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10 Truths About Baby Sleep

baby sleeping

1. Your newborn may snooze a lot, but only for short stints. That's because her internal clock isn't up and running yet, so she doesn't know the difference between night and day. Besides, her tiny tummy can't hold much, so she'll be hungry every few hours, explains Jodi Mindell, Ph.D, author of Sleep Deprived No More. At about 6 to 10 weeks, she'll start to sleep for much longer stretches.

2. Good sleep habits are all about routine. By 6 to 8 weeks, Baby can have a sleep schedule linked to feedings, with an official bedtime somewhere between 7 and 8 p.m., even though he isn't sleeping through the night. Newborns can benefit from an evening ritual: "Parents don't realize how aware babies are, but when you nurse him, zip up his pajamas, and put on music, it sends a signal," Dr. Mindell says. By 3 to 4 months, your newbie should be snoozing about six hours straight (yay!), so you'll be able to drop one middle-of-the-night feeding, says pediatrician Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., of New York City. As Baby sleeps longer, move bedtime up.

3. Sleepy but awake is the ideal bed state. Let a child nod off on his own and he'll learn to put himself back to sleep if he wakes. Erika Riley, of Minneapolis, learned this the hard way: "I would lie in bed with my son until he fell asleep. Thirty minutes later, he'd wake up and need me next to him to drift off again!" Another common oops: feeding Baby right before bedtime. He'll come to rely on that to doze off. Make feeding the first part of the bedtime routine.

4. Comfort with caution. Experts agree: For the first three months, cater to your baby's every need. After that, if you resist the urge to pick her up at every wail, she'll probably fall back asleep on her own, without much coaxing. Sometimes, all you need to do is gently place a hand on her belly or softly sing in her ear.

5. Flexibility is key. When you have more than one child, there will be compromises. "I'd have to wake up the baby so I could take my older son to activities," says Jamie Gallovich, of Keller, Texas. If this is you, cut yourself some slack! "With your first kid, it's possible to follow a consistent schedule," Dr. Mindell says. "When you get to a second child, if you hit 50 percent consistency, that's good."

6. A too-tired baby won't sleep well. Learn the signals of sleepiness. Once a baby is rubbing his eyes or yawning, he's overtired, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Nap Solution. "I call it the volcano effect: If he doesn't get the nap, he erupts." Watch out, too, for the "micro-nap," that five-minute snooze Baby takes in your arms or while in the swing or car seat. "The first five minutes of a nap reduce feelings of sleepiness, but they don't rejuvenate your baby," Pantley says. "After this brief snooze, Baby is tired, but he can't fall asleep." And if he doesn't nap during the day, he won't sleep well at night.

7. There's no right way to nap. Your baby might end up taking two naps by the time she hits 3 to 4 months, or she could do three to four 45-minute naps until she's 9 or 10 months. Follow her lead or "you'll pay the price," says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., a Chicago pediatrician and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Don't expect a younger child to follow a big sib's previous patterns.

8. Colicky babies find it hard to wind down. All babies cry; how can you tell if it's a colic thing? Listen for crying that is loud and higher-pitched, and that follows the Rule of Three: It goes on for three hours a day, three days a week, for three consecutive weeks. On the bright side, colic usually goes away at 3 months. Until then, soothe Baby with swaddling, singing, and shushing.

9. It's good to surrender to Baby's schedule. Kate Clow's second daughter, Nora, was a great sleeper, but she woke up each day at 5 A.M. The mom from Chatham, New Jersey, tried putting her to bed later and changing nap times, but Nora remained an early bird. "What finally made it work was adjusting my own sleep schedule," she says. That meant no more staying up late doing laundry or checking email— and, thankfully, no more bleary-eyed mornings, either.

10. Even stellar sleepers run into snags. Your baby may sleep like a dream now, but don't be alarmed if that's no longer the case when he reaches developmental milestones such as pulling up to standing. Whatever you do, don't change the bedtime rules! Let your tot practice his new skills during the day so he's less apt to lie awake at night, trying them in his crib.

You want more than just a few extra winks at night; you want a gazillion. We can help!
Crash early. Turn in right when the prime-time TV lineup is starting. You might have to get up around 10 or 11 for a p.m. feeding, but an early tuck-in could save you from complete exhaustion.

Set his sleep schedule. Newborns sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, but many don't do it at the "right" times. They'll crash all day long -- and then want to stay up for most of the night. To help adjust your child's clock, wake him for a feeding if he's down for more than four hours at a stretch during the day. Once it's night, dim the lights during diaper changes and feedings so he gets the idea nighttime is for sleeping.

Channel the womb. To soothe a baby who can't settle down, rock and sway; it will re-create the sensation of being in your belly. Let her suck a pacifier or your clean pinkie finger, and swaddle her snugly.

Help Baby sleep solo. Your cutie may think the comfiest place to snooze is in your arms, but know that it's worth it to help Baby fall asleep on his own. If he fusses, put him in a swing or wear him in a baby carrier as you walk around the house, instead.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.