
  2. Fold the top corner down to the middle of the blanket, and place baby's head and neck just above it. His shoulders should be aligned with the top of the fold.
  3. Place baby's arms at his sides, or cross them gently over his chest.
  4. Take the right blanket corner and wrap it across baby's chest, tucking in the edges under his back.
  5. Fold the bottom corner over baby's feet. You can leave the bottom loose so he can curl up his legs.
  6. Take the left corner and wrap it across baby's chest, tucking it under his back. Pull gently but firmly to ensure that the swaddle is snug.

 
Crazy for Loveys

Does your toddler need to clutch a stuffed bear to drift off to dreamland? Don't worry -- Teddy isn't an emotional crutch. He helps your child learn to soothe himself when his caregivers aren't around. Just have an extra bear on hand if Teddy goes missing!

Set the stage for peaceful slumber with these tried-and-true tips:

  1. Make sure baby's room is at a comfortable temperature. Body temperature drops as we fall asleep. If baby's room is too hot or too cold, this natural occurrence may be disrupted and inadvertently keep her awake.
  2. Bring on the noise. The womb is a noisy place -- baby is serenaded by your beating heart and gurgling stomach -- so she may find it easier to sleep with a little noise, such as the whir of a fan.
  3. Dim all the lights. Baby doesn't need a night-light and will become more in sync with the rhythms of day and night if you keep her room dark while she sleeps.
  4. Put baby to bed when she's awake. This may sound counterintuitive, but it helps baby learn to soothe herself to sleep rather than depend upon you.

Soothing Techniques from Readers

  • Four-month-old Alexander loves his nightly massage.
    -- Suzanne Hake, Brooklyn, New York
  • My husband and I slow dance with newborn Anjelica.
    -- Janice Barham, Ocala, Florida
  • My son, 18-month-old Luca, goes outside with me and says goodnight to the moon.
    -- Brea Doutt, Midlothian, Virginia
  • My 10-month-old, Keith, is soothed by feeling my long hair.
    -- Vivienne Adams, North Hollywood, California

Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2004.