Sleep & Nap Issues: Understanding Your Baby's Sleep And Wake Cycle: A Recipe For Sanity

Having a new baby throws all semblance of a household schedule into chaos. Your little interloper has demands around the clock, and as YOUR ability to sleep decreases, your feelings of insanity increase! Sleep deprivation is really one of the most difficult parts of being a new parent. You can't really blame the baby; he's obeying his internal needs and commands, which don't yet follow a nice, predictable pattern. Or do they? Believe it or not, you CAN make some sense of your baby's sleep/wake/activity cycle. Most babies generally cycle through the following phases:

1) Sleep 2) Hunger/awakening 3) Feeding 4) Alertness 5) Fussiness 6) Sleep

Very young babies may be in each phase for only a few minutes each, gradually lengthening the time spent in each phase as they get older. And of course there are variations on the above cycle; for instance, some babies like to feed again, for comfort, before they go to sleep. But most babies WILL have even some very basic, cyclical pattern that they follow around the clock, even from the earliest age. And as your baby gets older, his tendency to develop a more predictable pattern will become more obvious to you (as long as you look carefully for clues to his own unique cycle). Become a parental detective, and you'll learn a lot about your new little one.

It helps to know where your baby is in the cycle at any given time, so that you can know what to expect from him now, and in the near future. For instance, if your baby is at the tail end of a nap, it might not be a good idea to plunk him in his carseat for a long ride; he'll likely awaken with a powerful hunger, and you won't be able to feed him easily. It makes more sense to let him awaken and then feed him before you leave. Understanding where he is in the cycle also helps you know when you can expect to interact with him most productively (and have the most fun with him!) I know our new baby will awaken from her longest stretch of sleep in the morning, feeling good and ready to "play". I try to schedule my day so that I can linger with her while she coos and smiles at me from her favorite perch; the changing table, in the morning. We have fun, sweet little "conversations" that are both fun AND important to the development of her little brain. But at the tail end of her period of alertness always comes the fussiness, and I know we can wind down our playtime, as I start to rotate among her favorite soothing techniques. (At 7 weeks of age, it's anyone's guess what will soothe her at any particular moment; sometimes it's her Daddy's "Heismann Hold", sometimes it's her binky and bouncy seat, her swing, or a ride in the stroller).

Getting to know your child starts at even this very earliest of ages. You'll find, over time, that the general patterns you observe about her sleep/wake cycle eventually extend into her personality tendencies and temperament. This will help you over time to meet your child's unique parenting needs. Have fun -- and try to get some sleep!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink