Are you a slave to the baby monitor? Breaking your child's bad sleep habits is one of the most important things you can do for their health—and yours. Follow these tips to get your baby to sleep through the night.

By Stephanie Wood
Updated April 08, 2021
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An image of a baby yawning.
Credit: Getty Images.

During the early days of life with a newborn, you're focused on what's best for the baby, so sleepless nights seem like a small price to pay. By week six, however, waking up every few hours starts to get old. And by month three, you're pretending to be asleep, hoping that your partner will get up first and fetch a bottle. You can't remember what it feels like not to be tired.

The good news is that most babies begin sleeping through the night between 3 and 4 months of age if you let them, says Charles Schaefer, Ph.D., author of Winning Bedtime Battles: Getting Your Child to Sleep. The key is avoiding bad sleep habits that can stick with you for years. Our expert seven-day plan will guarantee a good night's sleep for you and your baby, with a minimum of crying along the way.

Day 1: Start a Regular Routine

Many babies get their days and nights mixed up, napping for long periods in the afternoon and waking up to play at bedtime. But our sleep training technique will fix that. "The latest research shows that infants can be taught the difference between night and day from the get-go," says John Herman, Ph.D., clinical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas. You simply need to provide the cues that allow this to happen.

Wake your baby up early on day one, and get into the routine of rising at the same time daily. Position their crib near a window and keep the blinds up. "The natural light helps babies organize their circadian rhythms," says Dr. Herman. Letting them nap with the blinds up also promotes this process. "If they wake from a nap in the daylight, they understand it's time to get up. If they wake at night in the dark, they'll learn to go back to sleep," he explains.

At nighttime, begin some quiet rituals. "Decide on a specific bedtime routine," says Claire Lerner, M.S.W., a child-development specialist at Zero To Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, in Washington, D.C. Dress your child in their pajamas and put them down in their crib for the night with the lights out. Just prior to tucking them in, read a story or sing a song, which helps your baby's motor and sensory system slow down.

Day 2: Practice Makes Perfect

On day two, focus on building the consistent routine you began. If your child still requires nighttime feedings, it's a good time to accentuate the difference between day and night, says Robert Ballard, M.D., director of the Sleep Health Center at National Jewish Medical Center, in Denver. "Keep night feedings very relaxing, with the lights low. Do everything you can to avoid stimulating your baby," he says. "And during the day, make feedings a time of high activity, when you tickle their feet or sing songs, so they begin to perceive the difference."

Pay careful attention to what soothes your baby in the evening too. "A bath may be calming for one child and invigorating for another," Lerner says. You might also want to try adding white noise, says Carl Johnson, Ph.D., a psychologist and pediatric sleep researcher at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant. "The hum of a fan or air conditioner or a radio set on static works well for many infants. The good thing about white noise is that you can fade it out over time, once your baby begins to sleep more predictably."

Day 3: The Crying Begins

Steel yourself: Day three involves putting your child down in their crib while they're still awake. "It's the single most important thing you can do," says Dr. Schaefer. "If they fall asleep at your breast during their bedtime feeding, for example, arouse them enough that their eyes are open when you place them in the crib." Of course, a little—or a lot—of crying may ensue. But rest assured, it will be tougher on you than on your baby. 

Parents naturally find it agonizing to listen to their little one cry, but just keep reminding yourself that the end result—sleep!—will benefit the whole family. "Get over the worry that ignoring your baby while they cry will do psychological harm," emphasizes Dr. Schaefer. If you've been meeting their every need in other ways, this situation certainly won't lessen their sense of security.

Nor should you worry about letting a very young baby cry. In fact, the younger the infant, the easier the process will be. "Babies older than 5 or 6 months are naturally going to be more upset because you've changed the rules on them," Dr. Schaefer says. Sleep training a 3-month-old, on the other hand, is easier because they only know the routine that you create. "With younger babies, parents always think the crying is going to go on longer than it usually does," agrees Pamela High, M.D., medical director of the infant development unit at Women & Infants' Hospital, in Providence. "Infants under 5 months often last only for 15 or 20 minutes."

If a bedtime battle does ensue, periodically check on your baby and reassure them that you're there; aim for every five minutes the first night. But keep your visits brief: Don't turn on the light, remove them from the crib, or offer them a pacifier or a bottle. "If they fall asleep with one of these crutches, they'll cry for it again if they wake up or at bedtime tomorrow night," Lerner says.

Day 4: Tough It Out

Day three was a long one. Expect an improvement on day four. Your baby will remember a little sooner that crying doesn't produce results. When they protest, lengthen your response time to every ten minutes. And whatever happens, don't give in. "If you're inconsistent, the baby learns to hold out—they'll just up the ante and cry twice as long tomorrow night," says Deborah Givan, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Disorders Center at Riley Hospital for Children, in Indianapolis.

Day 5: The Baby Settles In

Most babies get with the program in three to five days, so this could be your lucky night. If your child is still holding their own, lengthen your response time to 15 minutes. "Some babies need the frequent reassurance that you're checking on them, but others find it a tease," Lerner says.

"Checking on the baby is really for the parents' benefit," says Dr. High. "If you notice that you're fueling your child's reaction every time you go in and you can tolerate staying away, it's fine to do so. Just peek at them through a crack in the door instead so they don't actually see you."

The other frequent problem at this point is night feedings. At about 12 pounds or 3 to 4 months, most infants are ready to give them up—but you can't just stop cold turkey with a younger baby. You can, however, keep them as brief and quiet as possible: Cuddle your baby but don't sing to them, keep the lights out even during diaper changes, and settle them in the crib as soon as they're done. 

Don't fall for the myth that bigger babies wake up because they're hungry. Heavier babies actually have less need for night feedings if they weigh more than about 12 pounds, so they're likely to wake up out of habit. Bigger babies are sometimes night owls precisely because they're being overfed, Dr. Givan points out. "Overfeeding means they'll have wet diapers, which makes them wake up again."

Day 6: Baby Sleeps Through the Night

Sounds like bliss, doesn't it? But chances are you'll be wandering the halls a little anyway. You may find yourself getting up to check on the baby—but relax. Dress them in warm PJs so you don't need to worry about kicked-off covers, and turn the monitor down so that you hear them only if they're really in distress. Now that you've made so much progress, don't wreck it by rushing in too quickly. Let your child soothe themself. You also need to relax so that you can fall asleep!

Day 7: You Sleep Soundly Too

Give yourself a big pat on the back. Not only have you regained your sleep, but you've given your baby an important gift: Good sleep habits are as critical as good hygiene to a child's well-being. Of course, there will be setbacks, such as an illness, a new sibling, or an unfamiliar hotel room. "Even children who are good sleepers will have problems now and then," says Dr. Givan. But fall back on our foolproof plan whenever the need arises. Your child will respond with even less difficulty the second time around because they already know the drill.