Emma Fox-Lind's baby girl may be only weeks old but the first-time mom is laying the foundation for healthy sleep habits by dimming the lights in daughter Sofia's bedroom and limiting distractions and noise at night.
That's a good thing, says Dr. Kenneth Fox, the baby's pediatrician at NorthShore University HealthSystem and a proponent of ensuring proper sleep hygiene for kids. Fox, no relation to the family, gives moms advice about helping their babies sleep well, assuring them that — with a little help — the first few challenging months of only sporadic sleep will give way to a full night's shut eye.
By the time babies are 4 to 6 months old, parents should start a ritual of putting the baby to bed at the same time, said Fox, senior clinician educator at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, a teaching affiliate of NorthShore. Infants should also sleep alone and in a crib without toys or blankets.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics by epidemiologists Abigail Fisher, Cornelia van Jaarsveld, Clare Llewellyn and Jane Wardle found environment can have an even greater impact on infant sleep patterns than genetics, though both come into play. The researchers from the department of epidemiology and public health at the University College of London studied sleep patterns in 1,931 twins at age 15 months, examining influences on nighttime and daytime sleep duration and frequency of night waking. They found shared environment influenced 66 percent of babies and genetics 26 percent.
"The influence of environment is important for all kids, and there are things parents can do to strengthen or improve sleep hygiene for their kids," Fox said. "It's never hopeless."
Dr. David Gozal, a U. of C. pediatric sleep expert, said the study was another reminder about the necessity of adequate sleep for kids. Sleep should hold the same importance as good nutrition, physical activity and "many of the things that are healthy for us and will make us happy," said Gozal.
"We as parents need to make sure we don't treat sleep as a tradable commodity and provide our infants and children not only the message that sleep is a very important and life-sustaining function but that it's a good and pleasant thing to do," said Gozal, the Herbert T. Abelson professor and chairman of pediatrics at the U. of C. medical school.
Gozal said parents need to help regularize babies' circadian rhythms, establishing early a consistent sleep routine backed by an appropriate environment.
"Babies are not adjustable toys or robots. They have their own rhythms," said Gozal, adding that sleep is an important developmental process needed to ensure the brain and other organs develop in an "optimal fashion."
One drawback to the study, Gozal said, was that researchers surveyed parents, so the results were based on recall and not an objective measurement. But he and other doctors interviewed said using the large number of twins helped better determine the influence of genetics and environment.
Sleep research has shown that a deficit can increase the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, impaired immune function and psychiatric troubles.
Gozal also pointed to behavioral problems like attention deficit and learning troubles, with "academic performance sometimes substantially hampered."
A new book by Mayo Clinic doctors says babies typically sleep 16 hours a day, though often only one or two hours at a time. "Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby's First Year," edited by pediatricians Esther H. Krych, Robert V. Johnson and Walter J. Cook, delineates baby's monthly sleep patterns for the first year, offering tips like encouraging babies to fall asleep in the crib rather than in parents' arms, putting them to bed at signs of sleepiness or fussiness, and leaving them alone for a few minutes when crying to allow them to settle on their own. Parents can also encourage activity during the day by talking, singing and playing, and opting for a relaxing bath or cuddling at night.
Dr. Stephen Sheldon, who directs the Sleep Medicine Center at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said developing a healthy sleep routine at night and gradually tapering naps during the day should be compared to other developmental landmarks, like the ability to walk and talk.
"It doesn't happen instantly. It takes time," said Sheldon, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sheldon said parents should be consistent, persistent and flexible with their efforts.
"Children thrive on consistency," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun