Lay the Groundwork
A newborn should be allowed to eat when she wants to eat (her small stomach holds only enough to last her for two to three hours at a time) and sleep when she wants to sleep. But at 6 to 8 weeks (or for preemies, that much time after their due date), most babies reach an important milestone: They begin to sleep in fairly predictable four- to six-hour blocks of time at night. (Six hours, incidentally, is what people are talking about when they ask if your child sleeps through the night.)
A four-hour stretch may not seem like much, but you can build on it to help your infant develop healthy nighttime habits -- whether she sleeps with you or alone in her crib.
Seize the moment.
Establish a regular bedtime for your baby and try to stick to it. The key: Identify the magic moment when he's ready to nod off, says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., the father of four and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. "Kids can't just fall asleep like a lightbulb turning off. They wind down; they grow calmer. You can see it happening if you watch for it." Every baby is different, but for many, that moment is as early as 7 or 8 p.m. If you miss that window of opportunity, your overly tired child may grow agitated and cranky, and it'll be that much harder to get him to sleep.
Set up a routine.
"Consistent bedtime rituals signal that it's time to go to sleep," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep. Make your routine brief -- no more than 30 minutes -- so it's clear that bedtime is coming. You might feed your baby, change her, then rock or massage her.
When Marita Seracini of New York City was 2 months old, her mother, Maria, began to follow a few simple rules. "To help her differentiate day from night, I put her in her crib only in the evening. I made sure her bedroom was dark and quiet, then I'd change her into pajamas, read her a bedtime story, and rock her before putting her down." At 12 weeks, Marita began to sleep from 11:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning, when she'd wake briefly for a feeding, then snooze until 8 a.m. or so.
Just as a familiar routine can help foster sleep, so can familiar sights, smells, and sounds. Hallie Lowe of Glen Allen, VA, hung a musical toy off her daughter Reilly's crib as soon as she came home from the hospital and played it every night at bedtime until Reilly was 18 months.
A mother's scent can be especially soothing. One-month-old Lucas Jobe sleeps with a receiving blanket that his mom, Valerie, has had since her babyhood. She rolls up the blanket -- so it won't be a hazard -- and puts it near her son's head. "I think he's comforted by the thought that he's sleeping with me, even if I'm really in my own bed," says the Moore, OK, mom.
Teach him to nod off on his own.
By 4 to 6 weeks, try not to let your infant fall asleep while you're rocking or feeding him, says Mindell. Otherwise, he won't learn to drop off unless you're there to perform those duties. The trick isn't to cut out the rocking or feeding; instead, just try putting him in the crib while he's drowsy but still awake. That way, he's less likely to cry every time he wakes up during the night -- which we all do as part of a normal sleep cycle.
Try a stopgap measure.
Once your baby's gotten the hang of drifting off on her own, you can wake her for a feeding right before you're ready to hit the sack yourself, says Mindell. She'll most likely sleep later in the morning and won't wake you for a "snack" just as you're nodding off.
Keep distractions to a minimum.
Your baby won't be ready to give up his wee-hour feedings until he's 6 to 9 months old. Until then, keep the lights dim and the room quiet while you nurse or give him a bottle, then tuck him into bed immediately afterward to ensure that he drifts back to sleep. Don't entertain him or you'll send the message that you're willing to be a playmate at 4 a.m.
After 9 months, if you want to make sure that a breastfed infant doesn't really need that 4 a.m. meal, have your spouse go in with a bottle when he cries, suggests Dr. Weissbluth. If he's not really interested in eating and goes back to sleep, you'll know he's nursing primarily for comfort.