10 Golden Rules To Infant Sleep

Let’s face it, probably the most challenging part of being a new parent (primarily a new mother), is the reality that it can be a jolly long time until you will be able to relish eight hours of uninterrupted sleep again.  Sleep deprivation must rate as one of the most challenging difficulties for new mothers.

Extreme sleep deprivation is nothing less than an abominable monster, and it can be the largest contributor to family stress, marital discord and maternal depression.  But it’s also a spirit-breaking burden that can often, retrospectively, have been preventable.

As adults our sleep cycles are about 90 minutes long: they begin with about half an hour of shallow sleep, then about 50 minutes of deep sleep when the brain activity slows down and bodily repairs are carried out; then a very valuable ten minutes of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is bombardment of activity in the brain, while the body is paralysed (to prevent us acting out our dreams) as our brain sorts out its filing cabinets.  However when you are awoken from an uncompleted sleep cycle, and then go back to sleep, the cycle starts again from the beginning.  So, it is very possible to be having say four two-hour naps over a 24 hour period – but to still be drastically REM sleep deprived, which plays havoc on your brain functions, trashes your memory and leaves you feeling in a permanent fog like jet-lag.

The stress of sleep deprivation prompts the adrenal glands to produce the stress-coping hormone cortisol – but the body is not meant to have long-term high levels of cortisol.  Among other side-effects, it makes you crave carbohydrates (starches and sugars) for their instant energy, stuffs up your digestion and mucks up the immune system.

For me it became a personal mission to teach our new babies positive sleeping patterns, enabling them to sleep soundly through the night as expediently as possible – to assist their wee brains to develop unhindered, and to eliminate my own sleep deprivation enabling me to be a more energised mother.  Our babies consistently slept through the night (10 to 12 pm until 6 to 7 am) by five to six weeks of age (to due date), and hopefully there will be no significant reason why your precious bundle can’t do the same.

The following infant sleep philosophy will be disagreeable to some of you … almost at some deep soul level you could find adopting the following sleep theories utterly objectionable.  And you know what?  That’s OK.  However, if you intend to assist your baby to sleep through the night as soon as possible, then this advise could be for you.

There is a fundamental point that many new parents do not realise, usually just because nobody has bothered to mention it to them.  Most young babies don’t know how to go to sleep without a noisy moving uterus, so it is one of your first jobs as parents to teach your baby how to go to sleep outside the womb.

Golden rule No 1

Begin establishing a constant routine, ideally from day one.

Babies love predictability. Structure in their little life is extremely calming, reassuring and comforting to them – It makes them feel secure – it’s their soul-food.

Golden rule No 2

The constant routine should be: sleeptime then feedtime then playtime then sleeptime.

The extremely common mistake, which many new parents make, is that they do things in the reversed order of playtime, then feedtime, then sleeptime,. This is wrong! Because… Your baby should wake up because she’s hungry (not go to bed because she’s full). Upon waking, your well-rested and hungry baby can then feed properly. After feeding, your baby can then play happily because she is fed and well rested. Once your wee baby tells you she’s tired again (through her very clear language of tired signs) – then it’s back to bed to let the cycle begin again. It’s that simple!

Daytime affects night time: teaching a baby how to sleep through the night is totally dependent on how well you are teaching them to sleep during the day.

Golden rule No 3

Learn to read your baby’s tired signs.

Young babies who don’t day-sleep but do sleep through the night, are doing it by default. In other words they sleep out of sheer exhaustion – not because they’re naturally a good night-time sleeper, or because you’ve successfully taught them how to go to sleep on their own. Once older and less exhausted at night, sleep-resistant problems are likely to occur, because the infant hasn’t learnt how to fall asleep without the aid of extreme fatigue. With a brand new baby, you can think of the complete sleep-feed-play cycle occurring about every 3-4 hours: the feeding part takes about 25-40 minutes: the play-awake time takes about 45-60 minutes (yes, that’s all). So, just one-and-a-half hours or thereabouts after baby wakes, it’s time to be back in bed again.

Plunket advocates that the biggest reason babies won’t sleep is that they are over stimulated and overtired. New parents need to learn how to observe and understand their unsettled, crying baby, because there are specific ‘perfect’ windows of time’ to put a newborn down to sleep, but these windows are very easy for the untrained eye to miss!

Golden rule No 4

Tired babies fall asleep. Overtired or overstimulated babies take longer to settle.

Quick! Use this window of time! Put baby to sleep NOW, while bub is tired, not a few minutes later when bub is overtired.

Golden rule No 5

Always put baby down to sleep awake.

Every single time your wee bub is put down to sleep, she must be awake – even if you have to slightly wake up an already asleep baby. But always put your babe down to sleep awake. Otherwise if your baby wakes up shortly afterwards, which babies often do, then she doesn’t know how she got there or how to go back to sleep on her own without your help again.

