Parents in general, but particularly new parents, can find themselves worrying over if their baby is reaching normal milestones at a timely manner, and naturally so! It is normal to want to use other examples in order to monitor progress and “normalcy”, but very often with babies, there isn't only one “normal”. This is particularly true when it comes to sleep (something all parents wish was more regulated!).
Sleeping through the night, sleep training, sleep scheduling, reverse sleep schedule, all terms parents are far too familiar with. But despite the overload of information, many parents don't know what trends they should be looking for in their baby, or what a relatively normal sleep schedule should look like. This is complicated by the fact that as a baby grows and changes physically, their sleep patterns are going to change as well.
All of this is not to say there are not things we can look for in a baby's development, or that there aren’t things that can be done to encourage a longer sleep schedule. But before we talk about how to encourage sleep, it is important to understand better what a baby's sleep habits should more or less look like at different ages as outlined by Parenting Science.
Baby Sleep Stages
From birth to about 3 months babies will sleep in short spurts throughout the 24-hour day. As days pass, these sleep bursts will start occurring for longer periods at night (especially when nighttime routines are encouraged). The total duration of sleep for infants varies between 13-16 hours. In general, an infant's sleep isn’t going to be deep or uninterrupted. Babies, unlike adults, go immediately into REM sleep. Not only that, babies move during REM where adults (unless they have a medical condition) stay relatively still. Additionally babies last longer in REM than adults, meaning deep sleep is short if achieved at all. One of the ways to help babies stay asleep longer without waking themselves up (due to their movements) is swaddling. You can see what safe swaddles we recommend here and why.
3-4 months, baby sleep patterns start normalizing a bit more “adult like”. They don’t immediately enter REM sleep and they will have longer sleep cycles. Some parents report their baby sleeping for more than 5 hours at a stretch.
By 5-6 months most parents will say that baby is sleeping for 5 hours at a time throughout the night. Some babies will even sleep for 10 hours at a time. Despite the longer time slept, most parents still experience their baby waking up more than one time in the night. During this stage, most babies still take multiple naps during the day and sleep on average 12-16 hours in total.
During the 7-12 month stage things can get confusing as most babies are following a more consistent sleep schedule, but it is not uncommon for parents to report their baby still not sleeping for 5 hours straight. For parents whose babies are sleeping longer, it is still not uncommon for them to be waking up around 3-4 times per night. The difference here is that most babies have begun to quickly quiet back down, and fall back to sleep.
So when should my baby start sleeping longer? It depends!
Most of the time, between 4-6 months. With this expectation it is important to note, according to “Raising Children” these are not uninterrupted nights of sleep, the goal is for the baby to begin to self soothe or to be quickly comforted and put back to sleep.
The phrase “sleep training” has gotten a controversial reputation over the last few years. Some immediately picture long painful nights of baby screaming and parents trying their hardest to let them cry it out. But sleep training encompasses so much more, and does not have to be a painful experience for either parents or baby.
Sleep training really begins as soon as baby arrives. How you approach sleep is going to be “teaching” your baby how to, well, sleep.
This means if baby is not given a routine and is simply placed in their crib or bassinet, they will never have any association of what signals bedtime. This is why a bedtime routine is so crucial. Baby will have environmental cues to signal sleepiness.
This can be done in various ways but to name a few outlined by the Children's Hospital Of Philadelphia;
- Encouraging circadian rhythms: This is basically helping baby sleep when supposed to sleep. Exposing baby to sunlight in the day and dimming lights during the bedtime routine is a great way to do so. This will increase melatonin levels, as well as give baby natural cues that bedtime is coming. Additionally, keeping a “boring” bedtime routine can help, something without much exciting stimulation.
- Keeping nighttime feedings calm and personal: When feeding baby before bed it can be tempting to do so in a living room or with a partner nearby. It is important to feed baby in a calm, unstimulating environment. If another person is present it is important that they do not add much to the experience. This is meant to be a “winding down time” for baby.
- Learn babies normal movements and “wakings”: As mentioned, newborns in particular spend the majority of their time in REM sleep. In older children and adults, during REM sleep the body does not move. It is essentially immobile (except for various medical issues), during REM. This is not the case in babies. While in REM sleep babies may move around, cry, and even appear to be awake. It is important as parents to learn your baby’s normal movements and sounds that indicate a normal REM sleep, and true sounds of wakening. Additionally, if baby does wake up they will go through two phases, the quiet alert phase, and the crying phase. Quiet alert is defined by the baby staying still and observing its surroundings. When moved into the crying phase the baby is usually overstimulated and as in the title, will begin to cry. It is suggested that feeding baby before they reach the crying phase will encourage sleep.
- Learn how to efficiently soothe baby: When soothing a baby it is a natural instinct to do everything possible to quiet them and get them back to sleep. This may mean excessive rocking, singing, reading, or feeding. If your baby is hungry it is important to feed them, but if you are beginning to encourage self/quick soothing, it is a good idea to do what is needed to be done to soothe baby and then leave it at that.
Bonus tip for encouraging longer sleep!
Look into swaddling! When starting the process of regulating sleep, swaddling can be a great tool for many! Swaddling creates a sense of security which often help baby calm down and stay calm for longer periods of time! Additionally, swaddle prevents large movements which, as mentioned, since baby may move around quite a bit during their long stages of REM, can encourage minimal waking (some waking is normal).
There are so many different options for swaddling, At embe, we are committed to creating the safer swaddle for safer sleep. Your babies deserve the best. Click here to see all of our options!
The bottom line...
No two babies are exactly alike, so no two babies are going to follow the exact same sleep process. Once typical sleep progression is understood parents have a better, realistic way of gauging how their baby is doing. By encouraging sleep and utilizing tools it is absolutely possible to help guide your baby into a great sleeper!
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