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The Secrets of Sleep

Is your baby unable to fall asleep and stay asleep? Paging Dr. Marc Weissbluth . . .

Few parents think about sleep the way newlyweds think about sex: all the time. When they want answers about how to get more of it, many turn to Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, the seminal book by the Chicago pediatrician and sleep researcher Dr. Marc Weissbluth, head of the Northwestern Children's Practice. We've condensed his important findings—from the book and from a recent interview with Weissbluth—into a handy FAQ.

Don't children just naturally fall asleep when they're tired?
No. There are windows when the brain becomes drowsy and a child is able to fall asleep easily. Miss that window and the body produces stimulating hormones to fight the fatigue—leaving you with an overtired, cranky kid who can't fall asleep.

How much sleep do babies need?
For the first 12 weeks or so, a baby needs lots of rest, so put him down to sleep every two hours. Around four months, sleep becomes more organized and consolidated, and you'll notice a morning and an afternoon nap emerging—assuming that you, the parent, do not interfere with the process.

How do parents interfere?
Your baby has become increasingly social by four or five months, and it's natural for him to protest being put to bed. But constantly checking on your baby or picking him up when he cries only disrupts the process of learning to fall asleep—and Weissbluth stresses it most definitely is a learned process. Parents who jump through hoops to get their babies and young children to sleep—driving them around in the car, sleeping on the floor by the crib—are not allowing their children to develop the self-soothing skills they need to be good sleepers. The result? Major bedtime battles, night waking, and an inability to fall asleep and stay asleep without assistance.

But isn't it harmful to let babies cry?
No, Weissbluth says, as long as they're at least four or five months old. Children learn to sleep well when parents do these three things. First, put your baby down to nap when he's drowsy, before he becomes overtired. Second, be consistent in your soothing-to-sleep style. Either always put your baby down to sleep while drowsy but awake, or always hold your baby until deeply asleep. Neither approach is inherently better than the other; however, the latter is more time-consuming and can be difficult to maintain over the long run. Finally, avoid putting your baby to sleep by using motion devices, such as strollers or swings, because they force the brain into a lighter, less restorative sleep state. Get these things right and you'll have minimal crying.

We're on the go a lot—can't kids make up missed naps at night?
An occasional missed nap may not be a problem. But if naps are always hit-or-miss, your baby or young child will become chronically overtired, making it harder for him to go to sleep at night and sleep well once down. Weissbluth's mantra: Sleep begets sleep.

We've been keeping our baby up to try to get him to sleep past the crack of dawn. Why isn't it working?
Babies are wired with individual wake-up times that are more or less impossible to change. So keeping your baby up late will only deprive him of sleep on the front end. Weissbluth's research shows that the vast majority of babies 5 to 12 months old need to go to bed between 6 and 8 p.m. And although the two- to three-year-olds he has studied tend to have a bedtime between 7 and 9 p.m., he believes that earlier is better for them, too. "Families might have more morning time with their babies, and then less time at night," Weissbluth told us in an interview. "But what they get is a well-rested child and well-rested parents. So the whole family benefits."


Photography: Katrina Wittkamp


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