Great sleepers are made, not born. Take back the night with this 24/7 guide.
I'll never forget the night we hit rock bottom. My 10-month-old daughter, Molly, started whimpering at 2 a.m. By 2:07 she was loud enough to make my heart pound. It wasn't a sick cry or a sad cry or even an "I really need you" cry. It was that very distinct "I have you by the you-know-whats and we all know you're going to come in and give me what I want so where the hell are you already?" cry.
My husband, Nick, rolled over and moaned, "She's ruining our life." Shamefully, I was starting to feel the same way. We had been on board for sleeping in spurts for the first few months, but this kid had taken the night shift to a whole new level.
The real rub was that we knew it didn't have to be that way. Molly was our third child, and, unlike what so many of our friends with three promised us, she was not the mellow one. She was our hardest baby, and for one reason: She was not a great sleeper. Our other two were. In fact, they were so good that I'd been feeling a little smug. But here's the thing: They weren't born that way. Nick and I helped them get there by creating a routine that worked for us, and sticking with it. With Molly we tried but were, well, tired.
This story has a happy ending, however: Molly is a great sleeper now. She always had the ability—all babies do!—we just had to help her hone those skills and fix the mistakes we'd made along the way. "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, and host of the Baby Sleep 911 Web video series. Avoid these common sleep saboteurs, and you'll enjoy your baby a lot more when you're well-rested.
1. Not Starting a Routine
The usual bedtime ritual of Marie Gonzalez's firstborn was watching reality TV while the Orlando mom occasionally dropped Chinese takeout on the baby's head. Full disclosure: I've been there! Watching bad TV is every new mom's right, and I am certainly not going to tell you to give it up. That said, setting the scene for sleep shouldn't involve any "real housewives." "One of the ways a baby learns it's time to go to sleep is from cues in the environment," notes Deborah Givan, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Riley Hospital for Children, 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 the stimuli, you can introduce other calming rituals, like a warm bath, lullabies, or softly spoken stories. Dr. Givan recommends having the nighttime ritual in place as soon as possible, and ideally by about 6 to 8 weeks. Be consistent—do the activities in the same order every night—so your baby learns what to expect.
2. Getting Hooked on Soothing
"If you put your baby in her crib when she's already asleep and she wakes up in the night, which all humans do, she won't recognize her surroundings and will need your help getting back to sleep," notes Dr. Givan. "Try to put your baby down drowsy but awake." This will help her learn to self-soothe and fall asleep—and, more importantly, back to sleep—on her own, which is the main goal of parenting (clarification: my main goal of parenting). Adrienne Porzio of Centerport, New York, can attest to this. She began driving her newborn around at night to get her to fall asleep—and she was still relying on that crutch when her daughter was 5 months old. "The issue we get the most calls about is parents automatically repeating soothing habits to the point that the baby is hooked," says Los Angeles sleep consultant Heather Turgeon, coauthor of The Happy Sleeper. Newborns benefit from rocking, bouncing, and soothing to sleep, but babies develop quickly and don't need those things forever.
I admit this one can be hard to avoid—if something works, why would you stop? But we've got to give them the chance to learn this stuff themselves. "By about 5 months, most babies have the capability to fall asleep on their own, and if we're still doing it for them, we're getting in their way," says Turgeon. "Start practicing in the early months to put Baby down awake, at least once a day—usually the first nap is the most successful." Keep your cuddle time, but gradually stop the patting and shushing and rocking to sleep.
3. Feeding Your Baby to Sleep
"Newborns fall asleep all the time while eating, and I don't want anyone to stress about that," notes Turgeon. "By 4 or 5 months, however, if the act of falling asleep is decoupled from feeding, babies tend to sleep better over all." Like other sleep crutches, if your baby is dozing off during a feeding, anytime she wakes during the night she's going to think she needs to eat in order to get back to sleep. And if you're desperate and sleep-deprived like me, you'd grill her a steak if it meant you could get back into bed faster. Another problem with this is that "you're the only person who can put your baby to bed," adds Amy Pate, of Nashville, who nursed her child to sleep for a year.
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 your little one can get through it, then finish the routine with a calming book and song, and tuck him in drowsy but awake. You may still need to get up for a nighttime feeding, but then it will be about hunger, not soothing.
4. Keeping Baby Up Too Late
Timing is just as important as a routine. "At around 8 weeks, babies have a rise in melatonin, a 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 instead, 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 in winter to 8:30 in summer, stick to the clock and put your baby down around 6:30 or 7 p.m. for the most success. If the sun is still up, close the shades.
