1. Feed, then Read
- It is so tempting to feed your baby to sleep – breast milk or a warm bottle is the most natural sleep inducing agent on earth – but don’t do it!
- The number ONE cause of night wakings in babies is a feed-sleep association. How would you feel if you fell asleep on your pillow and woke up in the middle of the desert – you might scream too! Well, the more you feed your child to sleep, the more they need food to fall asleep, anytime they wake up.
- Tip: To break that food-sleep association, start your bedtime routine with a feeding; outside the bedroom is best. If your baby falls asleep, gently wake him and proceed with reading a book and singing a song, and then put your baby down sleepy, but still awake.
2. Make a Cave
- Everybody sleeps better when it’s dark – that’s because melatonin (our internal “sleep hormone”) is secreted when it’s dark.
- By dark, I mean cave-like! Even the light from night lights or digital clocks can be too bright.
- Tip: Buy room darkening shades, use painter’s tape to hang black garbage bags, even tinfoil or black construction paper works in a pinch.
3. Understand Circadian Rhythms
- “Circadian what?” you ask. It’s just a fancy word for the biological rhythm that makes us more tired at night and more awake in the morning and also dictates nap times for infants and toddlers. This internal biological clock is controlled by Melatonin, our internal sleep hormone.
- We all have naturally occurring sleep and wake cycles – times when we feel more sleepy and times when we feel more awake. Newborn babies develop circadian rhythms around 6-8 weeks. That means that is the time when they start differentiating day and night and when they start sleeping longer stretches at night and shorter ones during the day.
- Tip: Keep the intervals of wakefulness short at first, offering as many naps as your baby will take, with no more than 1-2 hours of wake time before the next nap. By age 6 months, establish a 3-nap routine.
4. Be on the lookout for sleepy signs
- While most new parents relish in their baby’s every grimace, grunt, and giggle, often overlooked are signs that their baby is tired and ready to sleep.
- Be on the lookout and act quickly – your baby can go from alert and happy to drowsy and grumpy with the snap of a finger.
- Beware! If you miss the sleep window and your baby shifts into overtired mode, it will be harder for him to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Tip: While every baby is different, here are some common signs that your baby is ready to sleep:
- decreased activity and slowing movements
- “zoning out”
- less vocal, calmer
- batting at ears; pulling hair
- drooping eyelids; glazed eyes
- less engaged
- rubbing eyes
5. Early to bed!
- Resist the temptation to keep your baby up in hopes he will sleep longer – the opposite is true!
- Why? One word: over-tiredness. When you try to stretch your baby’s bedtime as you fantasize about an uninterrupted night, you are actually causing him to become overtired and when your baby is overtired, his body naturally produces hormones to fight fatigue, which then makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break!
- Tip: Aim for bedtime between 6:00-7:00pm (earlier if naps are short or missing). Although it may seem counterintuitive, earlier bedtimes eventually translate into longer stretches of sleep.
6. Don’t operate a 24-hour snack bar
- Take the reins on those nighttime feedings. While it can be normal for babies to feed one or two times a night up to 9 months or even a year, that doesn’t mean you should be open for business all night long.
- After about 3 months, most babies do not need to eat every 1-2 hours. By 9 months most babies can sleep 11-12 hours without food.
- Tip: Create a schedule: for example, choose a 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. feeding time. Quite soon your baby will adapt to wake only for these necessary feedings with no extra snacks offered between times. Eventually your baby will learn to put himself to sleep without food.
7. Start early and enlist help!
- Teaching your baby to sleep can be stressful for many new parents – long days of cleaning blowouts, listening to inconsolable cries, and keeping up with insatiable hunger followed by interrupted nights takes its toll on the whole family. The best advice is:
- Start laying the foundation for healthy sleep as soon as you return home from the hospital, by adopting these tips.
- Get your partner on board from the start. Even simply having help with those dreaded middle of the night feedings can give you the couple extra hours of shut-eye you need to function during the day
- Tip: Be aware that sleep deprivation is directly linked to postpartum depression – enlisting help from your partner, friends, neighbors, or relatives can make all the difference.
8. Be Consistent
- Babies thrive on routines, so create a simple, calming, bedtime routine that will serve as a cue to sleep.
- Keep the pattern simple and repeat it in the same order before each sleep period, and your baby will eventually associate the relaxing routine with sleep.
- Sample routine: One or two short books, one or two lullabies, a short massage with soft music in the background; keep the routine to about 15-20 minutes long (10 minutes for naps).
- Tip: In addition to a consistent routine, research has shown that consistent bedtimes and location of sleep are important aspects of healthy sleep.
Author: Rebecca Kempton, M.D.
After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth and an M.D. from Cornell Medical School, Rebecca Kempton worked for several years as a medical director for healthcare technology and pharmaceutical companies before becoming certified as an infant and toddler sleep consultant and starting her own business, Baby Sleep Pro. With her three children, aged seven and under, along with thousands of clients globally, Rebecca has honed her sleep coaching skills. Sleep training is never one size fits all! Using a variety of behavioral techniques, she customizes sleep solutions based on what she learns about you, your child, and your family’s goals. Rebecca works with clients globally by phone, Skype, and email. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org; visit babysleeppro.com and follow her on facebook.com/babysleeppro and twitter @babysleeppro