Overcoming Baby's Bedtime Battles

Babies (Birth to 18 Months)

Baby Sleep: The Importance of Self-Soothing
Baby Sleep: The Importance of Self-Soothing

Young babies sleep between 12 and 13 hours total each day, falling to about 11 to 12 hours by about 6 months. Every baby is different, of course. Some sleep more, others less. "All babies want to sleep," says Jodi Mindell, PhD, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night (Collins). Helping them -- by getting them on a schedule and teaching them how to self-soothe -- is the best way to win baby's bedtime battles.

Typical Bedtime Battle #1: Baby Doesn't Sleep Through the Night

baby yawning

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Solution: First of all, get over the notion that "through the night" means anything like eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Five or six hours is more realistic. A baby can, in theory, accomplish this by 3 or 4 months, assuming she is not hungry, wet, or sick. If you let her, that is. Problems start when parents, unable to bear what sounds like anguished cries from the nursery, rush in to pick her up, soothe her, rock her, or nurse. Every parent understands that impulse. But by doing this, you are unwittingly setting the stage for bad sleep habits that will plague the entire family going forward.

It starts with the bedtime routine. "Parents fall into the habit of cuddling their babies to sleep," says Mindell. "What starts out as a warm, positive, snuggle session ends up a bad habit, because now your baby can't fall asleep without that cuddling." If you've been rocking or nursing your baby to sleep for six months, don't be surprised that Grandma or the sitter (or Daddy) can't get her down, she says.

"Good" sleep habits entail putting baby to sleep in her crib while she's still awake, so she falls asleep on her own. Once she learns to do this, she can soothe herself back to sleep when she wakes up at night. If you're currently rocking or nursing your baby to sleep, it will take a bit of work to help her nod off without your help. You can go in at whatever intervals you're comfortable with (say, five minutes), reassure her that you're there and everything is okay, but don't pick her up.

For some parents, this process is harrowing, taking a few hours until baby stops crying and goes to sleep. But for most, the worst is over after two or three nights, and after a week or so, baby has learned how to self-soothe. When baby cries during the night, you've got to follow the same protocol -- after you've checked that she's dry and you know she's not hungry or in pain. If you can't bear to be in another room listening to her cry, sit next to her and reassure her that you're there. Slowly move out of the room, a little farther each night. It will take longer for her to learn to soothe herself on her own, but you'll get there eventually.

Typical Bedtime Battle #2: Baby Won't Go Down

Solution: If you have a baby who can't fall asleep at night, chances are it's because he didn't get enough sleep during the day and is now completely wired. You would think that if baby skipped a nap and had a full day of play, he would conk out for the night, leaving his parents to wallow in blissful consecutive hours of sleep. Ah, but it doesn't work this way. The weird but true fact is that the better baby sleeps during the day, the easier it will be to get him down at night.

This means that for bedtime to go smoothly, most babies need a regular nap routine. But if your baby doesn't fall into a pattern on his own, how do you get him to nod off? Most babies are ready for a morning nap an hour and a half to two hours after they've woken up. So if your child gets up at 7, he may be ready for his morning nap as early as 8:30. Even if he doesn't seem tired, try putting him down. If you wait until he's rubbing his eyes, you may miss the window. Similarly, the afternoon nap should follow about two hours after he gets up from the morning one. So if he woke up at 10, you might feed him at 11:30 and put him down for a nap at noon. Don't make the mistake of keeping baby up too late at night. "Better to push bedtime forward, so baby is ready to go to sleep but not overtired," says Brindley.

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