3 Approaches to Get Your Baby to Sleep

by Molly Lyons

3 Approaches to Get Your Baby to Sleep

The best ways to get your infant to bed, based on your parenting style

When it comes to getting your baby to sleep, everyone has an opinion. Your mom, your mother-in-law, the newest member of your play group, friends with no kids, your pediatrician — heck, even strangers claim to know what’s right for you and your baby. It can be confusing and overwhelming, to say the least. What worked for well-meaning advice givers may just not work for your family — as evidenced by the bags under your eyes.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to get a baby to sleep, and there’s no one sleeping arrangement that’s best for every family. What is important, however, is that you do whatever method works for you as consistently as possible and that you have a plan. To help, we offer a (ahem) crib sheet to what the experts who literally wrote books on the subject have to say. Since every new mom (and dad) has her (and his) own point of view, we organized it by personality. Pick the sleep strategy that’s best for you, or pull tips from all of them and make your own plan.

Approach #1. Have Nerves of Steel

The Expert: Richard Ferber, M.D.

The Book: Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems

Why He’s an Expert:
An associate professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston, Ferber’s name is so associated with his sleep methods that it’s become a verb (to Ferberize).

His Philosophy: Called the Progressive-Waiting Approach, Ferber’s method involves finding out what the cause of the problem is and then trying to correct it in a manner that meets the child’s needs and the parents’ child-rearing philosophy. That can include such approaches as schedule adjustment, decreasing nighttime feedings, support for anxieties, reward systems, and eliminating inappropriate and unhelpful patterns associated with the process of falling asleep.

His Method: Some parents confuse this with letting a child “cry out,” but before you reach for the earplugs, first establish a quiet 10- to 30-minute bedtime routine with your child, whether it be reading a story or playing with toys that don’t make a lot of clatter. Whatever you choose, be sure this time is spent in the room where the baby is going to sleep. This helps ensure the baby will have happy and safe associations with the room.

Babies often connect specific actions, like being rocked or nursing, with sleep. And while these may not always interfere with his or her ability to sleep long and deep, problems may arise when he wakes up during the night and isn’t able to settle back without the action in question.

In order to train your baby to sleep without his associations, you’ll need to block out three to seven nights. The key is to put your baby in the crib while he’s still awake and under the same circumstances as when he would wake up in the middle of the night. Should he cry, either at bedtime or in the middle of the night, check on him briefly, allowing for increasing intervals of time between your visits (three minutes the first time, five the next, then 10, for example). Don’t spend more than a minute or two at a time with him — reassure him, but don’t try to make him stop crying. The goal is to help him learn to soothe himself. If he wakes up more than three times, wait the same amount of time as the third time to go in (about 10 minutes). Continue to increase the intervals between check-ins the next night. By the third or fourth night, most babies will be sleeping well. If he wakes again during the night, start the process over from the smallest interval and increase until he settles back down for good.

Approach #2. Have Extreme Patience

The Expert: Kim West

The Book: Good Night, Sleep Tight

Why She’s an Expert: A child and family therapist (and mother of two), West has counseled over-tired parents and their babies for over a decade.

Her philosophy: West advocates for a gentle, step-by-step approach to helping your child learn sleep independence while still feeling that his or her parents are near. She aims to minimize your baby’s frustration and maximize his or her reassurance with her “Sleep Lady Shuffle.”

Her Method: Pull out your calendar and block out three weeks where your routine will be the same — no travel, no houseguests. Establish a quiet bedtime routine that can include a bath and cuddling, but don’t do things that will get her riled up, like tickling or playing airplane. (West’s rule of thumb: “Bore them.”)

Put your baby down when he’s awake and alert enough to know he’s being put into her crib, so that he can begin to learn the skill of putting himself to sleep. Pull up a chair and sit next to the crib where you can comfort him by your presence. You can stroke or pat him if he gets upset, but don’t do it constantly — and try to taper it off after a few nights, relying on soothing sounds like “sshh.” You may even close your eyes to convey the signal that this is time to relax and be quiet.

Every three days, move the chair closer to the door until you are out in the hall, where you can still soothe her with your voice. After two weeks, most babies will have learned to soothe themselves, and you can try to leave her alone for five minutes at a time after putting her down. If she fusses, you can go to the door to offer reassurance but don’t go in. Follow the schedule even if she has a bad night or two. If she wakes up during the night, return to the same spot you were in at bedtime earlier and soothe her. (You may want to go over to the crib for a moment to calm her before you do.)

Approach #3. Cuddle Up!

The Expert: Dr. Sears

The Book: The Baby Sleep Book

Why He’s an Expert:
A practicing pediatrician for some 40 years, Sears has written on all aspects of childcare. He’s a contributing editor to Babytalk and has eight children of his own.

His Philosophy: Sears has developed the idea of Attachment Parenting, which means learning how to read and respond to the cues your baby gives you. He advocates looking for ways to help you connect with your child via breastfeeding, responding to all your baby’s cries and co-sleeping to help your child feel more secure. The Attachment Parenting sleep style is marked by creating an environment where sleep will naturally overtake your baby and where he will feel comfortable falling asleep on his own.

His Method: Sears is a proponent of co-sleeping, which he defines as babies and mothers sleeping within arm’s reach of each other. He believes that sleeping close to your baby is not only how babies sleep best, but also will minimize separation anxiety, help parents connect with their babies and allow them to respond to their babies’ nighttime needs more easily.

In fact, Sears says that being physically close will cause both mom and baby to synchronize their sleep cycles: When baby wakes, mom will be in a light sleep, and can help the baby settle back down without her sleep being seriously disturbed. When putting the baby down to sleep, keep a consistent routine that works for you both, whether it be rocking, nursing or singing a lullaby. If the baby wakes during the night, play each cry by ear, laying your hands on her firmly to calm her, nursing or changing a very wet diaper, depending on her needs.

A Quick Tip From Our Favorite Book

Okay, okay, so it’s the book written by us: The BabyTalk‘s Insider Guide to Your Baby’s First Year (Wellness Central), but it’s also a book with a philosophy that works for all moms — what feels right to you usually is right. Here’s one of our tried-and-true sleep tips from its pages: A newborn usually can’t stay awake for more than two hours at a time. Seriously. Of course, your baby doesn’t want to let you in on this little secret, so instead of rubbing his eyes and yawning, he may do something to confuse you, like getting wide-eyed or cranky. To avoid this, watch the clock. When he’s been up for about and hour and a half, feed him again, put him in his bouncy seat or crib, turn on some lullabies or a musical mobile, step back out of sight and see what happens. If he nods off, you’re on your way to starting a routine. Buy the book!)