When my son, Fletcher, was around 8 months old, I started dreading bedtime. Each night I'd steel myself as I put him in the crib, where he'd start wailing like an abandoned child. Even though I knew that he was fine—not hungry or thirsty or wet or sick—this drama broke my heart. I often caved and brought him back downstairs, letting him snooze with my husband and me while we hung out on the couch. Despite my good intentions, I'd fallen into a classic sleep trap like so many rookie parents.
"Moms 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."
Did we ever! I needed guidance—and maybe some backbone. Sound familiar? Learn gentle yet effective techniques for getting out of this and other sleep snags.
It's common to fall into this pattern because feeding and rocking your baby are pretty much all you're doing 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. "During the first few months, babies don't have any strategies for soothing themselves, and they don't form bad habits," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. "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 Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night.
The fix Create a bedtime routine that will help your baby associate new activities with sleep: Give him a bath, put on his pajamas, read a story, then dim the lights. "If the same thing happens every night, your baby will start to understand that sleep is soon to come," Dr. Mindell says. You want to put your infant in his crib before he gets too sleepy, so that he learns to connect going to sleep with being in his crib, not in your arms.
Of course, you instinctively want to comfort her when she's whimpering. And for the first six months or so you should go to your baby when she cries, so she knows you'll be there—but ideally give her a few minutes to see if she settles back down on her own. However, as babies get older they discover that they can use their tears to their advantage. "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.
The fix Run through your checklist: Is she hungry? Thirsty? Wet? Sick? If she's only crying because you've left her 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 to her and reassure her she's okay, then reset the timer. Check back every five minutes until she's asleep. The next night, set the timer for ten-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 her," says Dr. Lombardo.
Like a passenger on a cruise ship, your baby gets accustomed to the midnight buffet, even if he doesn't need the 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 him than to listen to his sobs. But once your baby is 6 months old—provided he's growing normally and your pediatrician gives you the go-ahead—he doesn't require middle-of-the-night meals, even though he still may continue to want them. And he'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, they can 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 interfere with introducing solid foods.
The fix Close the kitchen after the bedtime meal to motivate your baby to eat more during the day. To get there, you can gradually cut back on the ounces you're feeding him or the amount of time you spend nursing. Or go cold turkey—and if you're nursing, let Dad put the baby back to sleep for a few nights.
Letting your baby doze in the stroller frequently can make it easier for you to tackle errands, but little ones who are used to snoozing in motion may find it hard to drift off in their crib, Dr. Mindell says. That can create a sleep problem for you 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 her to understand, 'This is my rest time and this is my wake time,'" Dr. Lombardo explains.
The fix Get familiar with how much slumber your baby needs (see "Sleep Cheat Sheet" below), as well as when and how long she naps. Organize your day so she can nap in her crib as often as possible. If she is resistant, make the transition slowly, Dr. Mindell suggests. "Focus on having her fall asleep in the crib for one nap a day, then move on to all naps." Chances are, while she's dozing at home, you'll find things to do that are more fun (or at least more relaxing) than picking up the dry cleaning!
You would think that keeping your cherub up till his eyelids are drooping would make him 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 his sleep patterns are jumbled, by 3 or 4 months old or so, he's ready to hit the sack at 7 or 8 p.m.
The fix If your baby takes an early-evening nap, you can convert that to bedtime: "Bathe him, put him in his 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!