By Dr. Amelia Bailey, Ob/Gyn
We teach our children how to do everything: eat, talk, play. But do we remember to teach our children to sleep? That’s right ... sleep, while a natural part of our biorhythms, is still a behavior that needs to be cultivated. Here are a few ways to ingrain this important skill starting from the time they're an infant.
As soon as your baby is born, he desires a schedule. Early on, that timetable is most closely attuned to feeding intervals; but sleep is a normal part of each full cycle of eating, interacting, and resting. Granted, your little one may seem to fight you on this every step of the way. Remember that they are learning how to do every skill necessary for survival while becoming accustomed to multiple new stimuli. Be flexible with the clock, but try to adhere to a predictable order in each cycle: feed, play, sleep, repeat. The amount of time taken to complete each cycle may fluctuate, but the pattern should be the same so your baby knows what she is expected to do next. It is one of your first forms of communication with her.
Have a wind-down routine.
Your body takes time to go from “full steam ahead” to “sleep” mode, and your baby’s body is no different. Establish a set of steps that takes about fifteen minutes and signals to your newborn that sleepy time is nearing. There isn’t one right routine, so you may want to experiment a little at first.
What might a routine look like?
At my house, I would give the baby a bottle at 6:30pm while we snuggle, then close the blackout curtains, turn on the sound machine, change her diaper, put on pajamas, and talk for a few minutes before setting her into her crib with her pacifier around 6:50pm. She usually fell asleep by 7:00pm. Over this time, she had received non-verbal clues (physical, auditory, and visual) that it was her bedtime. Your child may need more cues or fewer, so tailor your evening routine to what works for your family. For example, your infant may fall asleep after a bath and massage with lotion whereas mine did not. You are the parent. You will learn your baby’s preferences quickly.
Once you establish a time and routine, stick to it. Of course, illness and unforeseen circumstances will lead to occasional disruptions, but you are responsible for adhering to the schedule you set for newborn as frequently as possible. Type a document that you can easily update and print for other caregivers so they are prepared to follow the same rituals. This will help your baby and the caregiver, both of whom want an easy night.
When to see a doctor?
Certainly, if your baby cries like he is in pain when you lay him flat or has bouts of projectile vomiting, you should call your pediatrician for a gastrointestinal evaluation. A small percentage of babies have sleep disorders, so if you implement a routine and your baby still is sleeping poorly after a couple months, you may want to have her evaluated for that.
Sleep isn’t just for your baby.
You need it too. Lack of sleep affects every area of health: intellectual, emotions, and physical well-being. For example, the immune system is less capable of fighting off infection when we are tired, which is certainly important if you have older children in school. Create a relaxing place to rest in order to fall asleep faster and have more restorative sleep. A bed and pillow that support your body in any sleeping position as well as comfortable pajamas and bedding are essential. Top that off with a white noise machine and lavender sheet spray, and you are setting yourself up for success!
Sometimes following these tips is hard. You want to snuggle longer, your little one does not want to go to bed yet, requiring you to put in more effort that night. Or activities and plans keep you out later than anticipated. That is okay. No one is a perfect parent; we are all just trying to do our best for our loved ones. Give your baby the gift of sleep, and your hard work will pay dividends. Good luck!
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Dr. Amelia P. Bailey is a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility (REI) specialist in Memphis, Tennessee. She is the Director of Minimally Invasive Surgery for her practice and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. She completed residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, where she served as Chief Resident, followed by a fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. While in Boston, she was a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School and conducted joint research projects between Boston Children’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As an REI, Dr. Bailey treats patients who are having difficulty conceiving or who have complicated gynecologic conditions and follows women throughout early pregnancy. Her expertise in sleep and women’s health, including pregnancy, stem from professional as well as personal interests. As the mother of two young children, she knows how important it is to get a good night’s rest and has used the Reverie Sleep System throughout both of her pregnancy and postpartum periods with excellent results.