How To Recognize Sleep Disorders in Babies

Stressed mom carrying her baby

Babies are a source of both great joy and great worry. They seem terribly fragile and, particularly if this is your first child, it's hard to know what is normal. They can suffer from a variety of sleep disorders that range from merely frustrating to dangerous and as a parent it is important to know how to deal with them.

The first thing to realize is that newborns don't sleep like adults or even like toddlers. They sleep more hours and with a different pattern. A typical newborn sleeps 16 hours per day. That sleep is in short bursts of 30 minutes to three hours, and is distributed equally between night and day. By age one, a child is still sleeping about 14 hours per day, though that sleep is in longer, less frequent periods, and most of that sleep will be at night. So although frequent waking is exhausting and frustrating for the parents, it is a normal part of infant development and not a sleep disorder.

So what are the kinds of sleep disorders that can affect infants?

There are two kinds of sleep disorders. Parasomnias are sleep disorders that interrupt sleep, such as sleepwalking or night terrors. These types of sleep disorders generally do not appear until a child is eighteen months or older. Babies are far more likely to suffer from dyssomnias, which are sleep disorders such as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting restful sleep.

These sleep disorders are most common during an infant's transition to independent sleep. Babies learn self-soothing techniques which allow them fall back to sleep if they wake in the night. Until they learn this skill, they require attention from their parents every time they wake up. There are things you can do which will speed your baby's acquisition of this independence.

  1. Put the baby to bed when drowsy but not when completely asleep.
  2. Bedtime routines can be comforting and help a child to become drowsy, but if they become dependent on them (such as not being able to sleep unless rocked), they won't learn self-soothing skills. Try to vary bedtime activities to reduce an infant's dependence on them.
  3. When the baby wakes up, unless you know it is time for a feeding, don't respond right away. Often after a few minutes the child will settle down and fall back asleep.

No technique will work for everyone. Your baby has an individual personality and what works for someone else may not work for you. You have to keep trying and see what works for you and your baby.

One of the most serious worries during a baby's first year is the possibility of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), where some babies die in their sleep for no apparent reason. Although much about SIDS is still not clearly understood, there are still some basic sleep hygiene habits that will minimize your infant's risk.

  1. Babies should always be put back to sleep on their backs. Studies have shown that this one step reduces the incidence of SIDS death by up to 30%.
  2. Make sure there are no pillows, stuffed animals, or comforters in the crib as the child could suffocate in them. Even a newborn who doesn't move is at risk, for example, of a stuffed animal falling over her face. Swaddling a newborn in a light blanket is fine and often helps her to stay asleep.
  3. Don't make the room too warm and dress the baby as you would dress for bed.

Of course, an article on the Internet is not a substitute for qualified medical advice. No one knows your baby better than you. If you feel your baby's sleep habits are abnormal, contact your pediatrician immediately.


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