Talk to any new parent and they will tell you about the shock that comes from the sudden sleep deprivation that accompanies having a newborn. The sleepless nights of taking care of a small infant and their needs can quickly take a toll on any parent.
When the weeks of sleepless nights morph into months of sleepless nights, many parents are desperate to find a solution to help their baby sleep through the night. After all, when baby sleeps through the night everyone else rests easier.
So how does one solve the endless waking through the night? Many parents find reprieve through sleep training. Sleep training is basically the process of helping your baby learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. There are many different methods out there that claim to help your baby sleep through the night.
Some babies take well to sleep training. But many infants have further trouble sleeping through the night despite repeated and varied attempts at sleep training.
Understanding infant sleep patterns
Many parents become frustrated when they can’t train their baby to sleep through the night. Understanding normal infant sleep patterns can help parents measure whether their baby’s sleeping habits are normal or not.
Newborns and babies younger than four months spend about 16-18 hours a day sleeping. At this age, babies tend to stir more and look restless while sleeping since they can’t control their reflexes yet. Newborns also need to eat more often and have not yet learned how to soothe themselves back to sleep so they need extra help falling back to sleep as they cycle between deep and light sleep. At this point sleep is fragmented.
At six months, infants are usually ready to sleep through the night in six-twelve hour stretches. Some babies will have a few months of sleeping through the night only to be interrupted from illness, life changes, teething, or separation anxiety.
This sudden change of sleep patterns is referred to as sleep regressions and are usually only a temporary phase. As infants approach toddlerhood, the ability to sleep through the night develops as they learn how to put themselves back to sleep.
Sleep training roadbumps
Many parents agree that sleep training works and is well worth all the effort and work involved in helping your baby learn to sleep through the night. Sometimes sleep training fails. You may have put in weeks or even months of work into sleep training only to find your child is still suffering from frequent night wakings or erratic naps.
Oftentimes the answer to how sleep training has failed is easy. Perhaps your baby has hit a sleep “speed bump” like a sleep regression, an illness, or teething. Or the answer might be the sleep training was incomplete or unfinished.
Sleep regressions are when your baby or toddler goes through a significant developmental leap. Sleep becomes a secondary concern for your child as they are learning a new skill (think crawling or walking) or when their brain goes through a major new development stage.
Sleep regressions usually happen around 4 months, 8-10 months, 18 months, and 2 years of age. It is normal for your child to wake more frequently as they go through a sleep regression. Sleep regressions don’t last forever so the best thing to do is to ride it out for the few weeks they last.
Sudden changes to your child’s schedule and environment can also be a speed bump to sleeping though the night. Vacations or moving can cause your baby’s sleep to fall apart. Your baby’s sleep patterns should return back to normal once a sleep routine is re-established.
Infant sleep disorders
Not sleeping through the night, although exhausting to you, is not considered a disorder by itself. However, some infants fail to sleep through the night because of the presence of a sleep or medical disorder. Parents need to realize that some sleep problems are caused by a medical condition that needs to be treated rather than trained.
There are two categories of sleep disorders that can affect your baby. The first category that can disrupt infant sleep is parasomnias (sleep walking or night terrors). Parasomnias are rare in children under the age of 18 months. The second category is dyssomnias. Dyssomnia refers to any condition that causes problems with falling asleep, remaining asleep, or experiencing restful sleep.
Sleep disorders or problems that fall under the dyssomnia category can range from mild to life-threatening. The best way to spot any potential problems is to be aware of any sudden or unusual change to your baby’s sleep patterns. There are common symptoms you can watch out for to help determine if your child is experiencing a true dyssomnia. Symptoms to look for include:
- Waking up screaming shortly after going down
- Failure to thrive
- Mouth breathing
- Difficulty breathing while asleep (with no explanation such as a cold)
- Sweats heavily when sleeping
- Sleeps restlessly
- Regularly stops breathing for a moment during the night or nap
- Excessively tired during the day
- Difficulty waking up
The most feared sleep disorder is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS occurs when a healthy infant suddenly stops breathing while asleep. Death can occur if the baby is not encouraged to resume breathing. The cause of SIDS is not yet known although there are some genetic and environmental risk factors that can increase your baby’s chance of SIDS.
Practicing safe sleep (baby on back, firm mattress, crib free from clutter, smoke free environment) can reduce your baby’s risk for SIDS.
Some of the more common infant sleep problems include infections that can be treated with medicine.
These include ear infections, yeast and urinary tract infections, viral infections, and fevers. Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also disturb sleep. Lying down can aggravate acid reflux making it painful or uncomfortable for you baby to continue to sleep.
Food allergies, such as an allergy to cow’s milk, can make it uncomfortable for you baby to sleep. Food allergies cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloating, skin rashes, a cough, and runny nose.
All of these symptoms can cause shorter sleep cycles and problems getting enough sleep.
Infants can also suffer from sleep apnea. Baby sleep apnea manifests itself differently from adult sleep apnea. Symptoms of infant sleep apnea include continuous snoring, mouth breathing, and failure to thrive. Infants can have either central or obstructive sleep apnea.
Central apneas are when your baby’s body decreases or stops the effort to breath. The causes are usually from a brain or heart problem.
Obstructive apneas in infant are usually caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids or facial deformities. Untreated sleep apnea in infants not only prevents sleep, but it also can cause more serious cognitive, health, and developmental problems.
If you suspect your baby is suffering from a sleep disorder you need to schedule an appointment with an board certified sleep physician. A sleep physician can review your infant’s history and symptoms. If needed, an overnight sleep study will be ordered so your doctor can help you develop the right treatment plan for your baby.
The type of treatment your baby receives will be based on the cause of the problem. For infants with allergies, sleep usually improves once the allergen is removed from their diet or environment. If a virus or illness was the cause then sleep should return to normal once the virus is passed or the illness is treated. The same goes for teething or developmental sleep interruptions.
If your baby has sleep apnea, they may need a machine to help with breathing while sleeping. Sometimes, infant sleep apnea will go away as your child grows and develops more. Other times medication is needed to treat the underlying cause of the apnea.
Your child’s doctor will closely monitor your baby’s apnea as they grow to see if further intervention or even surgery is needed.
Watching your infant struggle to sleep through the night can cause any parent to feel overwhelmed. At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we understand how overwhelming and downright frightening it can be to watch your baby struggle to sleep.
We are here to help you find solutions to get your baby — and you — sleeping peacefully. For a free pediatric phone consultation, click the link below.