5 Things to Avoid When Sleep Training Your Baby

Learn about five habits that make bedtime a nightmare for new parents, and get some expert-approved tips to help your baby sleep through the night.

Despite the common adage of "sleeping like a baby," getting an actual baby to sleep through the night can be challenging. And even with good intentions, many parents make some common sleep mistakes when getting their little ones to snooze.

For instance, some parents may make the all-too-familiar mistake of picking up their baby at any noise they make. "[Parents may] feel terrible about letting their baby cry," says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a child psychologist on Maui. "Many say, 'I'm not going to be like my mother and put my baby in the crib, close the door, and ignore her wails.' But some of us take it too far and think it's awful for babies to ever cry. Then we end up with a sleep problem."

The truth is, sleep is a skill, so it can be taught to babies (and parents!). For parents who may need some guidance in navigating baby sleep, here are five common mistakes when sleep training your little one, with expert-approved tips for fixing them.

Sleeping baby placed on back
Asia Images Group/Shutterstock

Mistake #1: Feeding or Rocking Your Baby to Sleep

It's common to fall into this pattern because feeding and rocking your baby are pretty much all you do in the beginning (besides changing diapers, of course). Since newborns need to eat every two to three hours and their sleep-wake cycles are so chaotic, they frequently doze off at the end of a meal.

While your baby is adjusting to life outside the womb, falling asleep after feeding is just fine. It's only after the first 3 to 4 months of life that you may want to switch up your sleep time strategy. "During the first few months, babies don't have any strategies for soothing themselves, and they don't form bad habits," Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411, tells Parents. "But around 4 months, they mature neurologically and start to develop sleep routines."

At this point, feeding or rocking can become an issue if it's the only way you can get your child to fall asleep. "Babies naturally wake up two to six times a night, which means that whatever you're doing to get them to sleep at bedtime, you'll need to do that same thing whenever he stirs," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night.

Solution

Create a bedtime routine to help your baby associate new activities with sleep. "If the same thing happens every night, your baby will start to understand that sleep is soon to come," Dr. Mindell says. A few activities to try while creating your new routine could be:

  • Give them a warm bath
  • Put on soft pajamas
  • Read a story in a soothing voice
  • Dim the lights

You want to put your infant in their crib before they get too sleepy so that they learn to connect going to sleep with being in their crib, not in your arms.

Mistake #2: Picking Your Baby Up Whenever They Cry

Of course, you instinctively want to comfort your baby when they cry. And for the first six months or so, you should go to them when they cry at night, so they know you'll be there and you can address their needs—but eventually, it can be helpful to give them a few minutes to see if they settle back down on their own.

As babies get older, they start to recognize patterns between their behavior and outcomes. "A 9-month-old will remember that she put up a fuss last night and Mommy let her play until she fell asleep," says Dr. Wittenberg.

Solution

Run through your checklist: Are they hungry? Thirsty? Wet? Sick? If your baby is over 6 months old and only crying because you've left their side, try the following strategy recommended by Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist in Lake Forest, Illinois. (It's based on the Ferber Method, a sleep-training technique developed by pediatrician Richard Ferber, M.D.):

  • When you leave the room, set a timer for five minutes.
  • If your baby is still crying after five minutes, return and reassure them they're OK.
  • Reset the timer.
  • Check back every five minutes until your child is asleep.

The next night, set the timer for 10-minute intervals. And so on. By night two or three, your baby should fall asleep more readily. "Crying is part of how babies learn to calm themselves, and it doesn't mean you're neglecting them," explains Dr. Lombardo.

Mistake #3: Extending Night Feedings

Like a passenger on a cruise ship, your baby gets accustomed to the midnight buffet, even if they no longer need the nighttime calories. "He also gets used to waking up at the end of a sleep cycle and thinking he needs to suck and eat in order to fall back to sleep," says Dr. Brown.

You've probably found it easier to trudge out of bed and feed them than to listen to their sobs. But once your baby is 6 months old—provided they're growing normally and your pediatrician gives you the go-ahead—they don't require middle-of-the-night meals, even though they may still continue to want them. And they'll probably insist. Loudly. "When you oblige, it just perpetuates the disruptive sleep," Dr. Brown explains.

Not only will on-demand nocturnal snacks cut into your sleep time, but they can also affect your baby's daytime eating too. "It becomes a vicious cycle: Your baby gets so many calories at night that he doesn't eat much during the day, so he's hungry again at night," says Dr. Mindell. Continued after-hours feeding may even begin to interfere with introducing solid foods.

Solution

Close the "kitchen" after the bedtime meal to motivate your baby to eat more during the day. To get there, you can gradually reduce the number of ounces you're feeding them or the amount of time you spend nursing during the night. Or go cold turkey—and if you're breast or chestfeeding, let the non-nursing parent put the baby back to sleep for a few nights.

Mistake #4: Napping on the Go

Letting your baby doze in the stroller or car seat frequently can make it easier for you to tackle errands, but little ones who are accustomed to snoozing in motion may find it hard to drift off in their crib, Dr. Mindell tells Parents. That can complicate sleep training your baby at home. Plus, catching zzz's on the fly means naptime won't be consistent. "Parents tend to think that they'll just let the baby sleep when she wants to, but it's important for them to understand, 'This is my rest time and this is my wake time,'" Dr. Lombardo explains.

Solution

Get familiar with how much sleep your baby needs, as well as when and how long they nap. Then, organize your day so they can nap in their crib as often as possible. If they are resistant, make the transition slowly, Dr. Mindell suggests. "Focus on having your baby fall asleep in the crib for one nap a day, then move on to all naps."

Mistake #5: Letting Your Baby Stay Up Late

You would think that keeping your cherub up 'till their eyelids are drooping would make them sleep longer and more deeply, but a late bedtime can actually backfire. "When babies stay up, they get overtired," Dr. Mindell says. "Then they take longer to fall asleep and wake up more often." Although your newborn may naturally go to bed later because their sleep patterns are jumbled, by 3 or 4 months old, they're ready to hit the sack at 7 or 8 p.m.

Solution

If your baby takes an early-evening nap, you can convert that to bedtime: "Bathe your baby, put them in their pajamas, and just call it a night," Dr. Mindell recommends. You can also roll this new bedtime forward by 15 minutes every few days until you reach 7 p.m. or so. Night, night!

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