Sleeping and waking are part of the body’s natural cycle of circadian rhythms, as predictable as sunset and sunrise. But try explaining that to a baby. Some infants find their rhythm — and begin to sleep through the night — as young as 6 weeks, while others doze in fits and starts for months, waking the entire household at regular intervals.
Certain babies are just better snoozers than others, but even the lightest sleeper can be coaxed into a more restful routine. Here, strategies to soothe those who can’t yet count sheep, so the whole family can finally catch more zzz’s:
Linda Henry, the mother of two, is an editor at Window Fashions, a magazine for home design.
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.
Try Crying It Out
Many babies don’t seem to be able to go to sleep on their own — at bedtime or when they wake in the middle of the night. If yours falls into that category, you’ll have to decide whether to "sleep train" her (also known as letting her cry it out) or to resolve to keep her company each night — in her room or yours — until she nods off.
Some parents fear that ignoring a baby’s wails at night may make her feel abandoned. And some just can’t stand to hear their baby sob. But most child-development specialists believe that letting an infant cry so she learns to fall asleep on her own is healthier in the long run. "Maintaining your marriage and getting enough rest so that you’re a better parent during the day outweighs three or four nights of crying," says Mindell. Experts suggest holding off on sleep training until your baby is at least 3 months old, when she’ll be better able to soothe herself.
Sit down with your spouse and decide together whether you should let your child cry it out; if you’re not both committed to the process, it won’t work. Figure out the logistics — how long to let the baby cry, who’ll go in to reassure him — before you begin.
Start off slowly.
Follow your baby’s normal bedtime routine. When she’s drowsy, put her in her crib and leave the room. She’ll probably protest. The length of time you let her cry before comforting her is up to you. Mindell suggests that you begin with 5 minutes, but if you can only stomach 30 seconds, start there.
After the allotted time is up, go in and calm her without picking her up, then leave the room again. Each time, stay away a little bit longer — from 5 minutes to, say, 8 the next. She may cry for as much as 45 minutes (with stops and starts) before she finally drifts off.
Give yourself a break.
You’re bound to feel tense when your baby wails — it’s an instinctual response. Some parents have gone to another part of the house or shut the door of their room to minimize the noise. Others sit in the bathroom with the water running or listen to music.
If your baby wakes up three hours later that night, you don’t have to start all over again when you’re tired and your resolve is weakened. Picking it up the following evening at bedtime will still do the trick.
Follow up consistently.
Repeat the process for the next few days, each time waiting a little longer to go into the baby’s room to soothe him. By the fourth or fifth night, he’ll probably be falling asleep on his own, though it takes some infants a week or longer.
Consider the Family Bed
Christine Lichte got up to answer the cries of her eldest son, Christopher, until he was 9 months old, when she and her husband sleep trained him. But by the time Christopher’s brother was born two years later, the Warrensburg, MO, mom opted to try things differently. "Matthew slept in his bassinet for only a few weeks, and then we decided to keep him in our bed all night, where I could feed and comfort him without getting up. My husband thought it was great because we all got plenty of sleep."
When Matthew turned 18 months, Lichte put him in a twin bed in his older brother’s room. Their third child, Michael, also slept with his parents, until he was 2. "Having babies in our bed never caused problems with our marriage or sex life; we realized that this was just a phase in our lives that would soon be over," says Lichte.
If you and your partner choose to sleep with your infant, keep the following in mind:
To reduce the risk of SIDS, make sure your baby’s sleeping on a firm mattress. Never let her sleep on a water bed, and keep linens, blankets, and pillows away from her face. Don’t get into bed with an infant if you’ve been drinking alcohol or are significantly overweight. If your baby doesn’t sleep between you and your spouse, push the bed away from the wall, so she doesn’t run the risk of becoming trapped in the space, and put a guardrail on her side.
You should also think about where you’d prefer the baby to be when he turns 1. "If you still want him in your bed, that’s fine. But if you don’t, then you should put him in his crib at around three months. After that, it’s much harder to make the move, since he’ll be so accustomed to having you nearby," says Mindell. If you switch him to a crib, you’ll most likely have to sleep train him at that point.
While it takes a little time and patience to identify the sleeping arrangements that are right for your family, hang in there. Once you do, you and your baby will be more rested — and the world will look a whole lot better.