By now, you've probably heard a dozen different ways to put your baby to bed: Rock her, don't rock her; let her cry, don't let her cry; put her in your bed, don't put her in your bed. Yet you're still desperately seeking sleep. Congratulations — you've learned the first, most golden rule of parenting: There's no one right way to do anything. (Of course, if you could get some sleep, that would be a lot easier to see.) Hitting upon the right bedtime style for you and your child is one part instinct, two parts personality (yours and your baby's), and four parts practice. We've put together five options, all of which can be tweaked to suit your situation. If you discover that the two of you don't fit neatly into any single category at the moment, go for a mix-and-match approach. Read on, and soon you'll both be dreamin' on.
The Drowsy Tuck-In approach
Is your baby the classic "easy" kind, who immediately knew how to latch on, burp, and pass gas comfortably? Do you prefer order and predictability in your life? Then you're both good candidates for what the experts consider the ideal approach to bedtime: the drowsy tuck-in.
How it works: As soon as you can see your way through the newborn haze, try to establish a routine that lets your baby know bedtime is drawing near: Give her a bath or massage, feed her until she's drowsy, then tuck her into her crib. If you're lucky, she'll nod off in a few minutes or so. "All babies have an internal timing system, and if you synchronize your soothing efforts, you may never have to let your baby cry," says Chicago pediatrician and sleep researcher Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. "Newborns can't tolerate more than one or two hours of being awake, so be respectful of that as soon as you bring your baby home from the hospital."
Dr. Weissbluth suggests spending the early weeks doing all the soothing you want to help initiate sleep and keeping visitors to a minimum to avoid overstimulation. By 6 weeks of age you should see a longer sleep period emerge at night — about four hours. At 3 months, many babies will go to sleep as early as 6 or 7 p.m. and rise for the day (so to speak) around 6 or 7 a.m. Some may be "sleeping through the night" (defined as a five-hour stretch), but others will continue to wake every three or four hours for feedings. During the day you'll probably notice a consistent morning nap at about 9 a.m., and your baby may be ready to nap again every two hours or so. As awake periods gradually stretch out to about three hours at a time, a consistent afternoon nap will emerge as well. Most babies then stick with the two naps-morning and afternoon — for quite a long time; some even squeeze in a third short nap between the afternoon and bedtime (in which case they'll go to bed a bit later).
Stephanie Wood is a Babytalk contributing editor.
The He'll-Get-It-When-He's-Ready approach
If you're a very patient sort and don't have one of those infants who eat, sleep, and poop on schedule (okay, maybe he's even downright challenging), you may be content with taking this more laid-back attitude to bedtime. The continued sleep deprivation is tough, but you may feel that letting your baby cry is worse still. Plenty of us feel that way, or have babies who are just too sensitive to soothe themselves.
How it works: This method is the polar opposite of the drowsy tuck-in because the control is left up to the baby instead of you. If your child prefers rocking, you rock. If he prefers sucking, you nurse or rely on a stash of pacifiers. Let's be frank: Not many sleep experts will endorse this laissez-faire approach. Yet many parents follow it. Some get lucky eventually, but it may take quite a while — possibly past your baby's first birthday — before you can reclaim your nights. "Sometimes a baby will naturally let the parent know he's done with rocking or whatever crutch you've been using, but more often the consequence will be that it becomes tougher to break a habit the longer it has gone on," says Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a San Francisco psychologist and the president of Postpartum Support International. "Still, I tell parents that whatever you feel you must do now is fine. What we do when our babies are young doesn't set them up for life."
"The choice is up to you," agrees Dr. Weissbluth. "What matters is that you respect the individuality of the child." In other words, if you feel your baby needs the extra reassurance of having you there, go for it. Often, when these babies are ready, they have no trouble falling asleep on their own, and you can feel good that you held your child's hand along the way.
The Co-Sleeping approach
If you like following attachment parenting, a style of child rearing that involves lots of physical bonding (breastfeeding, baby wearing, etc.), you may love the close connection of sleeping together. A baby who is fussy and demanding, or shy and introverted, can really thrive on this intimacy and immediate meeting of his needs. (Conversely, a very active, intense child might feel stifled.)
