If you’re a new or expecting parent, congratulations! You’re in for an exciting, winding road ahead. It is a road brimming with promise and compassion but, like any road, is not immune to unwanted potholes and detours. One of those especially unpleasant bumps in the road will hit if (and when) your baby doesn’t seem to be getting adequate shut-eye. You yearn for rest, they yearn for rest, but the off-ramp into Snoozetown just isn’t on the horizon; for all you know, it could take 20 minutes or two hours to get there.
Before you doze off at the wheel, remember that you were once a crying, helpless infant yourself. Odds are you probably don’t remember much backlogged from that time (for obvious reasons), but you can reasonably assume that your sleep schedule wasn’t as steady as the five to eight consecutive hours you usually get each night as a mature adult, and you would assume right; according to the National Sleep Foundation, newborn infants (0 to 3 months old) should typically receive an average of 14 to 17 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period, typically broken up in incremental cycles of two to three hours, or eight to 10 hours each day and eight to 10 hours each night.
Even with those averages quantified, it can be difficult to pinpoint whether or not your child is receiving a healthy, normal baby’s sleep schedule for their age. It can be hard to discern whether or not their crying is endemic of sleep disturbances and deprivations or whether or not it’s garden variety, standard protocol baby crying because that’s just what babies do. Obviously, you can’t just ask your baby if they’ve been counting enough sheep and catching enough zzz’s and expect a fully formed, verbalized answer in return. There will be nonverbal signs, gradually evolving sleep patterns, and sleep aid strategies you must be mindful of to ensure that your child is receiving an optimally comfortable baby sleep schedule. Read on to find out more.
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Timeline of Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule
As mentioned above, the average baby sleep schedule for the first three months of your newborn’s life should be 14 to 17 hours over a 24-hour period, broken up into two- to three-hour increments. These increments are believed to often be a byproduct of the fact that the infant needs to be periodically fed and changed, and because his or her developing brain currently doesn’t conceptualize the circadian sleep rhythm that naturally regulates the wake and sleep cycles in more mature humans. The majority of the sleep partaken in this stage of your baby’s sleep schedule is typically known as deep “active” sleep, resembling adult REM (rapid eye movement) sleep without the relaxed muscle paralysis. You may see your baby make sudden, jerky movements through this active stage of sleep, and those movements are a perfectly normal byproduct of that active sleep.
By 3 to 6 months old, an infant’s active sleep and overall sleep will typically begin to take a slight decline, with an average of 14 to 15 hours of sleep over a 24-hour cycle. Now, more low-key, unperturbed “quiet” sleep will start to characterize the beginning of your child’s sleep cycle, signified by slower breathing, very little movement, and no eyelid flutters. Your baby’s sleep schedule will begin to wean incrementally, ever so slightly closer to the mature circadian rhythm, but not quite; they will still be prone to waking at least once at night, with most only sleeping five total hours at night rather than eight.
By age 6 to 12 months, your infant’s sleep patterns will begin to more closely resemble your own; daytime naps greatly begin to decline, with 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night and two- to three-hour naps during the day. At this stage, the baby’s sleep schedule is beginning to transition closer to (albeit, not quite) an adult monophasic sleep cycle. There may still be difficult sporadic night wakings, especially as the child begins to experience exacerbated separation anxiety when not around a parent or guardian. This is a normal part of infant development, with one Canadian study approximating that as many as 27% to 57% of 6- to 12-month-old infants do not have a full uninterrupted eight hours of rest through the night. Be patient, be understanding, and be empathetic when comforting your child’s stress. Your baby’s sleep schedule will ultimately begin to level out into smoother, stabilized sailing at age 1, with an average of eight to 14 hours of total sleep – eight to 11 hours at night and one to two naps during the day.
Signs of Infant Sleep Disturbance
If you’re a new parent, it might take some time to extrapolate what your baby’s particular cries at particular times mean, but the child’s unspoken language can be rather obvious once you catch on. If the child cries outside of their usual cyclical sleep schedule, that could be a sign of disturbance. If the child cries when you or your partner leave the room or is particularly clingy to one of you, then those are blatant signs of separation anxiety disturbance. Illness can be another source of sleep disturbance; if the disturbances are abrupt, sudden, and seem to accompany other symptoms like rash, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, consider consulting your general health care practitioner as soon as possible.
One disturbance you should particularly be reminded of, however, is mitigating the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). One of the leading causes of infant mortality, SIDS has the highest risk of occurring when babies are younger than 6 months old. Experts have not agreed on a singular underlying cause behind SIDS but they have identified probable risk factors for it, such as sleeping on the side or stomach, secondhand smoke exposure, lack of vaccinations, asphyxiation (from loose bedding or sharing a bed with a parent or sibling), or excess heat. To mitigate these risks, always be up to your date with your baby’s shots, do not smoke around the baby (or while pregnant), periodically check that the baby is sleeping on his or her back (whether via a monitor or by going into the room), and always use firm bedding. Breastfeeding has also been shown to have greater efficacy in alleviating the risk of SIDS than formula, with a higher duration of breastfeeding correlating with a higher risk reduction of SIDS.
Now that you know about these disturbances, what can you do to ensure that your child has the healthiest possible sleep schedule?
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How to Reinforce a Healthy Baby Sleep Schedule
All in all, there is a mixed consensus on what (if anything) can be done to improve your baby’s sleep schedule. Some experts, like New Zealand doctor Jess Berentson-Shaw, argue that “sleep training” and trying to condition your baby’s circadian rhythm is a useless effort in the first six months of its life, instead blaming the root of common sleep disturbances on feeding issues. Other experts argue that sleep training can yield harmless short-term results; in one analysis of 52 studies, 49 of them exhibited significant efficacy in reducing the infant’s resistance to sleep.
If you do choose to consider the sleep training route, there are a few positive reinforcement patterns you can implement to try to improve your infant’s sleeping habits. Daytime care and comfort has a tremendous symbiotic interplay with nighttime care and comfort: Cuddling your baby during the day, for instance, can mitigate separation anxiety at bedtime. Follow the time averages and give them space for those daytime naps according to those averages; don’t wake them up and play when they won’t want to. Finally, reinforce that rhythmic sense of circadian routine: Minimize light and noise at bedtime, set a pattern of consistent habits like rocking, bathtime, soothing music, and bedtime reading, and when appropriately old enough (to mitigate the risk of SIDS), consider giving them a soft toy or blanket that they can associate with sleep. All of these little habits can go a long way toward promoting a happy, healthy naptime for your child, and a routine baby sleep schedule.