There are a lot of things to worry about when parenting a new baby. As a medical podcaster and neonatologist, or baby doctor, I ask parents to tell me their worries so I can discuss them on the show. There is one topic that parents ask about over and over again: How do I get my baby to sleep through the night? Many parents struggle with the unstructured sleep that their infants experience — leading to stress for both themselves and their babies.
This concern about sleeping through the night has become a phenomenon of Western society. Parents are often far from their families and their support, mothers are working, maternity leave is sparse, and finding child care can be an ordeal. Therefore, it is no surprise that the value of night time sleep has increased.
In 2017, I moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in my second trimester of pregnancy. During that time, I bought a house, started a new job, and worked to get in enough shifts to justify my maternity leave. The hardest part of that year wasn’t even labor, it was going back into the workforce with a 3-month-old who would wake three to five times a night. I thought working nights and weekends during my medical training would prepare me for this, but the sheer exhaustion from sleeping no more than a few hours at a time took its toll. Being at work felt emotional and trying at times. It’s no wonder that postpartum depression effects 15 percent to 20 percent of new moms. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends screening for postpartum depression at 1, 2, 4 and 6 months out from delivery.
It’s important to know that this is a common phenomenon many families face. Recently, a study surveyed Canadian mothers about their babies' sleep habits. They defined sleeping through the night as the baby getting six to eight hours of continuous sleep. At 6 months, 38 percent to 57 percent of infants were not sleeping through the night, and at 12 months, 28 percent to 43 percent of 1-year olds were still not sleeping through the night. Babies are not meant to sleep like adults. They require frequent nighttime feedings, their nervous systems are still developing, and their awareness of day and night or circadian rhythms is not fully established.
So it’s normal for your baby not to sleep through the night, but what about you? If you are feeling the sleep deprivation as I did, there are ways that might help calm your infant for a better night’s sleep. Before encouraging your little one to sleep through the night, talk to your pediatrician and make sure that it’s the right time for your baby. Babies need to be out of the newborn phase and thriving before long stretches of sleep are acceptable.
If your baby is ready, here are some tips:
Work on daytime naps. It can be difficult to put an overtired baby to bed so attempt a daytime schedule that allows for two to three naps.
Try not to put the baby to bed using feedings.
Work on a nighttime routine for you and your baby to wind down. In an effort to not let the baby fall asleep on the breast or bottle, consider other soothing elements such as a bath, massage, and story time.
Use a swaddle. This is a helpful tool until the baby can roll. It makes them feel snug and doesn’t allow them to flail and hit themselves awake.
Offer objects that help soothe baby. A sound machine with white noise and a pacifier work well. Consider a lovie when they can roll.
Think about a sleep consultant. Pediatricians are a great first resource for sleep tips, but sleep consultants can give you personalized schedules that are individualized for you and your baby. They do cost money and there are no studies about their efficacy, but many parents think they offer great advice and tips.
Here’s hoping you and your baby rest easier in the New Year.
Joanna Parga-Belinkie, M.D., is a neonatologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a medical podcaster and co-creator of Baby Doctor Mamas.