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Ask Dr. Sears: Sleep Smarts

Q. Help! When should my baby be sleeping soundly through the night?

A. Don't worry: Babies' sleep habits are as variable as their daytime personalities. You may be surprised to hear that experts deem as little as a five-hour stretch "sleeping through the night"  -- and most babies (and their tired parents) don't even enjoy this until around 5 months.

The reason is natural: Infants are born with a protective mechanism that immediately awakens them if they have a need for food, comfort, warmth, or anything else that may be important to their well-being. So you should never force your baby into a state of sleep. Trying to "teach" him to snooze uninterrupted through the night by ignoring his cries or denying him a feeding can be dangerous. I've seen many infants in consultation for "failure to thrive," a medical condition in which a baby does not grow to optimal physical or developmental standards; in some cases, I believe it's because forced sleeping patterns deprived them of the human touch and nutrients their developing bodies craved.

Bottom line: It's normal for babies to get hungry at night. And if you're breastfeeding your infant, he'll likely awaken even more frequently, since breast milk is digested more quickly than formula. That hunger may intensify when a nursing mother first returns to work  -- a concern I hear often in my practice. Until your baby becomes more comfortable with your new schedule, he may literally "milk" you for as much as he can during the night. A consistent sleep schedule during the day can help, though, so if you're a working mom, ask your baby's caregiver to stick to daily naptimes.

Keep in mind that how much  -- or how little  -- your baby snoozes is not a reflection of your parenting skills. The best thing you can do for your infant is create a sleep-inducing environment: Play soothing music or feed him right before bedtime.

As your child grows, he'll gain "sleep maturity" and everyone will enjoy longer periods of rest.

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