By Katherine Edwards, MD, Annapolis Pediatrics
A year in the life of a pediatrician can become predictable – the sports physicals are predominant in the summer and respiratory illnesses peak in the winter. The constant throughout the year, however, is the birth, growth and development of infants. It is this constant that makes my job ever more gratifying. I like to hope that some of my words over the years have been comforting or helpful, especially to new parents.
Sleep is essential to the health of both babies and new parents. Unfortunately medical science still knows very little about the chemistry and mechanics of sleep, so we are left with trying to impart habits and patterns to help the parents of seemingly sleepless infants.
Here are a few words of advice:
Sleep is a HABIT
We spend the first few weeks, and sometimes months of an infant’s life very focused on feeding and weight, which means we tend to respond to every cry with feeding. However, an infant’s only outlet to get attention can be crying, so they may cry when they are hungry or full, sleepy or wakeful. Try to be logical and figure out which cry is for which. If your baby just ate an hour ago, then maybe crying now means “please put me in my bed to sleep!”
Let your infant put him/herself to sleep
You can never MAKE someone sleep! Your baby needs to put him/herself to sleep; your job as a parent or caregiver is to provide a safe space to do that. Lay the baby down drowsy but awake. I know it is hard, however try to resist always having to hold the baby until he/she falls asleep. The last thing the baby sees before falling asleep should be his/her bed, not your face. When the infant gets to a lighter stage of sleep in the middle of the night (as we all do!), the infant will feel safe in their environment and go back to sleep where they are.
“Sleep/feed” NOT “feed to sleep”
You want the baby to associate sleep with his/her bed, and feeding with hunger. Try this basic frame shift as early as you can, and have feeding be a separate thing for when the baby wakes up hungry. After that, developmentally, a newborn really can only be wakeful for 1-2 hours. If your baby shows signs of crankiness, put them in their bed at that point.
“Crying it out”
If you baby is sleepy, and is put in bed, the likelihood that the baby will fall asleep quickly, even if crying, is very high. There are countless books and guidelines directing parents about sleep schedules and times of crying. This goes to show that there is no “one answer” about how long to let a baby cry. Crying in infancy should not be thought of as sadness. Sadness is almost too complex of an emotion for a baby. Sometimes changing your mindset as a parent can be of the most help.
Everyone sleeps better in their own space
You will be a better parent if YOU get sleep, and your baby may be better rested in his/her own bed. It continues to be an area of controversy, even among pediatricians, about exactly where a baby should sleep (parents room or not). There is agreement however that co-sleeping is not recommended for infant or parent.
Sleep is a controversial subject, and experts and lay people have strong opinions on all of the topics that I have mentioned above. My job as a pediatrician is to give parents information and empower them to make their own decisions about what can work for their own family and lifestyle. There is no “one right way” to get your child to sleep. And remember, the more sleep YOU are getting, the more effective a parent you will be able to be moving forward, and the more you will actually enjoy the process.