Night Waking


By: Anne Smith

The question "When will my baby start sleeping through the night?" is one that I dread the most. Like most health professionals, I like questions that have easy answers, and this one doesn't. I do have opinions about how to handle sleep problems, based on my experience with nursing six children, and over twenty years of working with new mothers. What I don't have is a quick fix, or a magic solution for you that will make your baby sleep through the night.

Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults. A sleep cycle is the total time spent going through both active and quiet stages of sleep Adult's sleep cycles last about ninety minutes, and periods of active sleep occur about four times a night. Babies sleep cycles are half as long as adult's, and they have twice as many periods of active, or light sleep. When a baby is moving from a quiet into an active state of sleep, he is most easily aroused.

The way a baby falls asleep is also different from an adult. Adults usually go quickly from being awake to being deeply asleep, without going through a period of active sleep first. Babies usually go through an initial period of light sleep for about 20 minutes, then enter a period of transitional sleep, and finally fall into a deep sleep. If a baby is disturbed by a noise or touch during the initial period of REM sleep, or during the transitional stage, he will reawaken easily because he hasn't had time to enter deep sleep yet. That explains why some babies appear to be asleep, but wake up as soon as you lay them down in their crib, and also explains the baby who cat naps for fifteen minutes, then wakes up as soon as you try to move him.

A baby has no concept of day and night. Adults have been conditioned to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. The typical sleep pattern for infants is to sleep during the day and be awake more at night. For the first few months, most babies will sleep 14-18 hours each day without regard to the difference between day and night. His sleep patterns are similar to his nursing patterns :small frequent feedings and short frequent naps. Most newborns seldom sleep more than three or four hours at a time without waking up for a feeding. In rare cases a baby may sleep through the night (defined as a five hour stretch or longer) by ten days, but most babies don't do this until three months or later. Between one third and one quarter of all babies will continue to wake up during the night even after they are a year old.

Babies often have their days and nights mixed up, but they soon learn that mom is in a much better mood, and life is more interesting during the day than in the middle of the night. Often older babies who had been sleeping long stretches at night will start waking more frequently when they begin teething, and also when they begin to deal with separation anxiety and need to be reassured that their mom is still there.

OK. Now you know some of the reasons why babies nurse so often during the night. But what do you do if your baby is keeping you up all night and you are suffering from sleep deprivation and ready to strangle someone? Let's discuss some coping mechanisms.

First, I suggest co-sleeping. This doesn't have to mean that your baby is in the bed with you all the time. It just means keeping him close by during the months when he needs night- time parenting. He may sleep in a cradle next to your bed, in a crib in your bedroom, on a pallet on the floor, or tucked in next to you in your bed. He may spend part of the night in bed with you, and part in his own bed.

Co-sleeping offers many advantages. Babies tend to sleep better tucked in close to you. Breastmilk contains a sleep-inducing protein, and when you nurse, prolactin enters your bloodstream and has a tranquilizing effect on you as well. When your baby is in another room, he has to become fully awake in order to fuss or cry loudly enough to get your attention. By the time you get up and go to him, you are grumpy and groggy after being awakened from a deep sleep, and it will take longer for both of you to get back to sleep. If he is in the room with you, you can nurse him as soon as he begins to make the transition from deep sleep to active sleep, and neither of you has to wake up completely.

Another advantage is that babies tend to grow better if they are nursed throughout the night. Some researchers think that the skin- to-skin contact involved in shared sleeping may stimulate the production of more growth hormone in the milk. This has been found to be the case in animal studies, and possibly in humans as well. We do know that the mother's prolactin levels are higher during the night, so more milk is produced when the baby suckles. We also know that growth hormones are secreted more during the night in babies. If babies are meant to grow during the night, it makes sense that they are also meant to eat at night.

One reason many mothers are hesitant to tuck their babies in bed with them is that they are afraid they will roll over on them. Mothers have been sleeping with their infants for millions of years without squashing their babies. When you hear a news account of this happening, it almost always involves a parent who is drinking or taking drugs.

There is some very interesting research about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), breastfeeding, and co-sleeping. This tragedy strikes approximately two of every thousand babies, who die in their sleep with no apparent cause. Most SIDS deaths occur between 2 and 6 months of age, with the peak occurring at around 10 weeks. Numerous studies have shown that not breastfeeding is a risk factor for SIDS. We also know that babies should sleep on their back or side, rather than on their stomach, to reduce the risk of SIDS. The peak age for SIDS is around the time that babies often start spending a larger period of their time in deep sleep. Babies who sleep with their mothers spend more time in REM sleep and are aroused more often by her natural breathing and movements. Since SIDS is related to a diminished arousal response in some babies, sharing sleep and night nursing may help reduce the risk. While more research is needed, it is clear that breastfeeding your baby reduces the risk of SIDS, even if we aren't exactly sure of all the reasons why. Make sure that when you are done nursing, you lay the baby on his back or side, and not his tummy. It is also important not to lay him down and leave him on a soft surface, such as a beanbag chair or a waterbed. Sleeping face down on soft surfaces like these has been linked to a higher incidence of SIDS. By the time most babies have learned to roll over on their own, they are usually past the peak age for SIDS.

A note about co-sleeping: Dr. Sears says that although babies should not sleep on their stomachs, an exception can be made for the baby sleeping on mom or dad's chest. During the early months, many babies enjoy nestling to sleep on their tummies. This is perfectly safe unless you are under the influence of alcohol or medications, are extremely obese, or are a very heavy sleeper. When you are ready to lay the baby down, be sure to put him on his back.

In my own experience with nursing six very different children, I have found a wide range of sleep patterns. The first three all slept through the night and moved into their own rooms early, and took long naps at predictable intervals each day. They also all had security blankets and sucked their thumbs, so they were ‘self-soothers'. I made the mistake of thinking that all my babies would be great sleepers. Wrong. The next three required very little sleep, nursed during the night till they were several years old, and took little 15 minute naps on the way to the grocery store and were still wide awake eight hours later. All my babies were breastfed on demand and started out sleeping in bed with me, but had very different sleep patterns. I have to believe it's biologically pre-ordained. I've never understood why we expect babies to follow a certain sleep pattern, but not adults. Everyone knows that some people require a lot of sleep and have to get their 8 hours or they can't function, while others do fine with 5 hours. Some people are light sleepers, some deep. Some people sleep better curled up close to their partner, some like to have their own space and have trouble sleeping if anyone is touching them.

Here are some suggestions on how to encourage your baby to sleep and stay asleep (and to help you cope if he doesn't):

Above all, be patient and try to keep your perspective. All babies eventually learn to sleep through the night, and become more independent during the day as well. Before you know it, the baby you thought would never move out of your bed will pretend he doesn't know you when he is in front of his teenaged friends. Enjoy the fact that you are so important to him now, and take pride in his independence, because your loving care and attention to his needs has made it possible.

NOTE: The text of this article was reduced for this publication. For more information on this topic, click here.

Anne Smith is an IBCLC — International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and La Leche Leader since 1978. More importantly, she is a mother to 6 breast fed kids with twenty plus years experience of counseling nursing mothers. Her site, www.BreastfeedingBasics.com, provides expert advice and solutions to breast-feeding problems and gives basic information on how to breast feed. Anne also features her recommended breast feeding products and breast pumps.

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