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Babies and Sleep: What to Expect and How to Encourage Healthy Sleep Habits


SLEEP, it’s the topic on everyone’s mind and it can be a real source of frustration. Every expectant parent is told to prepare for sleepless nights and every new parent is asked how well their baby sleeps. If expectations don’t match reality, it can cause parental distress. Setting up the right expectation for new parents will go a long way towards eliminating the stress around sleeping babies.


Babies and Sleep in the Western World

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in this country, it was common for people to sleep in three hour segments, then wake for an hour before sleeping again. In addition, most families were poor, so one or two room houses with family members sharing the same sleep space was a common occurrence. According to Oxford University, “Not until the turn of the nineteenth century and sleep’s consolidation did physicians view segmented sleep as a disorder requiring medication.”


Since the invention of electric lighting during the Industrial Revolution and the push towards individualism, children have been encouraged to become independent quickly. Independence in the Western world begins in infancy, as most parents separate the infant from their caregivers by sleeping in different rooms. However, this goes against an infant’s biological nature. Cortisol is the stress hormone in the human body and an infant’s cortisol is lowest when they feel safe in their caregivers’ arms. When we place an infant down and walk away, their cortisol levels rise and they alert to danger by crying.


That’s why babies sleep so well while being held or worn in a baby carrier. They’re close against their caregiver’s arms, able to listen to their adult’s breathing or the sound of their mother’s heartbeat, and can nurse on demand. A study published in 2013 shows that maternal carrying reduces an infants crying, body movement, and heart rate. They’re at ease and stress free, which allows them to relax and sleep peacefully for longer stretches.


Stages of Sleep and Normal Development

The sleep cycle of an adult has four stages, the fourth being REM sleep where our dreams occur. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep and we can be startled awake easily during this stage. An infant sleeps on average 16 hours per day but will spend half of that time in REM sleep. It’s not until five or six months that a baby will begin to spend longer stretches asleep.


However, if your baby is still not sleeping a five-hour stretch at night by seven months, you’re in good company. 15% of parents report that their babies still wake up three to four times per night at 12 months of age. Sleep regressions are a normal part of infant development as well. There’s the infamous four-month sleep regression and you can also expect sleep disturbances during developmental leaps, growth spurts, teething, and illness.


Although night waking is a normal part of sleep development, parents can still take several measures to handle it, as outlined below.


Babies and Sleep: Encouraging Healthy Sleep Habits

There are MANY sleep experts and sleep training programs offered to new parents who are desperate to regain a firm footing in this area. So let’s go through some of the options:

  1. Cry It Out Method – This method suggests that parents place their infant down to sleep and allow them to cry it out on their own until they give up and fall back asleep. However, the body will produce cortisol when in distress. If babies are exposed to high levels of this stress hormone, they are more likely to develop behavior problems and stress-related diseases later in life. I strongly recommend people considering this method read this article by La Leche League on the facts behind the studies done on the Cry It Out Method.

  2. Gentle Sleep Training Programs These vary in methodology but all address infant sleep patterns as a problem to be solved and not a natural part of development that improves on its own over time.

  3. Formula Night Feeds – There is a rumor that feeding breast fed babies formula at night will cause them to sleep better. However, there is no evidence that it helps and it may actually make your infant sleep worse because it can cause stomach upset and gastrointestinal issues as formula requires a baby’s digestive system to work overtime. With that said, it is physiologically normal for breastfed babies to wake more frequently at night. Research suggests that formula-fed babies are at a higher risk of SIDS, which may be caused by deeper, longer stretches of sleep. KellyMom writes, “Recent research suggests that longer stretches of deep sleep are associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and babies who sleep longer/deeper may be more vulnerable to SIDS (see in particular the research of James McKenna, PhD). Some scientists are saying that it appears that long sleep stretches are not “natural” for human infants and that sleep interruptions in the early months may provide a protective factor against SIDS. More research is needed on this subject, but parents might want to think twice about significantly manipulating baby’s natural sleep pattern in the early months.”

In addition, introducing even one bottle of nighttime formula will disrupt the healthy bacteria growing in your infant’s gut, according to Ask Dr. Sears.

Lastly, a mother’s body knows to make milk only when we remove it frequently. So even if baby is getting a nighttime bottle of formula to sleep longer, that does not mean mom gets to sleep through a feed. The rule of thumb for a lactating mother is to either nurse or express milk

through pumping when baby gets a feed. Skipping a session can cause plugged ducts which

can turn into mastitis or at the very least cause her supply will go down.


4. Rooming-In – Consider keeping your infant in the same room to sleep and in a bedside crib or bassinet that attaches to your mattress, like this one.

Along with placing your infant on their backs to sleep, room sharing is recommended by the

American Academy of Pediatrics as one of the tools in preventing SIDS. Keeping sleeping

babies next to you while you sleep also allows you to tend to them quickly when they stir and it

prevents you from having to get out of bed when it’s time to nurse.


5. Babywearing for daytime sleep – Research has shown that close contact with sleeping babies

helps them to sleep more quietly and for longer. They can hear your heartbeat, feel your

movements, be reassured that you are close, and will not feel the stress of being separated

from you. When your baby starts to stir, you will be immediately aware of it if you are wearing

them. You can pick up on their feeding cues more easily. In addition, some research shows that

mothers who hold their babies feel calmer and less anxious, while showing less cortisol reaction

to stress.


6. Set up a support system!! – Women in Western culture are expected to do it all. For hundreds

of thousands of years, child-rearing was done with the help of our mothers, sisters, cousins,

friends, etc. Today’s mothers in Western cultures are expected to handle the transition into

motherhood on their own but if you’re running on fumes - better yet, before you start running

on fumes - set up a system of help. Have someone come over to give you a chance to nap a

couple of times a week. If you don’t have friends or family in the area, try contacting a

postpartum doula, one that can assist during the day or night.


Ultimately, believing that night waking is wrong and that you should be looking for ways to correct it only serves to build negativity. Instead, you need to understand that night waking is normal. It will pass on its own. This creates a much more positive feeling for you when thinking about babies and sleep, which will have positive impacts for you and for baby. Babywearing during the day to promote an easier transition into naps that will last longer stretches, rooming-in at night, and setting up a support system beforehand are all tools that will help you during this time until your infant’s sleep naturally develops into longer stretches.