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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Nursing the Night Away

By Troya Yoder

"Kids' sleeping patterns are so variable that the problem is mostly expectation. If you expect your kids to have an adult sleeping pattern when they are little babies, it isn't going to work."

When Becky Isherwood woke up one night, she saw that the nightlight in her room was on and panicked. The light was her cue that her new baby was in their bed. But he wasn't.

"I frantically searched everywhere for the baby - the bed, the floor. I was hysterical," she says. "Finally after what seemed like an eternity we discovered he was in his bassinet."

Welcome to parenthood — life of the bleary-eyed and sleep deprived!

New parents often find their nerves frazzled and their minds foggy as they struggle to squeeze in a few hours of uninterrupted slumber between feedings, diapers and the like. So, how do you cope in these early days - and nights?

Expect the expected

First of all, you have to understand how infants sleep, says Dr. Charles Shubin, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland and a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. In his experience, the biggest barrier is unrealistic parental expectations.

"Kids' sleeping patterns are so variable that the problem is mostly expectation. If you expect your kids to have an adult sleeping pattern when they are little babies, it isn't going to work."

In the early weeks, babies sleep an average of 16 hours a day. Sounds too good to be true, right? It is. Infants sleep in short spurts, 30 minutes here, two hours there, waking every few hours to eat. Dr. Shubin tells all new parents to sleep when their infant does, "because you really don't have much choice."

Thankfully, new parents can expect at least one interval between feedings to increase in the first few weeks, says Dr. Shubin. Unfortunately, that interval can occur during the day or the night, leaving some parents with babies with their days and nights mixed up. But by three to four months, most babies establish a day/night cycle and can (finally!) sleep through the night.

You can't do much about the natural sleep patterns of infants, but you can promote sleep by making your baby comfortable. "You can't expect a kid who needs his diaper changed or is hungry to sleep," says Dr. Shubin.

If baby won't sleep, ask yourself: could she be hungry? Is she wet or dirty? Is her diaper rubbing the wrong way? Once you get all these bases covered, baby will probably sleep, even if only for an hour or two.

The family that sleeps together ... sleeps?

Isherwood remembers pacing the floor for hours. Her husband was adamant that she not bring the baby into their bed.

But after six weeks, when Isherwood was about to return to work, she issued an ultimatum: either the baby came to bed or he could walk with the baby. The baby came to bed. "He could nurse during the night essentially without either of us really waking all the way up - worked great," says Isherwood.

While many mothers (myself included) say co-sleeping is the best way to get sleep , the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released a controversial statement cautioning parents against sleeping with their infants, citing dangers of overlying or suffocation.

A study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) linked at least 515 infant deaths to sleeping in adult beds between January 1990 and December 1997. Of these, 121 were due to a parent, sibling or other caregiver rolling over on the baby while sleeping.

But, before you rule out co-sleeping entirely, know that some proponents of co-sleeping, such as Dr. William Sears, suggest that co-sleeping can actually reduce the risk of death. Others hold that since the CPSC study made no comparison to the number of infants who died in their cribs during the same time period, the results don’t tell the whole story.

Regardless of your position on co-sleeping, the most important thing for babies is sleeping in a safe environment. This includes a firm mattress (no waterbeds), tight-fitting sheets, and avoiding pillows, stuffed animals and blankets. Babies should be placed on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Team coverage

Another popular response for coping with a new baby is 'tag teaming.' "I breastfed all three of my boys and dealt with the lack of sleep for months at a time," says Carma Haley, a nurse and freelance writer. Then she and her husband developed a team plan.

She handled the childcare all day and he took over after dinner, allowing Haley to nap until it was time to put the older children to bed. Her husband also brought the baby to mom to be fed during the night. "It was trying," Haley says, "but it worked for us."

Another option for breastfeeding moms is to pump and store extra milk so that dad can take over a feeding or two.

The most important thing, says Dr. Shubin, is to find a safe solution that enables everyone to get stretches of uninterrupted sleep. Parents that are continually sleep deprived find themselves less alert, more irritable and moody, and have more difficulty in their relationships, he says. They suffer concentration and judgment lapses and sometimes can't perform simple tasks.

Patience is key. While the good news is that babies do eventually develop regular sleep patterns, the bad news is that it's usually around the time they discover monsters under the bed. But that's another story.

Troya Yoder is a mom of two toddlers and a freelance health writer with a Master's in Molecular Genetics. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at: TYoder2@compuserve.com

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