8 Expert-Approved Baby Sleep Strategies You'll Swear By
Before Elena Vincent gave birth to her daughter, Audrey Natalia, last April, she and her husband, Matthew, both teachers, did their homework. Still, nothing could've prepared them for the sleepless nights that awaited them when they brought their newborn home. "It was hard to get her to fall asleep anywhere other than my chest," recalls Vincent, who lives in Fresno, California.
The new parents knew they had to figure out Audrey Natalia's sleep before they both returned to work. So once again, they threw themselves into research. "It wasn't until we fine-tuned that bedtime routine that everything finally fell into place," she says.
What Vincent discovered is that while babies can be good sleepers, they aren't necessarily born that way. It often takes some work to help them hone their snoozing skills. "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. Avoid these common sleep saboteurs and you'll enjoy your baby a lot more—and get some rest!
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1. Keep a Routine
"One of the ways a baby learns that 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." Once you minimize stimuli, you can introduce other calming rituals, such as a warm bath or lullabies. Dr. Givan recommends having the routine in place as soon as possible, ideally by 6 to 8 weeks.
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
During the first eight 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 they're eating to be sure it's an efficient feeding.
"If they eat for 20 minutes during the nighttime feeding but only five or ten minutes during the day, they're just snacking rather than filling their 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 they're 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, they should be able to sleep a four- to six-hour stretch at night.
To help them eat more efficiently, start spacing out their meals—distract them with a pacifier or some form of entertainment—so that they're actually hungry each time. And 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.
6. Take Naps Seriously
A well-rested child will sleep better than an overly tired one. Skipping a nap in hopes that they'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 sleep spells, which goes by really quickly," says Turgeon. By 3 to 4 months of age, your little one will have longer awake periods, and you can try naps in the A.M., early afternoon, and a short one in the late afternoon if needed.
7. Let Them Work It Out
Rushing in immediately to help your bebé fall back to sleep will create a cycle that's hard to break. "As long as you know they can't be hungry, you can pause before going in," says Turgeon, who recommends starting a "soothing ladder" as early as Day 1. When you hear your baby fuss, pause for a minute and see whether they can work it out on their own. "If they can't, go in and do the least intrusive thing, like a pat or a shush, but don't pick them up," says Turgeon. And if it doesn't work, gradually climb the soothing ladder until you get them back to sleep. Yes, you may wind up rocking and feeding them, but the next time they wake, start with the least intrusive intervention again.
8. Don't Overthink
Have faith that your baby has it in them to be a good sleeper. "For the first four months, give them a little space to show you what they're capable of," Turgeon says. It may be hard, but you'll empower your infant and help the whole familia in the process—Vincent knows this firsthand. "Audrey was content before we got her sleeping on track, but she's even happier now," she says. "And if the baby's sleeping, we're all sleeping, so it's a win-win!"