INFANT CARE Parents can help their babies learn to sleep
A social worker's book lists flexible rules and discusses the benefits of a healthy rest.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Grown-ups think infants have it made when it comes to sleep: Questions, concerns and overactive imaginations don't interrupt their slumber. They don't have phones to answer. And barking dogs aren't their problem, either.
There's nothing to keep them from "sleeping like a baby" -- except they might not know how.
Sleep itself is a natural biological function, but infants, just like everyone else, need to learn how to sleep properly and to get the most rest from their shuteye time, says Kim West, a social worker who goes by the nickname "the Sleep Lady."
The most beneficial sleep comes when tired -- not overtired -- babies fall asleep on their own in a dark and warm -- but not too warm -- room, West says. They should be in their own bed and have set nap times and bedtimes.
The infants shouldn't go to sleep in the middle of a feeding, or in the middle of what is normally play time, she adds.
Young as 3 months
These rules can begin to apply to babies as young as 3 months old.
Even at that early age, parents confront the question, "Does your baby sleep?" If the baby does, mom and dad often answer "Yes, we have a good baby," implying that if babies don't sleep, they are bad babies.
"The millions of babies who don't initially sleep through the night are not moral failures," West writes in her book "Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide To Helping Your Child Go To Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Healthy" (CDS).
West says the role of the parent is to encourage sleep by providing the best circumstance and environment, and to set them up for success.
"I like the analogy that sleep coaching is like coaching a sports team. You do everything that you can. You be a cheerleader, you teach and instruct, you offer constructive criticism but you don't make the goal. You give them [babies] the tools so they can learn to sleep independently," she says during a telephone interview from her Maryland home.
West warns that there might be some tears at first as babies learn to soothe themselves instead of using a breast or bottle, or being rocked.
Typically, a 6-month-old baby is up to the challenge. Parents, though, sometimes help establish bad habits by coddling (or cuddling) a baby because they aren't willing to give up precious moments of their own quiet time, West says.
"At first, parents will be more tired, they're not doing the fast and easy thing anymore," she acknowledges, but the sooner babies get their proper rest, the better for everyone.
Sleep habits can affect children's attention spans, flexibility, irritability, independent play and their ability to learn from their environment.
West, mother of two sound sleepers, came to write her book after 10 years of working with parents to help identify sleep cues and behaviors. Her co-author, journalist Joanne Kenen, was a former client.
Routes to sleep
Modern parents seem to take one of two routes when it comes to getting their babies to sleep: They either follow a strict schedule, vacuum outside the baby's door to get them used to noise and ignore a long stretch of wailing, or they have no routine at all, running in to feed and sing to the baby upon hearing a mere whimper. West encourages the middle road.
"Can we have a gentle flexible routine that is still responsive to our children? Yes," she says.
If a baby wakes up during the night, West advises parents to do a quick assessment, beginning with checking the clock. Then ask, when was the baby last up? When did the baby last eat? Was the baby sick or teething before bed? Is the room too cold? Too hot? When was the baby's diaper last changed?
"There's a whole list of reasons whey they [babies] might cry during the night," West notes.
It's common for babies to wake up every three to four hours because they're having a partial arousal of the brain, and that's when they look for their crutch, she says. If they don't get that bottle or lullaby, they'll soon find something else, maybe stroking a blanket or sucking their thumb -- which West says is a perfectly good way for babies to get themselves back to sleep.
"Unlike a pacifier, you can't lose a thumb, you don't have to worry about it falling on the floor and you can't forget to bring it along in the diaper bag!" she writes in her book.
XOn the Web: http://www.sleeplady.com.