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Why do babies need so much sleep?
Babies have a great deal to learn in a very short space of time. During waking hours, there is too much going on for babies’ brains to digest or reflect on the huge amount of information being received. During sleep the brain can organise and make sense of the vast array of experiences without distraction. Sleep is also a time for renewing the chemicals in the brain and the body, ready for another active day.
How much sleep is needed?
Parents are often concerned that their baby may not be sleeping enough, whilst others voice their concerns about their baby sleeping too much.
It is important to remember that there is a huge variation that exists from one baby to the next. Some newborn babies sleep 21 out of the 24 hours per day. Others only need as few as 8. The test to see if your baby is getting enough sleep is to examine if she is waking happy and alert. If so she is getting enough sleep. If she wakes and is irritable or tired, she may need to sleep longer.
Are sleeping problems common?
You’ll probably be relieved to know that they are very common and a lot of parents are in the same boat. Between a fifth and a third of all families report they have some kind of sleeping problem during the pre-school years.
Understanding why babies wake during the night
It is important that you understand the reasons why newborn babies wake in the night. In the first few months they have many essential needs, yet their ability to communicate is extremely low. For example, their miniscule tummies digest milk extremely quickly and if the stimulus for hunger does not wake the baby, he will not get the level of nourishment needed at that vulnerable age. Likewise, babies are still learning to regulate temperature and it’s an important survival mechanism that they awaken if they are too cold or hot during the night. The same applies to many stimuli that also have the potential to wake the baby. Therefore, these mechanisms are not there just to annoy the parents, but to ensure the well-being of the baby! As you are next dragging yourself out of bed to tend to your baby, you should take comfort in the fact that his innate, built-in defence-mechanisms are evidently working just fine!
During the first three months of development, tiny babies rarely sleep for more than four hours without requiring feeding. At around three to six months, the majority of babies start to settle. They are awake for longer periods during the day and some with lucky parents may sleep five-hour stretches at night! The time they spend in deep sleep starts to lengthen and the time spent in light sleep shortens. This means babies are able to enter deep sleep more quickly. This is called sleep maturity.
The time your baby takes to reach sleep maturity may vary and even when she does reach it, she may still wake up regularly. This is because by the time she is old enough to reach sleep maturity (usually towards the end of the first year), uncomfortable and painful stimuli present themselves, such as colds and teething pain. Furthermore, separation anxiety develops at around this age which causes sleeping problems. Babies also start reaching developmental milestones, such as sitting, crawling, and walking which causes them to run through their newly acquired skills in their sleep.
Night-time parenting is such a huge field that it would be impossible to cover everything here. Generally, I believe there are six main areas to the field:
1. Basics. We have covered some of the basics here and although a lot of this is just common sense it is important that you brush up in order for you to understand the more in-depth topics.
2. Supplies. This covers the purchases you will need to make to keep baby safe and warm at nighttime. From bedding to baby monitors, it is important you get yourself well-equipped!
3. Situation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to parenting and there are many decisions you will need to make with your family’s situation in mind. The best place for baby to sleep for example, is a matter of huge debate and something it is worthwhile figuring out before your baby arrives!
4. Safety. Although this covers all aspects of a baby’s night-time safety, the gravest concern for any new parent is that of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Fortunately, the levels of SIDS are falling due to parents educating themselves about the risk-factors and preventative measures. For example, putting babies to sleep on their backs has been shown to cut the chances of SIDS by half. This is one area you can’t afford to miss.
5. Sleep Problems. From frequent night-wakings to strange sleeping noises to colic. This topic deals with how to diagnose and treat the common problems associated with baby sleep.
6. Helping babies sleep through the night. This topic covers all the tips and techniques used for helping babies get a good night’s sleep and reducing the amount of night-time wakings. Such controversial topics as the Ferber Technique are included here.