Premature Babies and Sleep: What to Expect
All babies have important sleep needs, and those born prematurely are no different. A preemie baby—defined by doctors as one born earlier than 37 weeks—has her own unique set of sleep habits and needs that are different from those of a full-term baby.
Here are some of the special factors and sleep risks to consider when bringing home a premature baby.
Because preemie babies are underdeveloped, they sleep even more than a normal newborn. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), preemies may sleep for as many as 22 hours a day, but only for about an hour at a time. They need to wake up for frequent feedings to fill their extra-small tummies.
Another difference between premature and full-term babies is that for the first month or two, preemies are rarely fully awake. At the same time, they experience less frequent deep sleep than a full-term baby.
This means preemies are often in a state of drowsiness, which is one of the reasons they’re known for being tricky to feed. It’s common for preemies to have a sleep cycle consisting of about an hour of sleep followed by about 20 minutes of drowsy awareness.
For the first year or two of your preemie baby’s life, she will naturally fall a couple months behind full-term babies when it comes to developmental milestones. This applies to sleep milestones as well.
While a full-term infant may begin sleeping six to eight hours at a stretch by six months of age, preemie parents will likely need to wait until month eight or nine to reach that milestone.
Babies who born prematurely are especially vulnerable to SIDS and other sleep-related dangers. This is all the more reason parents of preemies should carefully heed the safe sleep recommendations, specifically placing babies to sleep on their backs.
Many preemie parents express concerns about back sleeping because of a perceived risk of choking due to underdevelopment of the baby’s motor skills. However, the AAP advises that when a baby is discharged from the NICU, it means she should be able to turn her head to avoid choking if she spits up.
Therefore, premature babies, like full-term infants, should always be placed to sleep on their backs unless you receive explicit instructions from your doctor to do otherwise (some preemies are required to sleep on their sides due to outside factors, like lung complications). Always speak with your doctor about the best sleep environment for your preemie.
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