Ages & Stages: Infants…Routine helps establish baby's sleep pattern

Friends of ours have a new baby. The biggest complaint of these friends is that they are not getting enough sleep.

This is not unusual when there's an infant in the home. Some babies may wake up crying several times a night. And they may be hungry when they awaken.

It's not abnormal for babies, and even toddlers, to experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Although you may worry about this, more likely you may be more concerned about the exhaustion and constant fatigue that accompanies your sleep deprivation.

In general, science may not know that much about sleep, but we certainly know that if you don't get enough sleep you're going to be irritable and feel less capable of coping.

Babies differ in the amount of sleep they require, however, the average baby may sleep 16 out of every 24 hours. By the age of 1 year, most infants need only about 14 hours of sleep each day.

If there's a new baby at your house, your greatest concern may well be your baby's sleep pattern. I suppose every parent's dream is to have an infant who sleeps most of the night soon after coming home from the hospital.

However, as our friends have discovered, some babies not only wake up hourly, they may be fussy when they awaken and are unable to return to sleep unless they're held or rocked.

Several studies have shown that it's common for babies and younger children to wake up at night. In fact, experts say the most common sleep disorder in very young children is night awakenings.

Not that awakening is unusual. Actually, most of us alternate between REM sleep and non-REM sleep. REM, which stands for rapid eye movement, is is the period of sleep when we dream.

Non-REM sleep is deeper sleep, when we get most rested. Almost everyone goes through repeated cycles of REM and non-REM sleep. This goes for babies, too.

But it's not just that babies waken that troubles parents. It's when they cry and cannot go back to sleep on their own that it's so upsetting for parents.

Furthermore, research finds infants who have not established good sleep patterns by 8 months of age are likely to have frequent night awakenings still at age 3.

Why do some children have these "night awakening" sleep disorders?

Studies show they tend to be associated with such factors as difficulties at birth, developmental problems, parental depression, family stress and the child's having a difficult temperament.

A secondary factor in a baby's waking up at night may well have to do with the conditions of going to sleep.

If an infant seems to go to sleep only by being walked or rocked, then when the child awakens in her crib, she will not be able to re-create this "falling asleep" condition on her own. Then the baby fusses and you groggily get up to re-create – and reinforce – the condition.

Some steps you can take to decrease night-time awakenings are to teach your baby to fall asleep by herself.

It's helpful if you keep nighttime interactions with your baby short and relatively uninteresting.

Also, don't do unnecessary diaper changes at night. Then, gradually reduce nighttime feedings after 6 months of age. Healthy children over the age of 6 months do not require food at night.

And, perhaps most importantly, follow a consistent bedtime routine.

One such routine is placing a baby in her crib while she is still awake.

One study found that when parents of 4-month-old infants were encouraged to start putting their babies to bed while they were still awake, by 9 months of age, these babies were sleeping much better than parents who waited until their babies were asleep in their arms before laying them in their cribs.