When you’re looking at the seed of healthy infant sleep, everything points back to one crucial factor: physiology. However, to make sure that seed gets the nurturing it needs, you have to do a little digging. So many parents see their newborns struggle with getting very little sleep and feel helpless, relegated to the sidelines and forced to struggle alongside their tiny babies. This helplessness stems from the fact that most adults don’t understand the physiology of infant sleep. Infants are equipped to sleep beautifully, getting all of the hours they need to grow and flourish. However, because they sleep differently than we do, we need to acknowledge these differences for them to do what they know how to do best: sleep!
Below are the four proven sleep milestones every brand new parent should be aware of to optimize their baby’s ability to get a good night’s (and day’s) rest. For each, there are strategies for sleep conditioning- the exact methods I use to get babies sleeping soundly through the night for my own clients.
Milestone #1: Your Baby’s Newborn Sleep Pattern and Progression Into the 4-Month Infant Sleep Pattern
It’s no secret that infants need to sleep a lot. Researchers from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine looked at over eight-hundred studies and found that newborns achieved their best development when they slept 16 to 18 hours per day. That’s a lot! According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the best thing you can do for your infant is allow for naps and night sleep in the range of 16 hours.
While your newborn sleeps, the brain is busy making connections. These connections fuse the experiences they had during the day and the adaptations that need to be made for their bodies to thrive in their new surroundings. This part is brilliant because it allows for the fact that babies in different parts of the world have different environments. For example, babies need to be able to develop different speech patterns as well as the best enzymes to break down the regional food their mother eats. From your baby’s first swallow of milk, the brain is telling the rest of the body how to best survive, giving it the solutions it needs to grow and respond to the best of its abilities. Moreover, all of that crucial communication happens during sleep.
More sleep = more opportunities for your baby’s brain to develop and learn.
There’s an essential lesson in this when discussing a baby’s lack of sleep. Babies become overwhelmed when they miss naps because they need the mental break to download all the new information coming in. Once overtired, even your efforts to get them to bed will incite seemingly inconsolable crying. Longitudinal studies of cognitive functioning show that naps are equally as crucial for infant functioning as their nighttime sleep.
At around 4 to 5 months old your baby will experience another significant change: Their sleep needs will readjust. That milestone is called a sleep progression, and it’s something all new parents should be cognizant of. If you want to inspire good sleep habits for your baby, then treat this developmental stage with care. Above all, make sure your baby gets to bed before they become overtired.
Milestone #2: When your baby’s sleep cycle develops to include multiple stages of sleep.
As a new parent, you’ll notice something amazing about the way your baby sleeps: You can rock them in your arms and then transfer them to the crib without them ever seeming to notice.
Unlike you and me, your newborn has never experienced the lighter stages of sleep, when distractions or movement easily wakes us up. As your baby’s sleep cycle matures, however, they begin to have these lighter stages of sleep that we’re accustomed to. At 6 to 12 weeks old, it’s no longer an effortless feat for your baby to reach a deep sleep. Your baby is less likely to struggle if you’ve already developed great sleeping patterns before this milestone, as they can draw on their early lessons about sleeping independently to get the rest they need.
This is big.
While many pitfalls can derail your baby’s sleep, one of the biggest threats is this: lack of proper sleep habits from the very start. If you rely on habits like rocking, feeding, pacing, or bouncing from the get-go, then when your little one reaches this milestone they will have zero idea of how to be successful. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you here is that, when it comes to your infant’s sleep, always begin how you want to end.
Milestone #3: When your baby’s sleep cycle transitions to include more quiet sleep vs. REM sleep.
Many new parents worry and end up losing sleep during the night simply because babies are noisy sleepers. There is a reason for it, however. Babies spend more time in an active sleep phase than adults do, making it common for them to grunt, wiggle, whine, giggle, have gas, and flail their legs – all while being completely asleep. Rapid breathing is another common behavior according to studies published in the journal Sleep Medicine and The Nature and Science of Sleep.
Knowing which signals need your response as a parent is the key to making sure you neither under-respond or over-respond. Around 12 to 16 weeks old you’ll notice that your baby mellows out at night. Their reflexes become less active, and their movements become fluid and less jerky. Noises that used to stimulate a riot of motion are now less startling. Until your baby reaches this milestone, however, the environment your baby sleeps in plays a huge role in how well they sleep. Do your best to minimize stimulation in their room by engineering an intelligent space that encourages the deepest rest possible. My approach to this milestone is to “fake it ‘til you make it.” In the world of baby sleep, this means using external aids to induce quiet, restful sleep.
Milestone #4: When your baby can produce enough melatonin to sleep longer stretches during the night hours.
Your newborn isn’t producing very much melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Newborn sleep is both irregular and brief, at times. Irregular because those small amounts of hormone are frequently released, without regards to it being day or night. Short because the amount of melatonin is not enough to sustain a longer sleep cycle. That’s why the fourth sleep milestone for babies is when they can produce enough melatonin to sleep longer stretches during the night hours.
The key to understanding this milestone is knowing that it’s changeable. Science shows babies produce melatonin when they feel calm and when they anticipate that it is time to sleep. One of the smartest ways to invite excellent baby sleep is to make nap or bedtime calm, with plenty of healthy sleep cues.
This is, after all, the entire basis of sleep conditioning, the ability to entrain natural rhythms with healthy sleep habits. In essence, this work is all about training the sympathetic nervous system to soothe and settle for rest so that breathing evens out, muscles relax, heart rate slows, and the mind calms.
Another essential baby sleep tip is to protect your baby’s sleep by minimizing disruptions as much as possible. For newborns especially, data suggests that rest is more easily disrupted because their sleep cycles are shorter. Giving your baby everything you can to help them make the most of these short cycles is one of the best things you can do to take care of the little seed you want to see grow big and strong.
A goal without a plan is just a dream.
If you want a step by step action plan to make these sleep milestones a
dream reality then get in touch. It’s easy: Call, text or email.
More Research on Infant Sleep
Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: A statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med 2016; 12:785.
Paruthi, S., Brooks, L. J., D’Ambrosio, C., Hall, W. A., Kotagal, S., Lloyd, R. M., … Wise, M. S. (2016). Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine on the Recommended Amount of Sleep for Healthy Children: Methodology and Discussion. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 12(11), 1549–1561. doi:10.5664/jcsm.6288
Horváth, K., & Plunkett, K. (2018). Spotlight on daytime napping during early childhood. Nature and Science of Sleep, Volume 10, 97–104. doi:10.2147/nss.s126252
El Shakankiry, H. (2011). Sleep physiology and sleep disorders in childhood. Nature and Science of Sleep, 101. doi:10.2147/nss.s22839