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Sleep Experts Answer the Questions All Moms Have About Babies and Sleep

Babies and sleep. I only have two children, but I can't tell you how many times I've turned to friends, doctors and Google to find out what's normal and whether I'm doing anything wrong regarding my children's sleep habits. I'm guessing you can relate. We're all hoping for that ever-elusive full night's sleep or, at the very least, a predictable pattern.

I had the pleasure of asking Los Angeles-based sleep consultants Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, authors of the book "The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide To Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night's Sleep—Newborn to School Age" (and mom.me's resident sleep experts!), some questions about sleep and what's normal, what's not and will we ever feel rested again. Hopefully you find the answer to some of your burning questions below as well!

Is it necessary to sleep train?

Heather: No, this is the central idea we want to get across with our book and consultations. Sleep is natural. Babies are built to sleep. It's amazing how capable they actually are, if the right habits and associations are in place. Parents are always amazed that when they change a sleep pattern they think is so well entrenched, a little one's sleep skills can take over. They're often really impressed.

Julie: One of the biggest misconceptions parents have about sleep is that their little ones need a lot of help from them for the actual "falling asleep" part. When we do sleep consultations, we help parents to set the stage with smart timing, a sleep-friendly environment and a lovely, connecting bedtime routine, but to be sure to hand over the role of falling asleep independently to the child from about 5-6 months on.

RELATED: I'm a Slave to My Daughter's Sleep Schedule

Is it important that babies sleep through the night? If so, how do we encourage that to happen?

Heather: It's very natural for a baby to feed at night, so we never want to impose the idea of sleeping through the night as meaning that a baby has to sleep 12 hours straight without eating. You don't have to wean a baby to get a good night sleep (although if you want to, you can after a certain age.) Babies should sleep 10.5-12 hours a night and after about 5-6 months that sleep can be pretty uninterrupted—meaning that if they wake for a feeding they go right back to sleep.

Anything I can do to help my child nap longer?

Julie: Short naps are very normal for young babies. It's fine to help newborns "finish" a too short nap but for most babies, it's usually best to just get them up and plan for the next nap. The factors that will support those naps stretching out are, baby is about 5-6 months, is falling asleep independently, and is sleeping a minimum of 11 hours—with little disruption—at night.

I've heard "sleep begets sleep." Is that true, or should I follow Grandma's advice and skip the nap to help Baby fall asleep earlier in the evening?

Julie: It's absolutely true! Babies who nap well during the day, have a much higher chance of sleeping well at night because sleep deprivation causes their bodies to release more cortisol during the second half of the night, which is stimulating. They are also less "regulated" which means they're so overtired that their natural ability to sleep well gets derailed.

Our top two strategies are "practice trying to put baby down awake at least once a day" and "discern your baby's sounds"—if he's grunting, squawking, fussing, etc., let him be.

When is it developmentally normal for a baby to sleep eight hours straight?

Heather: That can happen at all different ages. I've met eight-week-old babies who sleep a long stretch like that (lucky parents!) But by five or six months most babies are capable of this (and more.) A baby this age might be feeding a couple times a night, but can go quickly back to sleep after those feedings. The longest stretch of sleep is usually from bedtime onward.

What about toddlers who sleep all night except for one or two wakings? Is there anything parents can do to help little ones stay asleep?

Julie: Yes, there is! As long as you're doing something for her that she can't do for herself—like comforting her—she will continue to reach outside herself for help when she comes to the top of a normal sleep cycle. The crux of good, healthy sleep is when a child's "go-to" is internal—she automatically rolls to a new position, hugs her stuffed animal and gets herself ready to fall back to sleep. The strategy involves creating a consistent pattern of response from you that holds the balance between two of our three C's: Connected—making sure she's knows you're nearby and will "check" on her if she needs you, and Capable—making it clear that the falling asleep part is her role).

Should I be worried that my toddler is waking in the night?

Heather: It depends on whether the toddler and you are still getting good sleep. Does the toddler go right back to sleep after waking, or come into your bed and go right back to sleep? Is your sleep disrupted? Toddlers are very capable little people, so if they have the right sleep associations, their self-soothing skills will be their go-to and they won't need to call out very much (except in the case of a nightmare or when they're not feeling well.)

RELATED: When to Take Away the Pacifier

How do I encourage my baby to self-soothe?

Julie: Self-soothing abilities emerge steadily over baby's first five months of age. The idea is to be curious about what your baby can do today, that she couldn't do yesterday. Our top two strategies are "practice trying to put baby down awake at least once a day" and "discern your baby's sounds"—if he's grunting, squawking, fussing, etc., let him be.

Speaking of soothing, does co-sleeping positively or negatively affect baby's quality of sleep?

Heather: There is some evidence that sleeping close to a baby changes certain characteristics of the baby's sleep, and the parent's sleep too. Whether it's a positive or negative change is a more complicated question and I don't think there's a scientific consensus on this. What we do know is that it's safest for young babies to sleep in the same room as their parents (co-sleeping), on their own sleeping surface like a co-sleeper. After the window of the highest SIDS risk closes, whether a baby or child sleeps with the parents is entirely up to the family—it's a decision the parents can make by asking themselves how they want to sleep and how everyone in the family sleeps best. Most families we work with desire independent sleep, so we help them craft a plan with that as the goal.

Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright will be speaking at Club MomMe's Fall Family Fest on November 8 at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Los Angeles.

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