"A good sign of drowsiness is when the baby becomes calm—he'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. "The baby's internal clock is telling her when to be awake and when to be asleep, and you want to reinforce that," she notes.
Kathleen Cevey made the mistake of ignoring this clock. The San Diego mom was keeping her daughter up until 10 p.m. so her husband, a chef, could see the baby after work. "Putting her down for the night was always a challenge," says Cevey. "And she didn't start sleeping a long stretch at night until we backed up the bedtime." If you've been keeping your baby up late, work toward an earlier bedtime by putting her down 15 minutes sooner each night.
5. Allowing Baby to "Snack"
"Sleep and nutrition go hand in hand," notes Prueher. For the first 8 weeks a baby should be feeding on demand every 2 to 2 1/2 hours, but take note of how much or how long he's eating, to be sure it's an efficient feeding. "If he wants to eat every hour or so, he may not be consuming enough at each session," says Prueher. 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 he's nursing each session. "If he eats for 20 minutes during the nighttime feeding but only five or ten minutes during the day, he's just snacking," says Prueher. "And he's not filling his belly enough to sleep through the night."
On the flip side, if Baby is eating well during the day, by around 2 1/2 to 3 months of age she should be able to sleep a four- to six-hour stretch at night. To help your baby eat more efficiently, work toward spacing out her meals—distract her with a pacifier or some entertainment—so she's actually hungry each time.
Be careful 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. Bright lights or noise can also be distracting. Try feeding Baby in a darker, quiet room, especially when she becomes more interested in her surroundings.
6. Not Taking Naps Seriously
One of the best things I've learned is that a well-rested child will sleep better than an overly tired one. It seems counterintuitive, but skipping a nap (or keeping a baby up late) in hopes that he'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 sleeps, which goes by really quickly," says Turgeon. "They don't have the tolerance to be awake more than that until 4 to 5 months." Keep an eye on the clock, because picking up on your baby's tired gaze isn't easy. You can miss the "I'm ready for a nap" stare when you, I don't know, turn around to pour yourself another cup of coffee. Then, suddenly, he's rubbing his eyes and yawning, both signs of overtiredness.
7. Letting Baby Nap Anywhere
As tempting as it is to let your sweetie snooze in her car seat while you're on the go, or lie on your chest while you catch up with Game of Thrones, you should try early on for at least one nap a day in her crib, so she gets the quality rest she needs. "The first nap is mentally restorative for an infant and will dictate how the entire day goes, so ideally you want her to have that one in her crib at home," notes Prueher. "The second is physically restorative, so once your baby's old enough to be moving around a lot, she really needs that one to be quality too."
By 3 to 4 months of age, your little one will have longer awake periods, and you can work toward a nap schedule: one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and a short late-afternoon nap if needed. Naps are a great time for you to practice putting Baby down drowsy, adds Prueher. It's not the middle of the night, so you can think more clearly, pick up on cues, and follow through.
8. Intervening Too Quick
If you rush in immediately at night to help your munchkin fall back to sleep, you're creating a cycle that will be hard to break. "As long as you know that he can't be hungry, you can pause before rushing in," says Turgeon, who recommends starting a "soothing ladder" from as early as day one. When you hear your baby fuss, pause for a minute and see if he can work it out himself. "If he can't, go in and do the least intrusive thing—pat or shush but don't pick him up," says Turgeon. If that works, great. If not, you gradually climb the soothing ladder until you get him back to sleep. Yes, you may wind up rocking and feeding him, especially if he's under 3 or 4 months, but the next time he wakes, start with the least intrusive intervention again. "The point of the soothing ladder isn't to make a baby learn to self-soothe overnight, but to give him enough space to allow his selfsoothing skills to unfold naturally, over time," says Turgeon. Plus, it will help you avoid a traumatic cry-it-out situation down the road.
9. Overthinking the Situation
When Cevey had her first child she spent every middle-of-the-night feeding Googling "how to get my baby to sleep longer." And every morning she'd try something new. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but none of it led to a longterm solution. "Information overload causes parents to try a million different things, which doesn't build any consistency or trust," says Prueher. "Children thrive on knowing what to expect." "For the first 4 months, give your baby a little space to show you what she's capable of," notes Turgeon. You'll be empowering your little one, and once she's actually sleeping through the night, a fully rested you will be capable of more than you ever imagined. Sweet dreams!