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Angela Oswalt, MSW

Just as nutrition is vital to infants' growth and development, sleep is also a main building block of life. Babies need sleep just as adults do; however, babies' sleep patterns and ways of falling asleep differ greatly from those of adults. When babies are born, their sleep patterns are not set, and they need to be taught how to fall asleep. Through active parenting, caregivers can help their baby learn how to sleep in more adult-like patterns and how to soothe themselves to sleep. While some babies easily adapt to more mature sleep cycles, other babies may take much more effort and patience to do so.

newborn sleepingIncredibly, in the first week of life, babies sleep over sixteen hours a day, averaging eight hours during the daytime and eight and a half hours during the night. By age 1 month, they are still averaging about fifteen and a half hours of sleep per day, with that time split almost evenly between day and night. However, that sleep does not come in long, deep slumbers like adult sleep. Newborns take small snatches of light sleep all throughout the day and night, often waking hungry, soiled, or wanting affection. As time goes on, babies partially regulate their sleeping patterns just by being around adults with regulated sleep patterns, but caregivers also influence how babies learn to sleep.

In the first months, parents and caregivers need to respond to an infant's cries night or day, because this is a sensitive time when their basic biological needs are immediate and they are still learning to trust and bond with adults. When caregivers respond to their needful cries, they are building this trust and connection. As these babies begin to grow, there are ways to lovingly mold sleep patterns. To help babies learn to soothe themselves to sleep, create a bedtime routine that will help relax them and transition them from day to night. This routine can include a warm bath, a massage, cuddling, soft music or white noise, and the bedtime feeding. Teach babies to soothe themselves to sleep by putting them in their bed when they're full and drowsy but not yet asleep, and see how they react. Some infants will suckle their fingers or watch their mobile until they fall asleep, which is wonderful for parents. Other babies will scream and cry to be held until they finally fall asleep. Those babies will need more holding and comfort through the process of learning how to fall asleep.

In order to encourage longer sleeping periods through the night, send the message that nighttime is for sleeping, not for fun and play. When infants cry in the middle of the night for a bottle or a diaper change, provide for those needs quickly and quietly, without lots of stimuli such as light, singing, or games. To allow parents and caregivers to get as many hours of sleep at a stretch as possible at night, awaken babies for a feeding and changing just before they go to bed in order to start them off with a full belly and clean diaper.

By around age 3 months, babies' sleep normally comes in longer segments, and they may be sleeping for four to five hours at a time at night. They are still getting around fifteen hours of sleep, but approximately ten hours of it comes at night. By age 6 months, babies are often sleeping six to seven hour at a time. At this age, they average just a bit over fourteen hours of sleep daily, but most of it, about eleven hours, comes at night. Babies continue to average around thirteen to fourteen hours of sleep daily until their first birthday, and toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 years average twelve to fourteen hours of sleep.

No matter where or how long babies sleep, it's important that they are safe and comfortable. Cribs and bassinets should be constructed sturdily, and sleeping areas should be free from objects such as knick-knacks or window blinds that may create falling or strangling hazards if the baby decides to play. Many other measures can be taken to protect the baby's airway and prevent suffocation or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Doctors and researchers don't totally understand what causes SIDS, but they have identified safeguards that can reduce infant risk. Mattresses should fit snugly into the crib frames, and fitted crib sheets should fit snugly over the mattresses. As well, cribs should be free of all pillows, stuffed animals, and other loose bedding when babies are sleeping inside. Only light coverings should be used in the bed. Even better, babies can be put to sleep in sleepers that keep them snuggly and warm but do not cover the head or face in any way. Parents and caregivers should also watch the temperature of the sleeping area so that the baby is neither too warm nor too cold. Babies should always be put down to sleep on their backs, never on their stomachs or on their sides.