Having an infant that appears to have difficulties getting normal sleep can be worrisome, if not downright frustrating.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that there is no “golden rule” applicable to how your baby should sleep; each and every baby has their unique rhythm. For example, very few babies actually sleep 8 hours in a stretch, so it is unwise for you to believe or try to force your baby to do the same. Similarly, different approaches have to be tried for individual infants, since the temperament of the child will also have an effect on sleep patterns. As a rule of thumb, the “ cry it out” method is not advocated for babies under 6 months of age since it may significantly increase the risk of SIDS ( sudden infant death syndrome) occurring.
Most Commonly Experienced Sleep Problems
The most commonly experienced sleep difficulties can be broadly grouped into three classes:
- Baby has a hard time falling asleep
- Baby rises in the wee hours of the morning
- Baby awakes frequently during the night for extended periods at a time
While these problems are to a large extent normal, and expected to be encountered at least a few times during the first 6 months of life, rarely they can be caused by underlying medical conditions. However, rest assured as your pediatrician is likely to pick up on cues that may be obviously present during checkups.
Possible Causes of the Sleep Problems
The causes of the big three problems are somewhat diverse, and vary quite a bit according to the age of the baby. The following causes are associated with children 6 months of age and under;
- Baby’s sleep cycle is not on par with the 24 hour cycle- this problem is common in babies younger than 12 weeks, since hormones that promote sleep (such as melatonin) may not be fully functional as yet. To help get baby’s natural sleep cycle in sync with the outside, ensure baby gets adequate sun exposure during the day, as well as ensuring appropriate sleep setting is provided at night.
- Too much excitement before bed- actively playing with baby in the one or two hours leading up to bedtime will more likely than not leave baby excited and wanting more. While setting a bedtime is not fully practical as yet, a rough idea of when to begin unwinding should be known.
- Hasty interventions- babies coo and cry frequently during sleep, a situation not necessitating attention. In fact, your well meaning intentions may actually cause the opposite effect; waking baby up instead.
- Over- emphasizing soothing- while many parents believe soothing a baby as soon as they awake is a good idea, it generally isn’t. By picking up baby and rocking, for example, you are more likely to cause that baby to wake. Instead, a gentle pat on the back with no special effects is likely to do wonders.
- Lack of consistency- parents are likely to be over- enthusiastic in their efforts to soothe baby at first, but may quickly become burnt out and ignore the child altogether. This approach leaves the baby confused and may worsen sleep difficulties.
Causes of Sleep Difficulties in Babies older than 6 Months
- Too early bedtime- as your baby grows, their requirement for sleep decreases. To estimate when is a good time to put your baby to sleep, and setting subsequent bedtime, take a cue from when yawning ensues.
- Too late bedtime- while you would expect an “overtired” baby to fall asleep easier, this is not often the case. The reason is, as the body notices an increase in “stress” a hormone known as cortisol is released to help cope with the challenge of staying awake. This hormone can in fact worsen sleep disorders. Once you have found a suitable bedtime, stick by it.
- Baby sleeps too long during daytime naps- babies who sleep late into the afternoon will most likely have a difficult time getting to sleep back at night. It is best to indulge your baby in stimulating activities during the day, and allow the child to unwind an hour or two before bedtime.
- Hunger- hunger can be a definite cause of frequent waking during the night. As babies get older, their demands for nocturnal feedings generally decrease; however they may still require between 1- 2 feedings nightly. A good approach that produced good results was to feed the child about 10pm- midnight, after which the baby normally sleeps for another 6 hours.
- Baby doesn’t know to self soothe- to overcome this problem, it is advised not to allow your baby to fall asleep in your arms; instead when child appears sleepy put him/her down and allow to self-soothe.
Effective Tips to Help Baby Sleep through the Night (or most of it!)
- Expose baby to daytime activities- ensure baby gets enough sun exposure, and allow baby to see that the daytime is for working and being awake.
- Set night-time routines- train baby to accept that night-time is a slow down period before sleep. Develop a routine if necessary, one last feed followed by a lullaby or story.
- Massages- while it takes a trained person to perform a massage on an infant, it may be of some benefit. Studies have shown that babies who are massaged during the first 12 weeks of life have higher night-time melatonin levels after 12 weeks (= better sleep).
- Night-time Bath- this has mixed effects; some babies are relaxed, while others are ready to swim away. Evaluate your baby and see if he/she looks hyped or relaxed before making it a staple part of the routine.
- Feed baby- give a decent sized feed before bed; this will allow baby to sleep longer before hunger pangs kick in. When you get the go ahead, you may begin incorporating a bit of solid foods to the menu.
- Keep soothing techniques simple and easy going- no dancing in the middle of the night, instead just a quiet approach.
Conclusion: Baby Sleep Disorders
Baby sleep disorders are normally just a passing phase, one that does not require much worry or drastic measures. In the rare event that there is a more serious underlying medical condition, expert guidance from your Pediatrician will help you overcome.
Category: Sleep Disorders