How it works: A bedside sleeper or bassinet is safest, but many parents choose to go to sleep with their baby right on the same mattress, a practice known as the "family bed." This routine makes breastfeeding easier, since these babies tend to wake for feedings more often than formula-fed babies. However, co-sleeping does come with a serious caveat: It increases your baby's risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has spoken out against the practice for babies 6 months of age or less (the high-risk period for SIDS). If you choose to co-sleep, or fall into the habit simply because it's the only way to get your baby to snooze, it's important that you follow all safety recommendations: Put your baby to sleep on her back; keep her away from blankets and pillows; don't sleep with your baby on a water bed or sofa or in an armchair, which are even more dangerous than a traditional adult bed; maintain a smoke-free environment; never use alcohol, drugs, or any medication that might make you less alert to your baby's presence; and use guardrails as necessary to ensure that your baby won't roll off the bed.
The family bed can work as long as you don't keep your baby up till you're ready to sleep, notes Dr. Weissbluth. "Lie down with your baby to get her to fall sleep between 6 and 8 p.m., then move her into a bedside sleeper so that she's safe until you come to bed," he recommends. "You can move her next to you when you turn in if you want."
Proponents of the family bed say most children will naturally leave it around the second or third year. If you get eager to make a change sooner, you can help things along by first moving your child to a crib in your room, and eventually to her own space for good.
The Long-Goodbye approach
Perhaps you've been taking the "he'll get it when he's ready" route and find that your patience is wearing thin. Yet you don't have the nerves for his crying or a baby adaptable enough to segue smoothly into a drowsy tuck-in routine. This could be the perfect approach for you.
How it works: Essentially, you're going to very slowly "decondition" your baby from requiring you as a sleep crutch. You'll need several weeks, not to mention the ability to persevere and be absolutely consistent, says Kim West, an Annapolis, Maryland, social worker who helps parents and children work through bedtime issues, and author of the book Good Night, Sleep Tight. Begin by putting your baby to bed in his crib while you sit on a chair next to him. If he fusses, use intermittent touch, patting his belly or his head, to soothe him. Try not to pick him up (you can do so briefly if he's hysterical) or stimulate him with too much conversation. Leave the room only after he's asleep; repeat if he wakes during the night. Perform this consistently for the next three days, at nap time and bedtime. The following day, move your chair about halfway across the room, between the crib and the door. Move farther away every three or so days, until you're next to the door and then out in the hall. Typically by day 14, you'll put your baby down and leave with hearing a whimper.
The Get-With-the-Program approach
So you want faster results? You may be ready to try a strategy commonly known as "Ferberizing," popularized by the pediatrician Richard Ferber in his book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. If you've heard the term crying it out, this is likely the method being referred to. Ferberizing has gotten a bad rap in some camps because it involves crying, but it can and should be done sensitively, as Dr. Ferber himself clarifies in the updated edition. (He also notes this is not a good method for very sensitive babies.)
Ferberizing is best used after 4 months (always respond quickly to newborns) and before 8 months, when babies haven't yet fallen into hard-to-break habits. It's ideal for an initially easy baby who becomes resistant to bedtime as he's gotten older and more engaged in the world.
How it works: Begin with a drowsy tuck-in. If your baby isn't used to being deposited in his crib awake, he will likely protest. Respond by reassuring him with a soft voice and rubbing his belly, but explain that it's bedtime and you're going. Leave the room for a brief period — about five minutes — then return to console him and rub his belly if he's still upset (don't take him out of the crib though). Then leave again. Repeat this pattern until your baby falls asleep, and do so again if he wakes during the night. Each consecutive night, lengthen the time you let him fuss by a few more minutes, until your reassurance is no longer necessary.
This process can last a few days or a few weeks. "Some babies may fuss a little as they settle in, then go to sleep easily. Others will wail," says Bennett. A baby who's usually a good sleeper but whose routine has been disrupted — because of a vacation, an illness, or even a new developmental leap — may get with the program within a night or two. If your baby is crying for hours, or throwing up because he's so upset, you may need to try another method.
Whatever bedtime style you use, keep some positive affirmations in your head as you put it into practice, suggests Bennett: "You're not being selfish; you don't need to suffer; you need to fill your pitcher back up to be a good mother." The main goal is helping your baby to develop healthy sleep habits in the long run. That may mean soothing your baby longer than you'd expected, but it will be worth it — studies show that kids who get a good night's sleep tend to be in a better mood and better behaved during the day. The same can probably be said of their moms.