Sleep, Infants and Parents

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Jodi Mindell, PhD.

We are first-time parents and are concerned about the amount of sleep our newborn child should get.

When babies first come home from the hospital, they sleep anywhere from 10 to 18 hours a day. Sleep of newborns isn't consolidated so it tends to come in "chunks" that last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours at a time, during the day and at night. Furthermore, some newborns have their days and nights reversed and sleep more during the day.

There is little you as a new parent can do at first, except to let the baby govern her schedule. After about 4-6 weeks, sleep patterns will develop. Pay attention to when your baby usually gets sleep, when she needs naps, and when she is ready to sleep at night. Just don't expect her to be consistent on a day-to-day basis yet.

What about naps? How frequently and how long should we expect our baby to nap?

In early infancy, napping usually occurs 2-4 times a day for 30 minutes to 2 hours at a time. By 6-9 months, the baby usually takes only 2 naps a day. By 18 months, she will probably nap only in the afternoon, and by the age of 2 1/2-5 years, she will give up naps entirely.

How should we prepare our baby for sleep, and where should she sleep?

For newborns, be sure to follow the guidelines to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): place your baby to sleep on her back, avoid smoking, and make sure there are no pillows, comforters, stuffed animals or other materials that could suffocate or smother the baby. Don't make the room too warm, and dress her as you would dress for bed. Some newborns sleep better swaddled, because normal jerks in their sleep can wake them up.

Parents need to make their own decisions as to where their baby sleeps, whether in a crib, a bassinet, or the parents' bed. Be sure, though, that wherever your baby sleeps, she is safe. In addition, I strongly encourage parents to decide by the time the baby is 3 months old where they want her to sleep at age 1 and put her there. By 3 months, her habits are becoming well entrenched. You can make the transition from a crib to a big bed between the ages of 2-3 1/2 years, but wait as long as possible, because children who transition to a bed too early can develop sleep problems. In addition, I worry about the safety of young toddlers who can now get out of a bed and roam around their room or the house in the middle of the night while their parents are sleeping.

How can we help our baby develop good sleep habits?

By the time your child is 8-12 weeks old, set a daily schedule with bedtime and naptime occurring at approximately the same time each day. Try to make the schedule coincide with your child's natural rhythm; if she starts getting tired by 7:30 p.m., don't make bedtime at 9:00 p.m.

Develop a bedtime routine. All children flourish with routines. Take 20 to 30 minutes for enjoyable activities such as feeding, bathing, and singing to your child. As she gets older, your routine may change to reading or telling stories while you're getting her ready for bed. Parents should try to put their babies down when they're drowsy but not yet asleep, because a child needs to develop "self-soothing" skills. This is important because all babies awaken from 2-6 times per night, and you want her to be able to put herself back to sleep. If you tend to rock your baby to sleep, she will expect it when she awakens during the night.

We're not getting much sleep with a newborn baby in the house. What can we do to get enough sleep?]

The better your child sleeps, the better you will sleep at night. During the first few months, parents should realize they will be sleep deprived, so they need to make sleep a priority. For example, accept the fact that a pizza might be a better choice than preparing a gourmet dinner. Realize that the house may not be immaculate, because that's not a priority right now.

It's also important to get some help. Have someone come in for a few hours a day, so you can take a nap. If there are two parents in the house, divide up the childcare responsibilities so each of you can get at least five hours of continuous sleep each night. Having help is particularly important for nursing mothers, who may feel the burden of childcare falls on them. Nursing mothers can pump their breast milk so another adult can give it to the baby in a bottle while the mother rests.

And most important: try to avoid making major decisions during the first few months of the baby's life—you are probably going to be too sleep deprived to have good judgment.

-- Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and she is the author of Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's SleepImage removed. (Harper Collins, 2005). She is also Director of the Graduate Program in Psychology at Saint Joseph's University, and a former member of the National Sleep Foundation Board.

Reviewed by Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., June 2010.