Your heart may swell with love when you watch your baby sleeping. They look so sweet and innocent. Your heart may race, though, when you can’t get them to stay asleep all night or at times when you really want them to nap or sleep.
You can ease your stress and better prepare to set your baby's sleep schedule by understanding which parts of their sleep routine are in your hands -- and which aren’t.
Understand Your Baby's Sleep Needs
During the first 2 months, your newborn's need to eat overrules their need to sleep. They may feed almost every 2 hours if you're breastfeeding, and possibly a little less often if you bottle-feed.
Your baby may sleep from 10 to 18 hours a day, sometimes for 3 to 4 hours at a time. But babies don’t know the difference between day and night. So they sleep with no regard for what time it is. That means your baby’s wide-awake time may be from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
By 3 to 6 months, many babies are able to sleep for a stretch of 6 hours. But just as you think your baby is getting into a nice routine -- usually between 6 and 9 months -- normal developmental stages can throw things off. For instance, when your baby begins to associate bedtime with being left alone, they may start crying just to keep you around.
Set a Bedtime Routine
A study of 405 mothers -- with infants between 7 months and 36 months old -- showed that babies who followed a nightly bedtime routine went to sleep easier, slept better, and cried out in the middle of the night less often.
Some parents start their baby's bedtime routine as early as 6 to 8 weeks old. Your baby's routine can be any combination of regular bedtime activities. The keys to success:
- Play active games during the day and quiet games in the evening. This keeps your baby from getting too excited right before bedtime but gets them tired from the day's activities.
- Keep activities the same and in the same order, night after night.
- Make every activity calm and peaceful, especially toward the end of the routine.
- Many babies enjoy bathing right before bedtime, which calms them down.
- Save your baby's favorite activity for last, and do it in their bedroom. This will help them look forward to bedtime and associate their sleep space with things they like to do.
- Make nighttime conditions in your baby's bedroom consistent. If they wake up in the middle of the night, the sounds and lights in the room should be the same as when they fell asleep. If you need to feed or change your baby during the night, keep the lights low and the talking to a minimum. Too much stimulation can make it hard for them to settle again.
Put Your Sleepy Baby to Bed
Starting when your baby is 6 to 12 weeks old, soothe them until they are drowsy. When they are on the verge of sleep, put them down and let them drift off on their own. Don't wait until they are fully asleep in your arms; this could be a behavior that may become a struggle to get rid of later in their life.
This routine will teach your baby to soothe themselves to sleep, and you won't need to rock or cuddle them to sleep every time they wake up during the night.
If your baby has trouble settling down, try moving their bedtime earlier, not later. Being overtired can make it hard to nod off.
Safety First: Lower SIDS Risk
Every time you put your baby down to sleep, whether it's at night or for a nap during the day, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you do the following to lower the chances of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome):
- Always put your baby down to sleep on their back.
- Always use a firm sleep surface. Car seats and other sitting devices are not recommended for routine sleep.
- If you baby falls asleep in a stroller car seat or swing, try to remove them and lay them down on a flat surface.
- Your baby should sleep in the same room as you, but not in the same bed as you.
- Keep soft objects or loose bedding out of the crib. This includes pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, and bumper pads.
- Don’t rely on devices which claim to prevent SIDS.
- Do not use wedges and positioners.
- Offer your baby a pacifier at nap time and bedtime.
- Avoid covering your baby's head or overheating.
- Do not use home monitors or commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS.
- Make sure your baby gets all recommended vaccinations.
- Get some skin-to-skin contact time with them.
- Give your baby supervised, awake tummy time every day.
- Don't smoke.
- Breastfeed your baby.
- If you are tired, don’t breastfeed while in a chair or on a couch in case you fall asleep.
- If you're pregnant, get regular prenatal care.
Let Your Baby Cry It Out -- Should You or Shouldn’t You?
One crying-it-out type of sleep training is the well-known Ferber Method, also known as "Progressive Watching" or "Graduated Extinction." The goal is to teach your baby how to sleep on their own and put themselves back to sleep if they wake up during the night. Richard Ferber, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston, developed this method. He advises parents not to start this training until their baby is at least 5 or 6 months old. Here’s an overview of how it’s done:
- Put your baby in their crib -- drowsy, but awake. Once you've finished their bedtime routine, leave the room.
- If your baby cries, wait a few minutes before you check on them. The amount of time you wait depends on you and your baby. You might start waiting somewhere between 1 and 5 minutes.
- When you re-enter your baby’s room, try to console them. But do not pick them up and do not stay for more than 2 or 3 minutes, even if they are still crying when you leave. Seeing your face will be enough to assure your baby that you are close by so they can eventually fall asleep on their own.
- If they continue crying, gradually increase the amount of time you wait before going in to check on them again. For instance, if you wait 3 minutes the first time, wait 5 minutes the second time, and 10 minutes each time after that.
- The next night, wait 5 minutes the first time, 10 minutes the second time, and 12 minutes each time after that.
Adopting this method might be difficult during the first few nights. But you’ll likely see improvement in your baby's sleep pattern by day 3 or 4. Most parents see an improvement within a week.
Tip: If you want to try the Ferber Method, make sure you're well rested before the first night of sleep training. For the first nights especially, you'll spend a lot of time listening for your baby's cries, checking your watch, and entering and exiting their room.
If it's difficult for you stay away from your baby when they cry, going with this method may not be the best choice. Studies show that, even if parents make it through the first night or two, they usually find that enforcing sleep this way is too stressful. Many parents were not able to ignore their babies long enough or consistently enough for them to stop crying and eventually fall asleep on their own.