Infancy is a fascinating time! That new baby is growing at an alarming rate both physically and neurologically. Did you know in the first 3 years of life, a baby's brain creates 1000 trillion brain cells and becomes 3 times larger? (babycenter.com) Within the first 5 months of life, your baby doubles in weight. Incredible, isn't it?
Infants need to learn a lot of things quickly as a means of survival - how to eat, how to move their arms and legs, see light, recognizing voices of parents, and more. As their ability to see light gets better, they also start to learn what is night and what is day. This means that they soon learn to (hopefully) sleep well and for longer stretches of time. Here are 5 things that you should know about your infant's sleep:
1) Your infant needs to sleep -- a lot! Your baby's brain is taking in a lot of information during wake time. With so much stimulation, sleep is the brain's way of saying "it's time to re-group". That's why babies sleep a lot during the day during the first few weeks of life. In a 24 hour cycle, an infant needs at least 16 hours of sleep. This allows time for the brain to restore, make new brain cells stronger, and give the brain the chance to organize the new information learned during the day.
2) Your infant can tolerate about an hour of wake time. It's important that when your baby is up to give them lots of stimulation and "play time". However, because this can be very tiresome to a new baby, it's important to keep in mind that an infant can only handle about 1 hour of wake time before needing to sleep again. Missing this window might mean that your baby gets overtired, making it harder for them to go to sleep easily. New parents will often misread this and think the baby is hungry, but chances are that your baby just needs some rest.
3) Infants can learn routine very quickly. Babies learn at an incredible rate, and that means that your new baby can learn a day time and night time routine faster than a 1, 2, or 3 year old can. An infant will become habituated to a routine quickly, and this routine will stay with them. Before going to sleep each night, follow the same list of activities before putting your infant down for the night. Here's an example of a routine: give the baby a bath, put on pajamas, listen to a song, feed and burp, then bedtime. You baby will soon learn that when this routine begins, it's time to go into "shutdown mode". Using a short nap time routine can also make it much easier for your infant to go down for naps peacefully and quickly.
4) Babies become prop dependent fast. You now know that babies learn routine quickly. Babies can also learn other habits very quickly as well. If there are enough nights in a row that your baby is rocked by dad to go to sleep, or falls asleep while breastfeeding, you run the risk of baby learning that is the only way they can go to sleep! Babies can become dependent on external props where they need mom or dad to fall asleep. Down the line, this can affect sleep consolidation, sleep quality (both for baby and parents), and it's a harder habit to break later in childhood. It's important that even very early on that your baby should be put down in the bassinet or crib awake. Make sure that your baby does not become habituated to falling asleep with you there. Will it happen occasionally? Of course it will! But, do your best to be consistent in letting your baby be independent of you to fall asleep.
5) Things will even out faster than you think. During the first three months of your baby's life, sleep is going to be more fragmented. A baby's circadian rhythm ebbs more frequently than ours does. Their stomachs are also much smaller and need to be filled more frequently. The good news is that around 14 weeks, sleep starts to even out -- your baby knows the difference between day and night. Your baby will start to have longer stretches of sleep at night and will not need as many feeds, as long as their weight is good. Their circadian rhythm will even out more and will continue to change as the years go on. Of course, every baby is different and this may not happen exactly at 14 weeks and that's okay! As your baby gets older, if sleep has still not consolidated and you are experiencing several nighttime wake ups, evaluate your baby's routine, how they are falling asleep, and how well they are feeding.
If you have a newborn at home, this is a great opportunity for you to get a head start in making your baby an excellent sleeper and teaching them how to self soothe themselves.