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The Dream of the Sleeping Baby

Books abound. Opinions swirl. How best to get babies to sleep is one of those hot topics forever discussed and never resolved, fodder for both satire and debates.

How to get your baby to sleep, and why it's so hard to do so in the first place.
How to get your baby to sleep, and why it’s so hard to do so in the first place.

Emily Drake, PhD, RN, CNL, is familiar with the research, opinions, fads and practical realities of infant sleep. A labor and delivery nurse at UVA for over 10 years with extensive experience as a lactation consultant, her focus has always been with new families, sleep safety, infant sleep and breastfeeding and lack of sleep in new mothers as a potential cause for depression.

We spoke with Drake, also an associate professor at the UVA School of Nursing, to get a medical perspective and some practical tips.

Unreasonable Expectations: Why Is It So Hard to Get Babies to Sleep?

It turns out that the problem isn’t the baby; it’s us.

Drake explains that, “for a fetus, the sleep-wake cycle is every twenty minutes; we watch this in ultrasound. So when they come out, and we suddenly want them to sleep or wake for 12 hours? They’re not having a problem; we’re having a problem. We may want to get them into an adult cycle as soon as possible. But you just have to wait for them to grow.”

Sleeping Through the Night: 0-6 Months

Drake knows people may be tempted to say that their baby is sleeping through the night even when they are not because they fear they’ll be labeled bad parents.

But the shame is misplaced. Infant development directly affects the ability to sleep. “Babies’ stomachs are tiny — the size of a pingpong ball — so they can’t go very long without something to eat again,” Drake says. “So you’re lucky to get 2-3 hours of sleep. “

This is good news for parents who feel guilty or inadequate when their infants don’t sleep in longer stretches. “If they sleep 2-3 hours twice in one night, that’s considered sleeping through the night.”

Not only that, but how much a baby sleeps also depends upon “genetic predisposition, temperaments and personalities. There’s a whole range of factors. Some babies are easily stimulated and very sensitive; some are laid back and sleep through everything.”

Either way, how much your baby sleeps in the beginning is mostly out of your control. “You have to play with what you’ve got,” Drake concludes.

Sleep Training

Longer sleep becomes possible as the baby grows. At about 12 pounds or 6 months, a baby’s stomach is usually big enough to sleep through the night, and parents can start sleep training.

Sure, everyone sleeps, but we all have to learn how often and how long to sleep. Studies show both infants and adults wake several times throughout the night, Drake says. Sleep training is about teaching a baby or child to learn how to get back to sleep on their own.

She heavily advises routine. “Putting the baby to sleep and waking up at the same time each day really helps establish an internal clock that will make sleep much easier. Babies love patterns and routines, mostly because they can’t tell time and they don’t speak English, so all they have to go by is what happened yesterday.”

She also suggests putting babies down to sleep while they’re still a little awake. “If you walk, rock or feed the baby to sleep, when it wakes, it will want that same soothing action to go to sleep again.”
If the baby or child wakes up:

  • Don’t turn the lights on
  • No talking
  • Pat them
  • Take or walk them back to bed
  • Keep it super low key

Drake encourages parents to not give up. “You should know that sleep concerns are common and normal, but that teaching the baby to sleep well is a life skill that they’ll appreciate the rest of their lives. “

Want to Know More About Babies and Sleep?

Drake recommends the book “The Happiest Baby on the Block” for being the most easy and workable guide to sleep training in a sea of advice.

In the Charlottesville area? You an also attend her free spring seminar for parents:

Tackling the Challenging Sleep Problems of Children
Children, Youth and Family Services
Saturday, March 9
10 a.m. – noon
Free childcare (limited)
Register now: Call 434.296.4118, ext. 0

Or try a parenting class at UVA.

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