Call her the baby whisperer: This neuroscientist knows how to get any infant to sleep through the night

Does your sprog still wake up multiple times per night? Are you ready to weep? Author Polly Moore is here to help

Published April 17, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Van Winkle's.

Polly Moore is something of a baby whisperer. The Director of Sleep Research at California Clinical Trials in San Diego and author of “The Natural Baby Sleep Solution”, she’s identified the rhythms of sleep and wakefulness of newborns and understands how parents can use them to help any child maintain a healthy sleep cycle. In other words, she can help you put your crying baby to bed.

This wasn’t always the case. Moore, who, in addition to her in-depth knowledge of rest, has a doctorate in neuroscience, struggled with her infant daughter’s erratic sleep cycle. She consulted books and doctors but nothing seemed to help. One day, Moore realized that her daughter would become sleepy roughly 90 minutes after waking, which she knew correlated with research about body clocks. She devised a strategy that helped make sleep less of a chore and more of a purposeful act for her daughter. It worked and she’s been showing parents the light ever since.

We spoke to Moore about her new book and her proven techniques on baby sleep. By paying attention to your baby at the right times, you, too, can get a grip on your child’s seemingly sporadic cycles.

What are some tips about best practices for putting babies to sleep?

Babies have a 90-minute alertness rhythm. For babies less than three months old, pay attention to the time when your baby wakes up and add 90 minutes to that–that time might be a good nap opportunity.

What are the signs the baby is ready for a nap?

The signs that a baby is sleepy are very subtle, so look when it’s time. The signs are idiosyncratic because babies don’t necessarily have the ability to yawn and rub their eyes. They might not get full-on crying, but they’re vocalizing in a certain way. By the time the baby is walking, the baby may be more klutzy. It may be an inattention. They start looking off into the distance.

For babies less than three months old, pay attention to the time when your baby wakes up and add 90 minutes to that–that time might be a good nap opportunity.

What do parents get wrong about these signs?

People think the babies are hungry, that’s what they think babies are crying about. They give the baby a bottle or the breast — and of course the baby will take that. This can actually confuse the baby on some level. You want the baby to learn, what does hungry feel like, what am I supposed to do when I’m hungry? What does sleepy look like, what am I supposed to do when I’m sleepy? This mistake could also be contributing to overweight babies and toddlers.

Does a parent always have to put the baby to sleep at the 90-minute mark?

The signs are a cue that if you have the ability to provide a nap opportunity, the baby will fall asleep quicker and sleep longer. If you’re not able to provide a sleep opportunity then they’re alert again, their body rhythm is out of sync, which is why they’ll only sleep for 10 minutes. When you’re working with their rhythm they sleep faster and longer. You can have the confidence to put them to sleep on their own without breastfeeding or rocking.

If you’re not able to provide a sleep opportunity, then they’re alert again, their body rhythm is out of sync, which is why they’ll only sleep for 10 minutes.

So what if you miss the nap opportunity?

Once you understand this rhythm that the baby will be ready for a nap after 90 minutes from waking, you don’t have to put the baby to bed but you can at least understand the baby’s behavior for what it is. Say you take the baby to a wedding. In that situation you can’t always make the sleep opportunity. So the baby will need some attention, to be held through the sleepy cycle until the alert cycle. Just be aware so you can adjust the baby’s activities.

It doesn’t injure the child to keep it awake, but it helps you to know that it can’t keep going with his or her toy. Babies enjoy life so much better when they’re well-rested.

In your book, you suggest that many parents are sleep depriving their babies, but is that possible?

Not intentionally, but unintentionally. When you’re sleep-deprived, you get irritable, you can get yourself into such a state that it’s difficult to fall asleep. Not having slept enough during the day, babies have trouble falling asleep at night. If they can’t focus their attention, they’re not going to enjoy whatever they’re doing–they might need to be held more. Parents assume the babies are very high-strung and babies are mislabeled as very irritable which is potentially devastating psychologically. But we all get that way when we haven’t gotten enough sleep.

Looking at parental reports at how much sleep babies gets, it’s completely different than what it was in 1950’s. Today’s babies aren’t getting enough sleep, and they’re not getting enough sleep opportunities. Today’s children are at greater risk of ADHD and obesity. There's no cause and effect here, but there is an association.

When parents want their baby to sleep through the night, shouldn’t they keep the baby awake all day?

When babies are kept awake all day, it gets very difficult for them to fall asleep. To keep them awake during the day backfires. It becomes harder and harder for the baby to settle itself because it’s sleep-deprived. That’s why you’ll hear reports of parents with a nine-month old who still wakes up two-to-three times a night.

This is the paradox. If they get more sleep during the day, then they sleep deeper at night. Most of our awakening is after our REM cycle. The brain is already in a wake-like state. We tend to make those transitions easier. Sleep-deprived babies have whole awakenings at night because they’re not getting enough sleep during the day. Get the baby more sleep during the day, it sleeps better at night.

What if the baby is sleeping too much?

Infants can sleep between 16 and 18 hours a day. That changes gradually. A newborn might have five short naps during the day. At five months, it’s two or three naps. It can be one nap a day at 12-to-18 months.

If they get more sleep during the day, then they sleep deeper at night.

Don’t babies learn more when they’re awake?

A lot of data supports that sleep reinforces long-term memory. You can learn something when you’re awake, but researchers believe that sleep is what helps you retain it. Also sleep is like housecleaning on stuff you don’t really have to remember.

We’re the only animals who try to cheat sleep. Other species sleep when they’re supposed to. Can I retain what I’m hearing when I’m sleep-deprived? No. Just being exposed to the information doesn’t seem to help in terms of long-term learning.

Any other advice for parents?

Some parents say they don’t want to be in the house with a sleeping child. That’s their choice, but there’s a reason why babies need so much sleep early on. They seem to be happier when they’re getting sleep.

By Matt Schneiderman

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