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Baby Sleep Explained: How To Tell Whether Your Infant's Sleep Is Normal

It's the question every parent of a newborn gets. How well does he or she sleep at night? And every new parent asks the other, related question: When will my baby sleep through the night? Ever? (Never?)
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It's the question every parent of a newborn gets. How well does he or she sleep at night? And every new parent asks the other, related question: When will my baby sleep through the night? Ever? (Never?)

No two babies are alike. That's true when it comes to sleep as well. I've heard from parents whose babies sleep, well, like a baby -- through the night -- as early as six weeks old. And then there are those parents who still struggle to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep more than a year after their baby's birth. What gives?

In the first few weeks of life, babies don't have a circadian rhythm going yet which helps them to know the difference between daylight and nighttime. This rhythm, or body clock, starts ticking at around six weeks of age. But what's more critical to the sleep rhythms of infants is their need for nourishment. In other words, it's not so much that babies are missing the "on" and "off" switch that adults have when it comes to day-and-night cycles. It's that babies cannot hold enough food (i.e., breast milk or formula) in their bellies to get through the night without needing more calories for growth. It takes a baby a few months to grow a belly big enough to accommodate enough calories so they may rest for longer periods without needing to fill up again. And because breast milk in particular gets digested more quickly than formula, moms who exclusively breastfeed typically find themselves tending to their tots more frequently than those who are formula-fed.

But here's some good news for new parents who worry that they may be doomed to years of sleeplessness: a new study published in the journal Pediatrics and done by researchers from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, states that by the age of 5 months, over 50 percent of all infants are following their parents' sleeping times -- and sleeping right through the night.

Sound too good to be true? Well, this also means that 50 percent of infants are not following their parents' sleeping schedules and are not sleeping through the night.

There's a difference between a baby matching his or her parents' sleeping schedule and sleeping "through the night." The researchers noted that achieving non-stop sleep does not take that long, but its coinciding with the parents' schedule takes longer. For example, a baby who sleeps for six straight hours but does so from 6 pm to midnight, is not going to please most parents who would prefer to go to bed at 10 and get up at 6. But a baby who sleeps for six straight hours from, say 11 pm to 5 am, may be a lot easier to handle than a baby who has a parent (or both) up in the dead middle of the night.

Despite the statistics, sometimes babies just don't comply with what's considered "average" or "normal." And sometimes you just have to stick it out until your baby gets on the same playing field as you. Hopefully that's sooner rather than later. But there are a few things you can try to get your little one to fall into that first 50 percent category -- the 50 percent of infants who sleep relatively well through the night. Here they are:

  • Get AM Light: Make sure your baby gets a dose of morning light. This will help set the body clock up, and reset a body clock that's may be ticking a tad off schedule.
  • Preserve Nap Time: Babies nap routinely throughout the day, usually once in the morning, and another in the afternoon. Though you may be tempted to cut back on nap time in order to "save" sleep time for the night, this will backfire. Babies who get the full extent of their naps in sleep better than those whose naps are cut short. And they just might grow up smarter thanks to their naps.
  • Cluster feed: to overcome the challenge of keeping your baby's belly satiated through the night, see if you can feed him in small clusters in the evening hours and then "top-off" his belly close to bedtime so he goes to sleep with a full belly. That way, he or she is less likely to wake up within a couple of hours hungry.
  • Try the Eat, Sleet, Play Method: we used this method in our house and found it to be extremely helpful. The key here is consistency in the schedule:, if it is sleep time and you are out, get home and get them to bed, it will pay off.
  • And for those who try everything and nothing works, consult your pediatrician, there could be reflux (sometimes called colic), or any number of digestive disorders that could be waking your baby.

    Then be patient. One night, your baby will surprise you. You'll wake up to the sound of nothing and worry that something happened to him or her. As you rush to the crib to check on your little one, you realize that all is well. All is asleep. And so should you be, too.

    Sweet Dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
    The Sleep Doctor™
    Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™.
    Facebook: thesleepdoctor
    Twitter: @thesleepdoctor