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Baby Sleep: What to Expect in the First Year

Baby Sleeping in Striped Pajamas in Black and White

In the first few months of baby's life, you may have done whatever it took to get him to nod off -- rocking or nursing him to sleep, or letting the car seat serve as an unofficial crib. That's okay -- you were in survival mode.

But at 3 months, it's time to help your baby develop good sleep habits, such as making sure that naps happen in his crib. And when you put him down for bedtime or a nap, try not to rock or nurse him to sleep, or he'll rely on you for this familiar comfort whenever he wakes up in the middle of the night.

The Peaceful Nursery

While a newborn could sleep amid the chaos of New York City's Grand Central Station, "when your baby gets to about 5 to 6 weeks, she starts becoming aware of her surroundings," says Brett Kuhn, PhD, the director of the pediatric sleep clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha. Don't try to keep things perfectly quiet, or she'll depend on silence to drift off.

Set the thermostat where he sleeps at the upper 60s to low 70s and consider "white noise" (from a machine or the drone of a fan or a humidifier), which can "trigger sleepiness and drown out other noises that might wake baby," says Dr. Kuhn. What about music? Think twice about it. Babies become highly conditioned to environmental cues. If he hears a song when he drifts off to sleep, he needs to hear it when he wakes up in the night to get back to la-la land on his own.

Solid Sleep Helpers

Where should baby sleep? For the first four to six months, in a bassinet or crib in your room, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, after which he may move to his own nursery.

Want to get your baby to snooze through the night? Then let her learn to fall asleep independently, says Dr. Kuhn. "Rock, feed, and sing all you want, but put your baby to bed drowsy and slightly awake," he says. This way, if she wakes in the middle of the night, she can go back to sleep on her own -- without crying out for Mom or Dad.

Want to help your baby catch her z's? Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, a pediatric sleep specialist and the author of Sleeping Though the Night (HarperResource, 2005), tells you how.

1 to 3 months

"The first few weeks are a free-for-all," says Mindell, with a 20-minute catnap here, a three-hour siesta there. However, by 6 to 8 weeks, you can start developing a sleep schedule linked to feedings, with an "official" bedtime, even though she's not sleeping through the night. Now is also the time to start a bedtime ritual: Wash baby, sing her a lullaby, and change her clothes to signal a transition.

3 to 6 months

As baby sleeps longer through the night, bedtime shifts earlier, to between 7:30 and 8:30. At this stage, she is getting about three to four naps a day, and it's important to schedule them -- either at a set hour (say, 9:30, 12:30, etc.), or two hours after baby wakes.

6 to 12 months

By 6 months, baby will probably be in her own room. Don't respond to her every cry; see if she can soothe herself to sleep. If she wants to play in the middle of the night, gently discourage her with some soft shushing, and avoid making eye contact. Stretch out her nighttime routine with a bath, a book, and a song.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2006.