It always begins pleasantly enough. You quietly head upstairs with the baby, close the blinds, softly read bedtime stories, croon lullabies and rock him until his eyes drift shut and his breathing deepens. Slowly, gently, you lay him down in the crib, then tiptoe out, exhaling the contented sigh of a mother in anticipation of a nice, long break as you gingerly close the door. Yet no sooner have you cleaned up the breakfast dishes, made a cup of coffee and settled into your morning before …
“WAAAAH!” What gives?
Parents of infants and toddlers understand the importance of good sleep. We recognize that when our baby doesn’t get enough sleep, everything from diaper changes to public outings can quickly turn into scenes from The Omen. We also know that naptime offers an essential break for other family members. But what we may not realize is that there are other issues at stake.
“A good daily nap can improve your child’s attention span and ability to learn,” says Elizabeth Pantley, parent educator and author of The No-Cry Nap Solution (McGraw-Hill; $15.95). “Naps (or lack of them) can affect all 24 hours of your child’s day. They can influence his mood, behavior and health.” Right.
Some Need Less
The average newborn requires around 14 – 16 hours a day, but some babies will sleep more than that, and some much less.
“Babies sleep differently from adults,” says Wendy McHale, owner of Nurturing Lactation, (nurturinglactation.com). “They’re not designed to sleep for long periods of time.” Because your little one’s internal clock is different from yours, he won’t have the same kind of sleep patterns. In addition, newborns need to refuel their little tummies every three to four hours, which also keeps them from sleeping long periods of time. That’s what makes a nap a necessary part of Baby’s day. “Napping helps them meet the total amount of sleep they need,” says McHale.
So naps are important. We know it. The experts know it. How do we get a non-napping baby to know it?
Pantley suggests that parents examine how their babies are falling asleep in the first place. You might be cuddling and rocking your little one to sleep for very good reason — if you put him down before he is asleep, he is up and wailing. But that’s because you might be going for the nap a wee bit too soon.
“Babies sleep lighter than adults,” says McHale. According to babycenter.com, babies spend more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The theory is that babies need more REM sleep for all the happenings in their developing brains. But REM sleep is lighter than the other stages of the sleep cycle (and is also shorter than an adult’s sleep cycle), which means it’s a lot easier to wake Sleeping Beauty. So if your baby has fallen asleep in your arms, and you lay him down while he’s still in a light sleep state, “he will notice,” says McHale, adding that he’ll wake up and realize that he’s alone. And you can be sure he will let you know he’s not happy about it!
“Most babies do need to be parented to sleep,” explains McHale, adding that it can take 15 to 30 minutes to get babies to a deep sleep stage. If you can hold them until they reach that stage, chances of disturbing or waking them when you lay them down are smaller, and they just might sleep a little longer.
“Babies sleep differently from adults. They’re not designed to sleep for long periods of time.”
— Wendy McHale, IBCLC
Can You Extend a Nap?
Maybe, Pantley says. For younger babies, she advises parents to try “cycle-blender” naps, where the baby is asleep in a swing or rocking cradle. The constant gentle motion will help him return to sleep at the end of his first sleep cycle. For older babies, the same can be achieved by trying to catch him when he’s just beginning to wake up and soothing him back to sleep with quiet words or “shhhh.” She also encourages a darkened room and white noise or soft music throughout the nap. When he awakens slightly at the end of a sleep cycle, these things will encourage him to drift off into another one. For babies of all stages, Pantley stresses the importance of a comfortable sleep environment, pre-nap routines (such as stories and lullabies) and interpreting your child’s signs of tiredness correctly.
Go Ahead and Hold Him
While experts recommend that Moms and Dads encourage their babies to fall asleep on their own, it often takes quite a bit of time for a little one to do that. “When a child relies on a parent to help him fall asleep with rocking, breastfeeding, providing a bottle or other aid, he’ll become wide awake after his first cycle,” Pantley says.
However, McHale says that there’s not really a point in which these kinds of “aids” make it hard for a baby to sleep. “Babies are coming into this world needing to be held a lot, and parents don’t always like that! But it’s a true physiological need,” she says, adding that babies will outgrow that need, and parents don’t need to worry that they are setting up their children for bad sleep habits. In fact, she says, it’s just the opposite: babies who are held, rocked, breastfed or cuddled to sleep — even babies that take naps in their mother’s arms — learn that “sleep is a wonderful, comfy state to get into.”
There may be times in your newborn’s first weeks that you need to wake him to make sure he’s feeding, and there may be times when you need to “shhhh” him back to sleep to ensure he’s getting proper rest, but it’s usually wise to follow your baby’s lead. “Much of baby care is about watching your baby, trusting your instincts, and finding what works for your family,” says McHale.
Stephanie Deflefs is a freelance writer. Sherry Hang is editor of this publication.