By Dr.Manvir Bhatia/Ananya-7th November 2023
Sleep is of great importance for everyone, especially for infants. It is vital for their growth, development and overall well being. For an infant, sleep occupies a large chunk of their day. Since they do not have a specific sleep pattern and circadian rhythm, it becomes very difficult to understand and coordinate with their sleep and wake timings.
On the occasion of Infant Protection Day, as young adults, it is very important that we understand the significance of infant sleep. Especially for expecting couples and new parents, this is a great way to understand your babies and the changes in their behavioural patterns with time.
An introduction to infant sleep:
Sleep during the initial few years of life is a very dynamic process. Since infants do not have a set circadian rhythm, they tend to sleep at multiple intervals throughout the day and night in short bouts. By about three months, the circadian rhythms of infants start developing. This is marked by the increase in the duration of night sleep. By 4 months, the requirement of sleep goes down from 16-17 hours to 14-15 hours which further decreases to 12-13 hours by 6 months. The amount of day and night time sleep they require also changes. They require 7-9 hours of day time sleep in the first three months which reduces to 5-6 hours by the sixth month and to 3-4 hours by one year. The hours of nighttime sleep gradually increases from 4 hours to 12 in the first year. Most babies cannot sleep through the night without waking up in between until they are about 3 months old. For some, it even takes 6 months.
Newborns have a tiny stomach. So, they need to be fed throughout the day and night. This is also a major reason why they sleep in such multiple intervals. However, the frequency of nighttime feed decreases from 5 to 2 times in a year.
Infant sleep and cognition:
During sleep, the brain goes through remarkable changes in activity irrespective of the fact that it is a resting period with reduced sensory activity. Various studies have shown that infant sleep is very important for memory consolidation. A good sleep helps in strengthening memory with time and makes it more resistant to forgetting. According to a study by Seehagen et al., 6 and 12 months old infants who got a half an hour nap after learning a set of object-action training remembered it better as compared to the infants in the non-nap group.
Good sleep during infancy is also very important for the emotional regulation and stability of an individual in the long run. Emotional instability of many individuals often traces back to the sleep quality during infancy. Also, sleep deprivation is known to increase the negative emotions in infants and decrease positive emotions.
Infant Sleep and Growth:
The most rapid development of sleep occurs during the first few months of infancy. This phase is also marked by rapid physical growth. Babies gain almost half of their birth weight in their fifth month and become almost double of it by the first year. This is because of the hormone somatotropin that is released in the maximum amount after a baby enters the non-REM stage of sleep. Thus not receiving adequate sleep can stunt their physical growth.
Ways to help your baby sleep:
Knowing the sleep pattern of your baby is the first step to helping them get a good sleep. Since they do not have a specific sleep wake pattern, parents have to look for the signs of sleep readiness. If your baby is rubbing eyes, yawning, fussing or looking away, then try to create a good sleep environment. Here are a few steps that you can take to improve the sleep quality of your baby:
- Make sure to cuddle and maintain good physical communication with your baby during the day. This makes them mentally secure. Hence, when they feel sleepy, they can fall asleep without the need of a parent.
- Allow them small naps whenever they need it. Make sure they are not disturbed during this time.
- Play soft music when your baby starts feeling sleepy. This calms them down and they can sleep well. Use of white noise occasionally so that it helps your baby fall asleep but does not make them dependent on it.
- Pat and sooth your baby in case of night awakenings. This provides them with a lot of comfort and helps them fall asleep again easily. Make sure not to take your baby out of bed when they suddenly wake up.
- It is important to tuck your baby into bed before he falls asleep. This will help them build a sleep routine.
- Check the temperature of the room in which your baby sleeps. Ensure that it is neither too hot or cold. It is best to keep it around 18℃.
- Dim out the lights in the room in which they sleep. In this way, they start learning that darkness means it is time to sleep.
- Including warm baths as a part of the bedtime routine helps them fall asleep fast and sleep well. This is because after a warm water bath, their body temperature cools down helping them sleep.
- Make sure not to play with your baby close to bedtime. This over-stimulates them, disrupting their sleep.
- Feed your baby before putting them to bed so that they can sleep for at least 2 to 3 hours at a stretch.
Hence, we conclude that sleep being such an important part of infancy, needs to be given a lot of priority. Parents need to take very good care of the sleep and also take note of the sleep patterns of their babies. This not only is good for their immediate health, but also plays a very important role in their physical and mental health in the long run. The priority of sleep also needs to be promoted well by our primary health care centres so that all individuals understand the importance of infant sleep and work out innovative ways to optimise the sleep of their babies.
Tham, E. K., Schneider, N., & Broekman, B. F. (2017). Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 135–149. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S125992