This is probably the biggest cause of day-sleeps being way too short, and a huge factor with night-waking too.

Golden rule No 6

Teach your baby how to fall asleep by herself, as that is how, when she wakes in the middle of the night, she will be able to fall back to sleep on her own.

Babies who are unable to go to sleep unaided, are unable to learn to sleep right through the night!

Golden rule No 7

Babies should always be put to bed swaddled. It makes them feel snug and secure.

Newborns should always be put to bed swaddled (wrapped until 3-6 months of age (until they begin to unwrap themselves). So wrap them up cosy like a parcel, using one metre square sheet of cotton or gauze material. It replicates how they feel in the womb. It also helps prevent their startle-reflex from waking them up and stops them accidentally scratching themselves. Additionally, a baby’s brain hasn’t yet finished perfecting its paralyzing effects during sleep (that prevents us physically acting out our dreams). So, for the first year or so, infant sleep can have a lot of movement.

Golden rule No 8

Biologically babies come equipped with two ways to release tension: sucking and crying. It’s normal and natural for babies to spend some time crying themselves to sleep.

Don’t make the household quiet for sleep time, instead add some noise.

Golden rule No 9

No sleep props and no sleep aids: don’t teach your baby that they can’t go to sleep unaided.

No dummying, rocking, patting, carrying, feeding or driving to sleep. No night-lights, special sleepy music, heavy fabric blackout curtain, or bed vibrator. No inducements for normal sleep – otherwise you are going to create an insecure baby who is addictively dependent on some outside influence giving them the OK to sleep – a sleep-aid junkie. Then your baby is lacking even the most basic fundamental human right – to go to sleep on its own.

Golden rule No 10

Avoid accidental parenting. Start as you mean to go on. Don’t start something new unless you want it to become a permanent routine ritual.

Give baby a bedtime routine. Newborns don’t understand what you say, but they understand what you do. Have a ritualized order of events during the day and at night because routines are very soothing for babies. Maybe something like bath-time, massage, dressing, last feed, a lullaby (vary the songs), swaddling, tucking into bed, kissing good night, lights out, then some catch phrase like “Bye, bye – love you” and the door closes. Always the same routine every night. 

Voice of a baby, if only he could talk

“When I was in Mummy’s tummy, I could sleep any time I wanted to. It was always dark and warm and safe and cosy. Mummy’s heartbeat was so soothing, and her movement lulled me to sleep. In fact, when she lay down really still at night, then that would often wake me up.

But now that I’ve arrived, it’s so frustrating. I try so hard to tell Mummy when I’m tired and need to go to bed. I screw up my face, I whine and grizzle, I clench my fists and make jerky movements. That’s all I’m able to do so far. And what does she do? She tries to feed me another drink, or worse, shows me an interesting toy. Yeah I know, both are kind of good for a little while, but then I’m really tired. Finally after I’ve been waiting for ages, crying and getting annoyed, Mummy works out that I must be tired. Phew! I’ve been trying to tell her for over an hour now – it’s like she can’t hear me. But now I’m so over-tired and over-stimulated, it’s hard for me to relax.

So once in bed I like to cry for a while, it’s soothing for me, because I can shut everything out and it makes my body produce relaxing hormones so I can calm down. But heck Mummy won’t even let me do that on my own. She’s in and out, and in and out of my bedroom, rocking me, patting me –OHJUST GIVE ME SOME PEACE PLEASE! But not too quiet thanks, some vacuuming or the radio or some other humdrum sound is great. Background noise lets me zone-out. I’ve grown up with lots of noise in Mummy’s tummy you see.

Another thing that bothers me is that I’d really like to be wrapped up for my sleeps, nice and tight, so I can feel cosy like I used to be inside Mummy’s tummy. But my Mummy doesn’t do that, so I end up sprawled out on my back with my arms up high. It’s awful – and I don’t know how to make my arms come back down. And doesn’t she know that I still can’t control my startle-reflex yet, so my arms or legs end up accidentally waking me up, or worse my fingernails scratch my face. It’s so annoying. I hate it when that happens, it makes me cry – then she comes in and gets me up, but once again I haven’t even finished sleeping. I feel so tired nearly all the time, and that makes me cranky. It’s just so frustrating. All I can do is cry.

Quite often I wake up after I’ve been sleeping for not even an hour. I can’t help it, it just happens, my brain is still learning how to stay asleep for longer. But then Mummy thinks I’ve finished my rest, and I haven’t. I need to go back to sleep, that’s why I’m crying, so I can go back to sleep again. But oh no… here she comes! She’s going to get me out of bed again! Oh heck! Oh no, not more food again!

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