How to Get Your Newborn to Sleep
If you’re struggling to get your newborn to fall or stay asleep, these smart strategies will help.
Want your baby to be a sound sleeper? The best strategy is creating a nighttime routine and sticking with it. “There’s no such thing as a bad sleeper, just bad sleep habits, and they’re usually reversible,” says Ingrid Prueher, a pediatric sleep consultant in Fairfield, Connecticut, and host of the Baby Sleep 911 Web video series.
Avoid some common sleep saboteurs and you’ll enjoy your baby a lot more—as a well-rested parent who’s no longer on the brink. Here's all you need to know about how to get your baby to sleep.
1. Keep A Routine
“One of the ways a baby learns it’s time to go to sleep is from cues in the environment,” notes Deborah Givan, M.D., professor emerita of clinical pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis. About 30 minutes before bedtime, turn the noise down and dim the lights. “The right lighting is essential because it helps set a baby’s internal clock,” she explains. “Our brain associates light and dark with being awake or asleep. Turning the lights low at night—and exposing your baby to bright light in the a.m.—will help this process along.”
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Once you minimize stimuli, you can introduce other calming rituals, like a warm bath or soft lullabies. Dr. Givan recommends having the routine in place as soon as possible, ideally by 6 to 8 weeks. Be consistent so your baby learns what to expect each night.
2. Teach Self-Soothing
Newborns benefit from being rocked, bounced, and soothed to sleep, but babies develop quickly and don’t need those things forever. “By about 5 months, most babies can fall asleep on their own, and if we’re still doing it for them, we’re getting in their way,” says Heather Turgeon, a Los Angeles sleep consultant and coauthor of The Happy Sleeper. “In the early months, practice putting your baby down while she’s awake at least once a day—usually the first nap is the most successful.” This will help her learn to self-soothe and fall asleep—and, more important, get back to sleep—on her own. Keep your cuddle time, but gradually stop the patting and shushing and rocking to sleep.
3. Separate Eating From Sleeping
“Newborns often fall asleep while eating, and I don’t want anyone to stress about that,” says Turgeon. “By 4 or 5 months, however, if the act of falling asleep is separate from feeding, babies tend to sleep better.” Like other sleep crutches, if your baby is dozing off during meals, anytime he wakes during the night he’s going to think he needs to eat. Another catch with this scenario is that if you’re breastfeeding exclusively, “you’re the only person who can put your baby to bed,” says Amy Pate, of Nashville, who nursed her child to sleep for a year.
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Think of it this way: “By the age of 5 months, if your baby is nodding off while feeding, you need to start the bedtime routine sooner,” Turgeon says. Gradually move the feeding earlier until he can get through it, then finish with a calming book and song, and put him down drowsy but awake. You may still need to get up for a nighttime feeding, but then it will be about hunger, not soothing.
4. Make Bedtime Earlier, Not Later
Timing is just as important as a routine. “Around 8 weeks, babies have a rise in melatonin, the natural, drowsy-making hormone the body releases when it’s time for sleep, which means they’re ready for an early bedtime consistent with the sun setting,” says Turgeon. “If you keep them up late, they become overstimulated, dysregulated, and harder to put down.” Melatonin levels rise somewhere around sundown, but given that sundown can be anytime from 4:30 p.m. in winter to 8:30 p.m. in summer, stick to the clock and put your baby down around 6:30 or 7 p.m.
“A good sign of drowsiness is when your baby becomes calm—she’s less active and has a bored look or is just staring off,” says Turgeon. Don’t mistake this behavior as happy to be awake. Seize the moment and start your bedtime routine. “Your baby’s internal clock is telling her when to be awake and when to be asleep, and you want to reinforce that,” she notes.
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5. Swear Off Snacks
“Sleep and nutrition go hand in hand,” says Prueher. During the first 8 weeks of life, a baby should be feeding on demand every two to two and a half hours, but note how much or how long he’s eating to be sure it’s an efficient feeding. “If he eats for 20 minutes during the nighttime feeding but only five or ten minutes during the day, he’s just snacking rather than filling his belly enough to sleep through the night,” says Prueher. To prevent this, keep a 24-hour log of how many ounces a bottle-fed baby takes and at what time. For a breastfed baby, write down how many minutes he’s nursing each session.
On the flip side, if your baby is eating well during the day, by around 2 1/2 to 3 months of age he should be able to sleep a four- to six-hour stretch at night. To help him eat more efficiently, work toward spacing out his meals—distract him with a pacifier or some entertainment—so he’s actually hungry each time. Try not to neglect burping. “Sometimes we mistake coming off the breast or bottle as being finished, when really the baby needs to be burped,” notes Prueher.
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6. Take Naps Seriously
A well-rested child will sleep better than an overly tired one. It seems counterintuitive, but skipping a nap in hopes that she’ll sleep longer at night just doesn’t work. “When infants get overtired, their stress hormones rise,” says Turgeon. “Then once they finally fall asleep, there’s a good chance it won’t be for long because those stress hormones wake them when they’re in a lighter sleep stage.” This is why regular naps are so essential.
“At the age of 2 months, a baby’s optimal span of awake time is only about 90 minutes between sleeps, which goes by really quickly,” says Turgeon. “Babies don’t have the tolerance to be awake more than that until 4 to 5 months.” Keep an eye on the clock because picking up on your baby’s tired gaze isn’t easy. You can miss the “I’m ready for a nap” stare if you just turn around to pour yourself another cup of coffee. Then, suddenly, she’s rubbing her eyes and yawning, both signs of overtiredness.
7. Don't Let Him Nap Just Anywhere
As tempting as it is to let your sweetie snooze in his car seat while you’re on the go or lie on your chest while you talk on the phone, you should try early on for at least one nap a day in his crib so he gets the quality rest he needs. “The first nap is mentally restorative for an infant and will dictate how the entire day goes; ideally you want him to have that one in his crib at home,” notes Prueher. “The second is physically restorative, so once your baby’s old enough to be moving around a lot, he really needs that one to be quality too.”
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By 3 to 4 months of age, your little one will have longer awake periods, and you can work toward a nap schedule: one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and a short late-afternoon nap if needed. Naps are a great time for you to practice putting your baby down drowsy. It’s not the middle of the night, so you can think more clearly, pick up on cues, and follow through.
8. Give Her A Chance To Go Back Down On Her Own
If you rush in immediately to help your munchkin fall back to sleep, you’ll create a cycle that’s hard to break. “As long as you know that she can’t be hungry, you can pause before rushing in,” says Turgeon, who recommends starting a “soothing ladder” from as early as Day 1. When you hear your baby fuss, pause for a minute and see if she can work it out herself. “If she can’t, go in and do the least intrusive thing, like a pat or a shush, but don’t pick her up,” says Turgeon.
If that works, great. If not, you gradually climb the soothing ladder until you get her back to sleep. Yes, you may wind up rocking and feeding her, especially if she’s under 3 or 4 months, but the next time she wakes, start with the least intrusive intervention again. “The point of the soothing ladder isn’t to make a baby learn to self-soothe overnight but to give her enough space to allow her self-soothing skills to unfold naturally, over time,” says Turgeon.
9. Don't Overthink It
“For the first 4 months, give your baby a little space to show you what he’s capable of,” notes Turgeon. You’ll be empowering your little one, and once he’s actually sleeping through the night, a fully rested you will be capable of more than you ever imagined. Sweet dreams!
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