Does this sound familiar at all? Baby has a clean diaper, is fed and has fallen asleep in your arms. You are so excited because this means you might actually get to shower! You tiptoe over to their bassinet, and gently, you lay baby down on their back. You slowly, ever so slowly, remove your arms from under them. No way they could have noticed, you were so careful! Baby stays sleeping. Yay! You do a mental victory dance. You are amazing!
You silently turn to walk out of the room and “WAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!”
While this is so frustrating when it happens, there’s a reason for it. Infant sleep cycles are shorter than adults AND they are opposite of ours too. We adults start with deep restorative sleep, and over the course of 90 minutes, transition into lighter, dreaming sleep. Every 90 minutes or so our brains sort of surface (sometimes we wake up, notice our surroundings or the time on the clock) and then shift right back into our next 90 minute cycle. Babies do this very differently. Their cycles are about 60 minutes in length and they start with the light sleep, ending in the really deep restorative sleep. And at the end of 60 minutes when they surface, they are awake and ready for you. When you thought you were being all ninja and sneaking out of the room, your baby was just in a super light sleep and woke up because they knew you were no longer there. In their mind they were all cozy and suddenly you have disappeared on them!
One way of making a difficult thing you experience easier, is understanding why something is happening and knowing that it’s for a good reason.
The shorter sleep cycles for babies, how is this important? Well, it helps baby stay more alert. It makes them nurse more often (helpful in gaining weight and growing) AND it keeps them from sleeping super deeply (which can mess with their breathing and be a risk factor for SIDS). So while annoying, the shorter sleep cycle has some protective benefits.
Why do they start off in lighter sleep? There isn’t a ton of research here, but I suspect it may have something to do with them ensuring they aren’t being left alone. Imagine our ancestors millennia ago. If a baby fell asleep, and they were left on the floor of a cave, what predators might find the baby as a nice tastey treat? Ok, so there are unlikely to be lions in your house today, you can still understand why to baby, staying close to their caregiver is important.
What can you do to make all of this easier? I’m sure you’ve heard a few variations on each of these well intended, but terrible pieces of advice: Train baby to sleep on their own right from the start. Never hold your baby to sleep. Never nurse your baby to sleep. Never let your baby fall asleep while you’re wearing them, while they’re in a car seat, in a stroller. On and on and on it goes.
Every single one of these bits of advice pulls from two pieces of bad parenting wisdom that get thrown at us constantly: First, that you can spoil your baby. Second, that if you create a habit, you will NEVER be able to change it. At OBC, we call bologna on both of these.
First, remember that your baby is going through a MASSIVE transition from the womb to the outside world. They have no words to communicate and they’re just getting to know the people taking care of them; imagine how scary this would be! They are used to being 98.6 degrees warm at all times, squeezed nice and tight, in a watery, dark world. You aren’t spoiling a baby by holding them when they sleep, you’re helping to ease their worries. You are reassuring them that the world is a good place to be. You are building a foundation of security that baby will rely on their entire life. You cannot, I repeat, you CANNOT, spoil your baby.
Second, if you find a way that helps your baby sleep well–nursing them to sleep, wearing them in a sling, using a bouncy seat, holding them–whatever it is, DO IT. You need to do what works for you, your partner and your baby, and don’t be afraid that you are creating an unnecessary habit. The thing about babies is, they are always learning. So even if baby gets in the “habit” of falling asleep one way, when you decide that is no longer working, a week or two of being consistent in a new routine will change it for them. Every single habit can be changed when you want to make the change.
Now you understand it all a bit more, what can you do to make this all easier? Here are a few ideas:
- Find something that works for you. For many, this may be holding baby for every nap during the day, and if that is all that works, that’s OK. Consider getting a sling so you can at least be mobile and have a hand or two free for some of these short little naps.
- Remind yourself that their sleep cycles are funky for a really good reason.
- Don’t fear that you are spoiling your baby by meeting their needs. A newborn baby doesn’t have wants, they have needs. So if yours is a baby that can only sleep when being close to a caregiver, then do that for now. That is what your baby needs to feel safe and secure.
- As the wise saying goes, “This too shall pass.” For most babies, it’s only a matter of a few months where they are difficult to put down for sleep, and in time, as they get used to their bodies and new world and their environment, they’ll be able to sleep longer stretches on their own.
When my oldest was first born, he was impossible to put down. Every single nap had to take place on me or my husband or in a sling close to us. When I say all naps, I mean: Every. Single. Nap. And then at 7.5 months, I finally was able to lay him down and sneak away. That first nap lasted 22 minutes (it was on Father’s Day). It was the greatest 22 minutes ever. But you know what? From that day on, he became the best sleeper. He would take long naps in the afternoons and still go to sleep easily at 7:30. He napped every single day until he was 6.
The moral is, you aren’t ruining your baby by helping them. Each baby comes into this world with a different set of needs. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, because infant sleep is hard. But at least put your mind at ease that you are doing this right; you are telling your baby that you are there for them and that you will help them no matter what.
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