5 Common Sleep Problems and Solutions

Are your baby's sleep habits keeping you up at night? You're not alone. We've gathered five common but baffling sleep scenarios, and asked parents and sleep experts for their solutions.

Sleep can be a loaded issue, particularly for parents who've recently had a baby. Some infants will sleep through the night almost immediately, while others struggle to slumber a few hours at a time. Many people wonder if they've somehow caused their little ones to wake frequently or sleep fitfully—but the truth is, every parent runs into tricky situations like this. And as with any other parenting issue, there's more than one "right" way to deal with it. We've rounded up five of the most common infant sleep problems and asked our experts and other parents to share their best solutions.

The Rocker

My baby is 5 months old. I've always rocked them to sleep, but I'd like to be able to lay them down and have them fall asleep on their own. How can I make this happen without a lot of trauma and tears for either of us?

In order for a baby to learn how to fall asleep on their own, they have to master two basic skills: the ability to fall asleep someplace other than your arms and the ability to fall asleep without being rocked, says Ann Douglas, author of Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler. Some parents attempt to teach their babies how to do this by going "cold turkey," and letting them cry it out in the crib, assuming they'll figure it out on their own. If this isn't you, there's another method that can work.

You need to create a new sleep association for your infant, says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of the parenting classic The Happiest Baby on the Block. A baby has spent so much time inside their parent's body, they've grown accustomed to drifting off with noise, tactile stimulation, and rocking.

Replace the rocking with white noise, playing a sound machine as you rock them to sleep four or five nights in a row. The noise will start to signal the beginning of the sleep process for them, making the transition from dozing off in your arms to falling asleep in the crib that much easier. "The idea is to create other sleep associations that don't require your presence to help the baby fall asleep," Dr. Karp explains.

Be prepared for your baby to put up a big fuss the first few times you lay them down awake. Some sleep-training experts instruct parents not to pick up a crying baby but to come into the room at set intervals (every five minutes, for example) and speak to them in a reassuring voice. That approach may or may not work for your baby. Christine George, of Lansing, Michigan, tried doing it with her 6-month-old, Kayleigh, but Kayleigh became so distressed she was soon screaming, red-faced, and gagging.

"After two nights of becoming almost as upset as my baby was," George recalls, "I decided that technique just wasn't going to work for me." Instead, she says, "We'd walk around the room with her for a few minutes until she was drowsy. When we laid her in the crib, we'd gently bounce the mattress with one hand while pressing her belly with the other hand and saying 'Shhhh' for a minute or two, until she fell asleep. After a while, we were able to do it without the hand on the belly, and then without the bounce. Finally, we were able to lay her down awake and she'd fall asleep." This took two weeks.

There's really no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep issues, notes child development specialist Claire Lerner, LCSW, author of Why Is My Child in Charge?. "With some babies, you can pat them or just sit there so they can see you, but for a lot of babies that's just confusing," she says. "Figure out what works best for you and your baby, and know that the more consistent you are, the quicker they'll learn."

The Anywhere-But-Home Sleeper

My 10-month-old falls asleep in their car seat when we run errands, but won't remain asleep when I try to take them into the house. Then they won't fall asleep at bedtime or naptime.

At this age, babies are very curious about the world around them. If they're falling asleep on short car rides, it's likely that they're not getting enough sleep in general, says pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.

Observe your child over a 24-hour cycle, and see if you're missing telltale signs that they're sleepy: Are they rubbing their eyes, acting clingy or anxious, or whining? If the answer to these questions is no, you may simply be planning your outings too close to nap time, and need to readjust your schedule. After all, a 20-minute catnap in the car can spoil the two-hour rest you looked forward to all morning.

mom and baby sleeping

The Speed Napper

My baby goes down easily for a nap but gets up after 20 minutes. Within an hour, they're rubbing their eyes and looking tired. How can I help them nap longer?

The first thing you should try to do is to get at the root cause. Is your baby objecting to something in their nap environment? Maybe it's too warm or too cool? Too loud or too quiet? Or perhaps they just haven't mastered the ability to soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake up.

If your baby consistently rises too early from their nap, work on solidifying their nighttime sleep routine first. "Being overtired prevents babies from sleeping well," says Donald Goldmacher, M.D., co-creator of the video Helping Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.

If your infant is already sleeping well at night, make sure that they are napping in a similar environment. Buy thick curtains to pull across the windows and create a pre-nap wind-down similar to their bedtime routine. Try not to wait too long to put them down to sleep, either. Most babies, particularly newborns and young infants, should nap two hours after they've woken up in the morning.

The Nap Resister

My 11-month-old used to take two naps a day—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Now they're suddenly resisting their morning nap. What do I do?

It might be time to eliminate one nap per day! Eleven months old is on the young side to drop a nap, but it's not unheard of, says Dr. Weissbluth. He has found that 90% of all 12-month-olds take two naps a day, but by 15 months, about 20% have abandoned their morning nap.

How can you tell whether your baby is ready to give up their A.M. siesta? Look at their behavior around 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., suggests Dr. Weissbluth. "If your baby is good-natured and happy, they are probably well-rested. If they're rough around the edges, they probably need that second nap."

Why wait until late afternoon to monitor their mood? At the end of the day, says Dr. Weissbluth, many children run out of steam because they haven't slept well enough. There is one caveat, however: Some kids get a burst of energy in the evening that may make it appear they aren't tired even when they are.

The Routine Sleeper

My 7-month-old has a predictable bedtime routine, and they sleep great at home. But they're so used to the routine that any little change throws them off. We have a vacation coming up, and I'm afraid they won't go to sleep in a hotel. What can we do to make sure they go down?

Try to recreate your at-home bedtime routine as much as you can. For example, if an evening bath is normally part of the routine, try to do that around the same time. Pack an item they love, like a familiar sleeper, portable crib, or music they're used to, and give them ample wind-down time at night, particularly if the trip includes lots of socializing, a whirlwind itinerary, or noisy or brightly lit environments.

Shannon Cate, of Illinois, says that her 10-month-old daughter, Nat, was a good sleeper at home but couldn't settle down if she saw her parents in the same room. "We learned that we needed a suite when we stayed in a hotel," Cate says. "That way, we could put Nat in a separate room at her usual bedtime, and we could order room service for dinner and watch a movie."

Doing that regularly can be expensive, so the parents sometimes employ an alternate solution. "In a pinch, we've created partitions with furniture to block our daughter's view of us," Cate explains. "We also never leave home without her white-noise machine, to muffle the sounds of TV and talking."

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