5 tricky sleep habits

Newborns and young infants are supposed to sleep all the time. Right? (Cue the eye roll.)

At least that’s what many parents-to-be are led to believe. 

However, many new moms and dads quickly learn that the adorable adage “sleeping like a baby” is highly misleading. 

Newborns and infants can be loud, wiggly, finicky little snoozers.

Whether your little one is a swaddle escape artist or a nocturnal night owl, take heart: These tricky sleep behaviors are very common and often rooted in biology. 

Here are five common sleep issues for newborns and younger infants, as well as tips for troubleshooting each one.

The Houdini

Your newborn is constantly wriggling out of his swaddle.

No matter how tightly you try to bundle your little burrito, he always manages to break free, startling himself awake with his own sudden movements. 

So what’s the reason behind your wiggle worm’s movements? Two words: Moro reflex. 

All babies are born with a handful of primitive reflexes that are outside of their control. 

“The Moro reflex is an involuntary type of startle reflex in response to a sudden loss of support,” said Hannah Kull, a nurse practitioner with Children’s Minnesota West St. Paul Clinic. “An infant will extend his arms out and flail them when he feels that sudden loss of support.” 

That sudden jerking can often startle babies awake or cause them to cry.

The Moro reflex is a normal, neurological reflex that typically disappears around 3 to 6 months of age. 

That said, some babies are born with a stronger reflex than others.

Pair a strong reflex with strong muscles, and you may find yourself in a sleep-deprived tango of swaddle/re-swaddle all night long as baby continues to bust out of the very thing that soothes him.

Tips

If your wiggle worm keeps breaking out of his swaddle, here are a few options you can try:

Tighten the swaddle.

Sometimes the swaddle comes undone because it was wrapped too loosely.

New parents are often nervous to swaddle too tightly, but wrapping your baby as snug as a bug provides a calming and secure barrier for those wiggly limbs.

Just be sure to keep the fabric at the hips and legs loose to allow for healthy hip development.

Legs should be able to bend up and out of the hips.

Switch to a zip-up sleep sack.

If your little Houdini continues to bust out of traditional swaddling blankets (and even Velcro sleep sacks), you might consider upgrading to one of the zip-up swaddling sleep sacks on the market. (See an example at the end of this story.)

The zip-up design makes swaddling a snap and ensures a secure, wiggle-proof fit. 

One more thing:

To minimize risk of SIDS, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends always placing infants on their backs for sleep (swaddled or unswaddled).

And as soon as your little one shows signs of rolling over, discontinue swaddling. 

The Night Owl

Your newborn missed the memo that nights are for shut-eye. 

She prefers to snooze away the day, then party all night.

While her nocturnal energy is frustrating, it’s also extremely common. 

“Before birth, babies in utero are entrained to circadian rhythm through the movements of their mothers,” said Sara Pearce, a registered nurse and the founder of the locally based Amma Parenting Center and author of The Amma Parenting Center Book of Sleep

After birth, that physical connection to chronobiology ends, and it can take awhile for your baby’s own circadian rhythm to develop. 

“It’s really no wonder that they’re confused, because if you think about it, the womb is a very, very dark place, and they’re pretty much rocked to sleep all day in the womb, while mom is up and about,” Kull said. 

Furthermore, newborns are born with inadequate amounts of melatonin — the hormone your body secretes to help make you drowsy and drift off to sleep. It’s not until around 3 months old that babies start producing enough melatonin.

Tips

If your babe is a bona fide night owl, there are a few things you can try, though most newborns naturally move toward a diurnal (daytime) schedule in time:

Limit the length of the late-afternoon nap.

Your mother or grandmother may have told you to never wake a sleeping baby, but if your newborn is taking monster day naps, you might need to wake her to nudge her toward a nighttime sleeping schedule.

Kull said to limit daytime naps to no more than three hours at a stretch.

Keep nighttime wakings quiet and dark.

While it might be tempting to turn on the lights, watch TV or check your smartphone during those late-night feeding sessions, resist the urge.

Bright and blue-white lights can inhibit the body’s production of melatonin.

Pearce recommends using a low-wattage red or orange lights, as they’ve been found to be the least disruptive.

Hang in there.

When all is said and done, you may end up just having to play the waiting game. 

“The biggest factor in when a baby will sleep more at night is brain development, which happens with time,” Pearce said. 

Most babies will start consolidating their sleep at night by around 6 weeks.  

The Cat Napper

Your little one prefers to cat-nap the day away. He only sleeps for 30 to 45 minutes at a stretch, leaving you just enough time to pee and scarf down a snack (oops, time’s up).

While newborns typically sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, that sleep is usually parsed out in increments throughout the day (and night).  

“Newborns have very short sleep cycles during the day,” Pearce said. 

She added that a 25-minute nap is not only normal, it’s also protective. 

