baby sleeping in crib

It's no surprise that all babies have their own unique set of sleep habits, but a baby born earlier than 37 weeks is different from full-term babies. Pre-term babies sleep more than typical newborns, but often in much shorter bursts, leaving mamas wondering if it's normal and asking what to do.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), preemies may sleep for as many as 22 hours a day, but usually only for about an hour at a time. All babies are different but it's common for premature babies to sleep for an hour and then stay awake for about 20 minutes. So why all the sleepiness and frequent interruptions? For the first month or two, preemies are rarely fully awake. Remember, premature babies are still in the 3rd trimester and are fragile, growing babes who tend to wake up a lot for feedings to fill their little tummies. It can be annoying, but get used to it because this cycle continues as their stomach grows and they adjust to the outside world.

Here are five tips on how to help premature babies get more sleep.

1. Get sunlight and avoid artificial light at night.

Following the natural order of light and darkness in the world will help influence your newborn's sleep patterns. Make sure you and your baby get outside during the day. Stay in the shade, but help them to get acclimated to bright light in the day and darkness at night. After sunset, keep the lights dimmed or shut off when you go to sleep. Keep night feedings as quiet as possible, with very soft lighting. It might take a few weeks before your premie baby gets their days and nights straight.

2. Put baby on their back for safe sleeping (and speak with your doctor).

All babies, including preemies, should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Although you might have received explicit instructions from your doctor to do otherwise–some preemies are required to sleep on their sides due to outside factors, like lung complications—so always speak with your doctor about the best sleep environment for your preemie.

3. Follow the adjusted age guidelines

Unlike a full term baby, who might sleep a full four to eight hours at night by four months of age, premie babies may not do so until six to eight months, or even later.

Your baby has an adjusted age and it's important to go by it when thinking about their development and sleep patterns. To find the adjusted age, take the number of weeks early and subtract from their actual age. For example, if your baby is 20 weeks old, but born eight weeks early, their adjusted age is 12 weeks old, or three months.

4. Wear your baby when possible.

One of the most tried and true ways to soothe a fussy baby is holding them close so that they feel secure, the same holds true for a premie. Babywearing helps to reduce stress for both you and for your baby and it strengthens the two-way bond. Spend some time researching the different slings and carriers available for preemies and try to find a physical store with helpers to support your choice.

5. Remember that things will get better.

Preemies have special sleep patterns and special needs. Navigating through sleep deprivation is highly stressful, especially with an especially fussy or prone to crying infant. A motto that may help is: I am taking my life as it comes, day by day. I am supported. I know when to rest. I have people to lean on when I feel shaky. I know this is just a phase.
Erica Shane is a veteran doula, childbirth expert, and certified gentle sleep coach. She is the creator of Navigating the Waters, a full service wellness program for parents that encompasses gentle sleep shaping, gentle sleep coaching, and new parent support.

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