If you've ever babysat / been a parent / been around an infant for more than just a few short hours, then you know just how much of a struggle it can be to get a tiny human to fall asleep. And then, of course, there's the struggle of getting them to stay asleep and not wake up a million times in the night. That one can be a whole other story entirely, but it's one researchers say can be pretty important. According to a new study recently published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology, an infant's sleep patterns may predict their behavior during toddlerhood. In fact, short amounts of sleep, or waking up multiple times during the night, may be signs that a baby will develop concentration as well as behavioral problems, said researchers from Tel-Aviv University.
Study authors came to this conclusion after examining the sleep patterns of 87 babies, first when they were one year old, and again when they were between three and four. To measure the sleep patterns, the babies wore wristwatch-like devices. To measure concentration, each kid was put through computerized attention tests. And to determine behavior, the researchers sought reports from parents about any behavioral problems they had experienced.
The study is noteworthy for several reasons, but perhaps most of all for being the first of its kind to explore the connection. "The fact that poor infant sleep predicts later attention and behavior irregularities has never been demonstrated before using objective measures," said lead researcher and Professor Avi Sadeh in a press release. Moreover, the findings could possibly shift the handling of behavioral and attention problems to prevention at its earliest signs. "Our findings support the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems in infants and young children. Early interventions for infant sleep problems, very effective in improving sleep quality, could potentially improve later attention and behavior regulation," Professor Sadeh said.
If you have a baby with irregular sleep patterns and you're currently struggling (or make that pulling out your hair) to help them sleep longer, there's hope for you yet. Here are five ways to help get your baby on a sleep schedule.
1. Skip The Pacifier If You Can
If your baby wakes up in the middle of the night because they keep losing their pacifier, you may want to get rid of it altogether and just let them cry it out until they're around eight months old, suggests Janet K. Kennedy, Ph.D., founder of the sleep-consultation service NYC Sleep Doctor. As Kennedy told Parents magazine, by that age, a baby will have the motor skills to put the pacifier back in by themselves.
2. Try To Make Feedings Least Every Four Hours
There are lots of theories around whether to feed on a strict schedule or on demand, but according to The Baby Sleep Site, if you feed your baby every three to four hours, they may be less likely to wake up in the middle of the night wanting to snack.
3. Don't Underestimate The Power Of Nap Time
Naps are super important, says What To Expect, and since babies often need to snooze about 16 hours in a 24-hour period, they happen a lot at first. (Newborns nap every two hours!) Babycenter adds that establishing a good nap routine is key, but just when and how long this takes place will change as your baby grows. Just try to establish a pattern and a routine as early as you can, and your nights will become a whole lot easier.
4. Ease Separation Anxiety By Teaching Your Baby That You'll Always Be Nearby
When a baby wakes up at night scared that mom or dad isn't there, your first instinct may be to rush into the nursery, and then to stick around for a while. According to Jennifer Waldburger, coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent's Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep, that may not be the best idea. Instead, teach your baby you'll never be far away with games like peekaboo or hide-and-seek during the daytime. If you need to soothe cries in the middle of the night, try gentle pats or picking them up for a couple of minutes, followed by a reassuring kiss goodnight. Waldburger also suggests trying not to sneak out, since it may panic your child and make them more hyper-vigilant.
5. Establish A Bedtime Routine — And Stick To It
Every parent's bedtime routine with their kid is slightly different, but the point is that it's important just to have one. Sleep expert Jodie A. Mindell suggests keeping everything consistent night after night — the same activities, in the same order. You should also try to keep the same lights and sounds in your baby's room, even if they wake in the middle of the night and you have to go comfort them. Mindell details these tips and more in her book Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep. She also suggests practicing your baby's favorite "calming" activity in the bedroom and doing it last. (Think singing lullabies or rocking them to sleep.) That way, your little nugget will learn to associate bedtime with their sleep space, as well as all the things he or she likes to do.
All that said, Dr. Sears warns that babies will still wake up — and that's okay. In fact, a large part of why babies wake in the night has to do with the fact that they're lighter sleepers than we are, and their brains are still developing.
Still, these tips could help grant your baby (and you) a little extra shut-eye. So here's wishing you both all the Zzz's in the world.