“Short, light sleep protects the baby’s two primary jobs — breathing and eating,” she said.

While some newborns and younger infants might start stringing together several sleep cycles in one session, other babies may continue to take shorter naps for several months.

Tips

For newborns, there isn’t much you can do to lengthen those naps, as they’re simply pre-wired to sleep and wake often to promote eating and rapid development.

However, if you’re baby is still taking short naps after 3 months old, there are a few options to try to help them snooze past the first sleep cycle:

Start naps at the ‘right’ time.

How long should you let your child stay up before going down for a nap? The answer can vary widely among infants and can evolve as they get older. 

Experiment with different awake times to see if that helps.

An under-tired baby may wake after 30 minutes because that’s all the shut-eye she needed, while an overtired one may have a hard time settling down and staying asleep between sleep cycles. 

Kull suggests laying babies down right away when they’re just starting to get drowsy.

Remove sleep aids.

If your baby has moved out of the newborn stage and still prefers a pacifier or to be rocked/held to sleep, she’ll have a harder time falling back asleep if she wakes between sleep cycles and the sleep aids are gone. 

“It’s kind of like you waking up in the middle of the night and somebody stole your pillow,” Kull said. 

Try gradually removing the pacifier and reducing the time spent rocking before sleep.

Surrender and seize the short nap.

If your baby is healthy, growing and waking happy after those 30 or 45-minute naps, then you may just have to accept that fact that you’ve got a cat-napper on your hands.

Those naps will likely lengthen once your babe consolidates naps to just two per day.

The Rockaholic 

Your little one doesn’t like to sleep unless she’s being rocked, bounced, swung or driven. The moment the car or stroller stops, your little one wakes up. 

“Some babies are born with a very high need for vestibular stimulation,” Pearce said. “They calm their nervous system with movement.” 

The vestibular system is located behind each ear and helps regulate Baby’s sense of balance.

In the womb, your baby was continuously moving, giving his vestibular system constant stimulation. 

Fast-forward to the outside world, and the sensation of being still and flat can feel foreign and unsettling. 

Tips

Roll with the punches for now.

In the first two to three months, don’t worry about creating “bad” sleep habits, said Pearce, as babies eventually outgrow the need for movement as their nervous systems develop: “We try to talk parents down from the fear that their child will need to take their Rock and Play to college,” Pearce said.

Try a baby sling or wrap.

Babywearing is a good way to not only bond with Baby, but it also stimulates his sensitive vestibular system.

Plus, it frees up your hands to eat, fold laundry or do other tasks around the house.

(Keep in mind that pediatricians still recommend always placing babies on their backs on a flat, firm surface for sleep.) 

The Early Bird

Your little nugget likes to rise and shine at the unsightly hour of 5 a.m. (or even earlier), deepening both your coffee addiction and those crater-like circles under your eyes. 

“Some babies mistakenly think they were born on a dairy farm,” Pearce joked. 

Kull said early rising is a common complaint she hears from many parents, especially if a baby is starting to sleep through the night.

Tips

Keep the room very dark.

Since early morning sunlight can kick-start those wakeful hormones, try adding blackout blinds or shades to baby’s room.

The darkness can help baby not only sleep in longer in the morning, but also nap better in the daytime.

If you’re on a tight budget, fret not: There are several affordable yet effective options out there. 

Use white noise.

Sometimes early morning sounds (lawn mowers, garbage trucks, the neighbor’s dog) can prematurely wake a baby from his slumber.

A white-noise machine that plays soft lullabies, ocean sounds or other background noise helps drown out the sounds that might otherwise startle your infant awake.

Try a ‘dreamfeed.’

Sometimes Baby wakes early because she’s hungry. For babies less than 8 months old, a dreamfeed may be worth a try.

In other words, before going to bed yourself at 10 p.m. or so, gently rouse Baby just enough to nurse or take a bottle, then immediately put her back in bed. 

Put Baby to bed earlier.

Both Pearce and Kull suggest putting baby to bed earlier, as an overtired baby often wakes up earlier in the morning.

While it sounds counter-intuitive, an earlier bedtime may buy you extra sleep in the morning.

Put yourself to bed earlier.

You may try all the tricks in the book and still be stuck with an early riser. In this case, you may just have to go to bed earlier yourself and learn to embrace the dawn.


Rachel Guyah is a Bloomington-based writer and mother to an adorably dimpled, gap-toothed energizer bunny (cleverly disguised as a toddler). Follow her musings about motherhood at themamalogs.com.


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Convertible Woombie

The zip-up design of this swaddling sleep sack keeps your wiggle worm snug as a bug. Its cotton-spandex fabric offers a stretchy, yet breathable fit, and it easily converts to an arms-free sleep sack when you unbutton the sides.

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IKEA Glansnava Curtain Liners

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Relax Melodies App

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