Getting your little one to sleep can be one of the biggest challenges of parenting, but there are a few ways to tackle those challenges. We caught up with Jamie Doughty, a naturopathic doctor and midwife at Pharmaca in Portland, to discuss some common sleep issues and solutions.
Maintaining healthy sleep patterns is one of the most important things for a baby’s development. Jamie explains that on average, babies should be sleeping 14-18 hours a day. “That’s so they can process everything that went on while they were awake—they’re figuring out their place in the world,” says Jamie. “And of course, the nervous system is developing while they’re sleeping too.”
Sticking to a routine is key. She asks parents to think about how they feel when they’re off schedule, whether it’s waking up late or eating at unusual times. “It’s like that, but worse, for babies. Their schedule is simple: eat, check out the world, go to sleep. Repeat. But when one of those three pieces doesn’t happen, it leads to issues in the other areas.”
In fact, nightwaking is very often simply the result of a glitch in the routine. Jamie says it can stem from babies not being able to nap during the day. Similarly, parents may not understand how long it takes for a baby to get into a deeper sleep. “That’s because adults can go from light to REM sleep in just five minutes, whereas for babies, that cycle can take up to 20 minutes.” She advises parents to look for signs of deep sleep, which is indicated by the stillness that comes after the twitchy muscles, fluttering eyes and facial expressions come to an end. (Parents often think of those as signs of dreaming, but it’s actually a precursor of deep sleep.)
Once you’ve got a solid routine, you can tackle issues as they arise—like the common ones below.
Colic: Every baby’s experience with colic is different, so Jamie likes to give parents several tools. “Some days something works wonders, others not at all, but there are a few key things you can do.” She advises examining your baby’s diet and eliminating any potential food allergens or irritants. And don’t forget about breast milk—what mom consumes can affect baby’s health, especially dairy, legumes, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale, as well as caffeine and alcohol.
Jamie also recommends trying physical manipulation: Do bicycle legs with baby on his or her back for a fun way to get the abdomen engaged and get things moving.
Herbal remedies that can help include Wellements Organic Gripe Water, made with fennel, ginger and chamomile to soothe gas and stomach discomfort. Jamie also likes Boiron Cocyntal, a homeopathic liquid that is specifically formulated to soothe the irritability and pain of colic.
Gastroesophageal reflux (GER): This disorder can afflict infants as well as adults, but symptoms vary and may be hard to detect. They range from coughing and other respiratory issues to belching and food refusal. Jamie has noticed that reflux seems to occur more often with premature babies, whose digestive organs did not reach full development before birth. She suggests taking a look at the diet first. “Keep mom on a hypoallergenic diet,” she says. “If you use formula, be very particular with the choice.” She also says probiotics may help. Try Jarrow Formulas Baby Jarro-Dophilus, a probiotic powder that supports healthy intestines from infancy through four years.
Stuffy nose/cold: First off, Jamie says, try a good old-fashioned blow syringe to clear things out, along with saline solution. Little Noses Saline Spray/Drops can help fight the infectious process by killing off microbes in the bacterial virus, actually breaking open the cells of whatever is causing cold symptoms.
Depending on whether the issue is respiratory or nasal, a Pharmaca practitioner can suggest different herbal formulas for infants over 6 months. Formulas often include concentrations of herbs like licorice, echinacea or elderberry/elderflower, which help support the immune system.
Teething: Jamie says there are several herbal formulas that work wonders, as well as homeopathic remedies. She’s seen a lot of success in applying topical oil directly onto the child’s gums, so look for herbal formulas that include clove and white willow bark that can help numb the gum tissue and ease pain. Chamomile teething tablets, such as Boiron Camilia, also work really well.
Creating a good sleep environment
Parents should try to control as many environmental and behavioral factors as they can to create an ideal peaceful setting for the baby. Jamie’s top tips: No TV or computer, as little disruptive noise as possible and darkness—keep those blinds closed.
If baby is too wired up from the day and can’t seem to relax, Jamie recommends Wishgarden’s Sleepy Night for Kids, which includes both passionflower to help them fall asleep, and milky oak seed to help the muscles and brain relax. And if you don’t mind pacifiers, they can be helpful: “Babies need to self soothe. They also do it with nursing, but if that’s the only outlet, it can lead to problems like overfeeding…so giving a pacifier may be a healthier alternative.” Try Green Sprouts Silicone Orthodontic Pacifiers, which are BPA- and PVC-free (and on sale in August!).
Ultimately, If your baby isn’t sleeping through the night yet, don’t fret. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. As baby’s nervous system matures, he or she will begin to sleep through cycles and eventually through the night. Often a baby’s sleep pattern changes throughout the first year of life. As Jamie says, “every infant is different. The most important thing is to take care of yourself so you can be there for the baby.”
For more advice about baby’s sleep patterns, speak with your doctor or a practitioner at Pharmaca.