Sleep — it's an activity for which most new parents wish. And when it comes to determining how to make that wish come true, there is more advice than any new parent knows what to do with. It seems everyone has a different take on how to get a baby to sleep through the night.
A new large study provides more than opinion. Seeking sound sleep advice, psychologists at the University of London and the University of Copenhagen set out to answer whether parents should enforce a schedule with their infants or follow their infant's cues. Three groups of women with different approaches to mothering and their babies' sleep habits were compared. The first group of mothers co-slept with their babies, held them for most of the day, and immediately responded to their child's cries. The second group held their babies half the time as the first group (seven to eight hours a day compared to 15 to 16), and didn't immediately respond to cries. And the final group spilt the difference (holding their babies during the day but not sleeping with them).
Outcomes of the first two groups were different, although without a clear winner. The first group of babies who were held more cried less, but after 12 weeks were still waking and crying during the night. The second group of infants initially cried more, but after 12 weeks slept through the night. And then there was the middle-of-the-road approach of the third group, which provided the best of both worlds. The babies in the third group cried less after the early weeks of life and slept through the night at 12 weeks. An additional tip from the researchers: Six weeks seems to be a good age to begin establishing sleep habits, which will help infants sleep through the night.
Sounds easy, right? Not quite. But the researchers conclusions provide good guidelines. As many new parents will attest, the first few weeks after the baby's birth are inevitably exhausting. Parents, during this phase, are being awakened at all hours of the night. An infant's small stomach requires feedings every few hours. And while an infant may sleep up to 16 hours out of 24, these hours certainly will not be in a row. Stretches of sleep will likely not last more than three to four hours at a time.
Parents with colicky babies have an even tougher job. An important find from the London study mentioned above — when it comes to the unsoothable crying from a colicky baby, the parenting approach didn't make much of a difference. The good news for the 5 percent to 28 percent of parents that have a baby with colic, it usually goes away by age 3 months. And one recent research trial found that breastfeeding mothers with colicky babies who avoided allergenic foods, such as cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy and fish from their diet, were able to substantially reduce crying.
In the first few weeks of a baby's life, most parents have their baby sleep in the same room as them, and there is justification for the decision. It is easier to travel to the baby if he or she is just a few feet away. But keep in mind that sleeping in the same room during these weeks is different than sleeping in the same bed. There are several reasons why having your newborn infant near, but not in your bed, is a better option. Adult beds have suffocation risks, such as heavy bedding. One research study found the risk of an infant suffocating in an adult bed 40 times greater than in a crib. Choosing not to sleep in the same bed is especially important for mothers who smoke since research has found a connection between smoking mothers who bed-share and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
By 8 weeks of age, my children were sleeping through the night — that means they would sleep for a stretch of at least six hours! But about age 2, they started waking up again. Rather than letting them crawl into bed with me, I would get them a drink of water and cuddle them back to their own bed. It worked.
Not all children adapt to schedules as early as 8 weeks of age, but almost all children will create patterns of behavior if you are sensitive to those patterns and reinforce them. Infants, like adults, tend to be creatures of habit. Some assembly to a schedule generally helps to establish a sleep pattern. Keep in mind that there is a wide range of "normal" when it comes to how many hours babies and children sleep, when they sleep, and when they sleep through the night. You know your baby and child best; if something about his or her sleep patterns concerns you, ask your child's physician about it.
My own mother offered me advice when I was a new mother, and with my babies, her advice proved invaluable. She taught me never to wake the baby after 10 p.m. and from 6 a.m. on to never let the baby sleep more than four hours. With this habit, many babies adopt a schedule that resembles adult hours. My mother raised seven children with these rules, and I raised three. With the near dozen children between us, using this strategy allowed us to plan ahead. Once the schedule was adopted, we had a pretty good concept of what our infant's week looked like ahead, and when we could get those hours of sleep we so needed. It also meant we often knew when our infants were likely to have a couple of "good" hours if someone wanted to visit the newest family member.