What Most New Parents Get Wrong About Sleep

Written by Harvey Karp, M.D.
What Most New Parents Get Wrong About Sleep

Photo by @Aptcore / Twenty20

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This year, I hope to bring attention to parental exhaustion, a lesser-known factor in sudden unexpected infant sleep death (SUID). A shocking 3,700 infants die annually of SUID, a categorization that includes SIDS, suffocation, and strangulation deaths. The vast majority—70 percent—occur in adult beds, on sofas, and in armchairs. When and why do parents turn to these risky locations for sleep? When they’re bone tired from having been up all night with a fussy baby.

The SIDS rate fell between 1994 and 2000 (credited to the "Back to Sleep" campaign), but around the same time, other causes, namely accidental suffocation and unknown causes began to rise, resulting in no net reduction in SUID over the past 20 years.

Back sleeping is key to preventing sleep fatalities, but the cruel reality is that most babies don’t sleep well on their backs. So, to make progress in the fight against sleep deaths, we need to give parents the tools to improve the slumber of back-sleeping babies, so they are not tempted to sleep with them in an adult bed or another risky location.

Sleep-boosting tips for baby.

In the 1990s while researching methods for helping colicky babies, I discovered the calming reflex, a biological response triggered by the sensations of the womb that prepare babies for sleep. I have decades of experience helping babies fall asleep for their own sake and for the sake of their parents. Naturally, my top tried-and-true sleep tips are three simple womb-mimicking techniques:


1. Swaddling.

This provides babies with the snug security they felt in utero and reduces arm-flailing and frequent startling—two big reasons unwrapped babies don’t sleep well on their backs!

2. White noise.

This recreates the sound of blood flowing through their mom’s arteries. It makes infants drowsy and helps them move from one sleep cycle to the next without fully waking.


3. Rhythmic motion. Life in the womb is one of constant motion.

A flat, still crib feels "foreign" to infants, who are gently rocked to sleep by the undulation of the mom’s diaphragm, in the months before birth. Babies simply crave motion for sleep.

Key safety points to remember for sleeping babies.

Most parents know the ABCs of sleep. (Alone. On the Back. In a Crib). But the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice has evolved in recent years, and there has been no catchy, widespread campaign to notify parents of every development. Here are a few guidelines you may not know:


1. Car seats and most baby swings are not safe for sleeping.

Motion is so effective for sleep that it’s common for a parent to take a spin in the car or stroller or to put their baby in a swing to induce sleep. But just in 2016, the AAP declared all seated devices unsafe for sleep (a baby’s heavy head can fall forward and cause suffocation). So, if your baby dozes off upright in a car seat, stroller, or swing, you should promptly move them to a flat, firm mattress to finish out the night or nap. Or, choose a fully flat swing to avoid this risk.

2. The AAP now advises that swaddling stop at two months.

For years the AAP advised that swaddling must end once a baby can roll; but in 2017, this changed to say swaddling should stop at two months. That’s because swaddled babies who roll to the stomach are at increased risk for SIDS.

Unfortunately, not swaddling is a recipe for disastrous sleep—which may in turn lead to even more risky bed-sharing. To solve this conundrum, my team and I at Happiest Baby created SNOO Smart Sleeper—it’s the first bed to prevent rolling with an innovative swaddle, swinging babies safely on a flat surface and boosting their sleep with responsive, womblike rhythms.


3. Sleep deprivation causes the same impairment as being drunk.

Would you bring your baby into bed if you were drunk? Of course not. What so many parents don’t know is that sleep deprivation causes mental impairment, similar to being drunk, and even creates a risk for car accidents comparable to drunken driving. Some parents try to bed-share safely by putting the mattress on the floor and sleeping without pillows and blankets. But another safety guideline update cautions against it: The FDA recently deemed in-bed sleep positioners unsafe. When "drunk tired" and sleeping deeply, there’s no way to prevent your own body from putting your infant in harm’s way.

Parental well-being is essential for keeping babies safe.

I use terms like "drunk parenting" not to make parents feel bad but rather to get valuable information across. One of the best ways to keep your infant safe is to prioritize your own sleep. We need a culture change so that sleep deprivation is taken seriously as a real safety concern. Please help by spreading the word!

This crib was designed to make babies sleep—and that's exactly what it does. Plus, research shows babies born in this fall month are primed to be more successful.

And do you want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join live July office hours.


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